By Karen Campbell
For longtime tap maven Julia Boynton, producer of the Beantown Tapfest on Saturday and Sunday, these are exciting times. “The range of high-caliber tap is so broad and varied now,” Boynton says. “There is traditional tap, pop, experimental, contemporary, fusion — all performed in solo and group forms.”
Boynton, who has taught and performed internationally and is now on the faculty of Boston Conservatory, notes that there’s been an expansion of high-quality tap training and a proliferation of tap festivals and other performances. “In the Northeast, we’re seeing tap on the regular rosters of Jacob’s Pillow, The Yard, The Joyce,” she says. “As a tap festival producer, I’m almost overwhelmed with choices.”
For the fifth Beantown Tapfest, at the new Deborah Mason School of Dance in Somerville, Boynton has assembled an impressive roster of teacher/performers representing a variety of tap styles. Enthusiasts can take classes at a range of levels, and on Saturday night, the public can enjoy the faculty showcase “ON TAP” in a studio transformed into a black-box theater.
“I’m thrilled it will be such an intimate space that you can really see the feet,” Boynton says. “It’s more casual. The dancers and musicians [Zeke Martin & The Oracle] may not meet until three hours before the show. When they create, it’s very raw, very live.”
The Globe spoke with four tap dancers who will be performing.
Though he is only 34, Hill has been tapping for nearly 30 years, starting as a child at Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts. “My sister went to dance school, and my mother threw me in,” he says with a laugh. “She said I was a little clumsy and dance school might help with better coordination.” He studied tap, jazz, ballet, African dance, and hip-hop, but tap was his calling. He says his style goes back to the urban funk of Savion Glover and Derick K. Grant, whose aunt, Andrea Herbert Major, ran the Roxbury community dance school; Grant often taught there. “He’d bring this edgy choreography and was the first person I saw improvise in the hoofing style of rhythm tap,” he says. Hill performed in the first national tour of Glover’s “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.” But Bostonians may be more familiar with his 10 seasons in Tony Williams’s popular “Urban Nutcracker.” He also performs and teaches around the country. “One of the driving forces in my artistry is freely giving it away and creating opportunities for young people to perform,” he says.
Another alumni of Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, Fielder performed in his first professional show at age 10, as part of Dance Umbrella’s Jazz Tap Hip-Hop Festival. He also joined the cast of “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” but he is best known locally as the founder and artistic director of the Boston Tap Company, teaching young enthusiasts and providing chances to perform both locally and abroad. Fielder, 36, says his artistic style is reflected in his company motto: “The only way to be different is to be yourself.” He elaborates: “At the heart of it is the music that I speak with my feet. I’m first and foremost a musician, and my instrument is on the bottom of my feet.” But he says it’s also about connecting, which can sometimes mean favoring simplicity over flash. “When I create, I say to myself, ‘If it feels good to me, it will feel good to somebody else,’ ” he says. “I use everything I’ve come across, every feeling I can express, then fusion that with the music and try to become the song.”
At 48, Boston favorite Hilberman is a veteran with direct links to some of the tap world’s most acclaimed artists. He apprenticed with 1930s vaudeville star Joe Stirling and studied with Buster Brown, Steve Condos, and Brenda Bufalino, whom Hilberman calls “the library of everything tap.” Now living in Belgium, Hilberman has created and danced in original tap productions for more than two decades with Drika Overton and Tap and Tray, and shared the stage with the likes of Gregory Hines, Glover, and Jimmy Slyde. Stylistically, Hilberman is a classicist with a goofy sense of humor and a mission to preserve tap’s legacy. “It’s all part of an oral history that goes back to William Henry Lane in the 1830s,” he says. “I think of myself as a specialist in the styles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but with an eye to what makes tap relevant to modern artists.” He adds, “The modern technique of the post-Savion generation is so physically beyond me. I see students in workshops with unbelievable skills, but do they have anything to say?”
At 20, the Chicago native is the festival’s youngest faculty member. Now a student at Boston Conservatory, Berg started dancing at the age of 7. “When I was a little kid, I had a lot of energy. I was always tapping my feet, which was really annoying to my mom, so she put me in class,” he says. Berg has been tap dancing professionally since high school, as a member of Chicago’s M.A.D.D. Rhythms. He is also a percussionist. “My influences range from tap to modern to film directors to jazz musicians, classical music composers,” he says. “I’m always learning from everyone and everything around.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.