Calling all tap kids (not the acting kid or the singing kid)

If you’re going to stage a revival of the rarely performed but fondly remembered 1983 Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid” – like Encores! at New York City Center does, Wednesday through Sunday – one of the main challenges is finding someone to play the lead role.

This character is Willie Sheridan, a 10-year-old boy whose dream is to become a tap dancer on Broadway and who has the talent to do so. The performer who plays it has to be like Willie: a young black boy who can act, sing, and tap dance in the center of an old-school musical. And in recent decades, this particular combination has not been very common.

Some reasons are there in the history of the show. It’s about a family – an upper-middle-class black woman who was groundbreaking for a Broadway musical in 1983 – and the main conflicts are generational. The main obstacle to Willie’s dream is his father.

For the father, a lawyer, the tap is not only antiquated but also shameful, tied to slavery and the racial humiliations he worked to isolate those he loves. For the boy and his dancing uncle and the ghost of his dancing grandfather, tap dancing is beautiful, something to be proud of.

This is an argument about the past and progress, and it reflects some of the real attitudes that continue to affect the popularity of tap dancing, particularly among black people, and the potential pool of tap dancing kids.

“I knew it was going to be hard to find a Willie,” said Encores choreographer Jared Grimes! rebirth, said in an interview.

At the auditions, Alexander Bello stood out – for his acting and singing. His tap-dancing skills weren’t quite at the level Grimes expected. “I wasn’t going to settle,” Grimes said. “This show is not called Acting Kid or Singing Kid.”

But Bello – who has already put “Broadway audition” on his Christmas list and is already a 13-year-old Broadway veteran – was determined to get the part. “I was amazed that almost all of the creatives were black,” he said. “I had never seen such a melancholy room and I wanted to be in this room.” And so, while attending school and doing eight shows a week of “Caroline or Change” on Broadway, he took a month-long boot camp with DeWitt Fleming Jr. (who plays Willie’s grandfather) .

“Alex deserved this role,” said Kenny Leon, manager of the Encores! production.

In some ways, it echoed the 1980s. Danny Daniels – who won a Tony Award for choreographing the original production and who, like most of the original creative team, was white – once spoke to me problems this team had had finding a Willie.

“I asked the producers, ‘Where are you going to find the black kids? Black kids don’t tap anymore,” said Daniels, who died in 2017. “So we put out a call for black kids tap dancers. No one showed up.

Specifically, no one showed up without needing some tap training. Daniels started a tap dance boot camp. The first Willie he produced was Alfonso Ribeiro, who quickly went on to a successful television career (and later showed off his tap-dancing skills as Carlton in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). Among the many to follow during the show’s two-year run and national tour was Dulé Hill, whose own successful TV career, most recently in the reboot of “The Wonder Years”, keeps him too busy to appear in Encores! the comeback.

Another Willie was Savion Glover, the tap kid who most changed what it meant to be one. Under the guidance of Gregory Hines and older black tap dancers, Glover became the heir apparent to their tradition on the Broadway shows “Black and Blue” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.”

The 1996 show “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk”, in which Glover choreographed and performed, reclaimed tap dancing as black history, both polemically and rhythmically, and introduced it in a hip-hop present that people his age might see as their own. In a monologue, when Glover dismissed Broadway styles as “not even tap dancing” but “arms and legs and a big smile,” he might have described Daniels’ choreography for “Tap Dance Kid”: the glitter and high kicks, more razzle-dazzle than rhythm.

After “Bring in ‘da Noise” closed, the tap on Broadway returned to its old ways. But Glover, with his unrivaled virtuosity and more streetwise image, had inspired a generation of young clogs. Although deeply tied to tap dancing’s roots in jazz, they made the form contemporary and pushed it to new technical heights – and far removed from the singing and playing of “Tap Dance Kid”. Among that cohort was Grimes, now 36.

As Grimes demonstrated in the 2013 Broadway production of “After Midnight,” he is a tap dancer of astonishing ability from head to toe. But, unlike many Glover-inspired clogs, it is also seen in Hines’ all-around artist line. Alongside his thriving performing career – he’s featured in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” – he’s won acclaim as a choreographer for regional productions, including an update of “42nd Street.”

Grimes said he jumped at the chance to revisit “Tap Dance Kid”, which he called “the musical every tap dancer dreams of getting their hands on”.

The context has changed since the early 1980s, and since the late 1990s too: “When I was going up,” Grimes said, “if I looked my way, there were other black kids who were already kings and queens of tap dancing, but now almost none of my students are black.

Speaking on behalf of the kids today, Bello said tap dancing was the style of dance they “ignored the most”.

“Because you either think of it like Shirley Temple or something guys did in the ’70s,” he said. “To other kids it seems like the faucet has never really been modernized, but that’s not true.”

Ayodele Casel, a post-Glover generation tap dancer whose career has skyrocketed lately, said there are pockets of young black tap dancers but they don’t necessarily see themselves on Broadway because the opportunities are rare. Still, speaking more broadly, she noted the importance of someone like her, steeped in tap culture, specifically hired to handle the tap choreography for “Funny Girl.”

“There’s still a divide,” she says, “between actors and singers, who have long managed to get by with tap basics, and serious tap dancers, who haven’t had much incentives to train in theater and singing. But I think people, artists and producers, are starting to think about tap dancing differently now.

In that sense, the background of the creative team, more than the cast, might be the most significant change for Encores! the comeback. The music remains the same, by Henry Krieger in a mode similar to his “Dreamgirls”. But Lydia Diamond, who adapted the book for the Encores! production, moved the story from the 1980s to the 1950s – when the lines of racial struggle were more readable and the tap lost its place at the center of American popular culture.

“We’re trying to show how something as precious as the story of the tap affects this family as it struggles to find a place in the ’50s,” Grimes said. He said he helped get a more accurate (and dark) tapping story into the script and a tapping feeling transitioning into the choreography.

“I want to show tapas like storytelling and crazy beats,” he said, “but also tip our hats to vaudeville and comedy and what might be considered what we had to do to get into the door. We can do this with integrity.

Grimes said this after a long day of rehearsal, eager to rehearse again. “The security guards have to kick me out,” he said. “It’s love, man. I hope ‘Tap Dance Kid’ brings a whole new group of people to feel that way about tap dancing.

Colleen D. Ervin