Happy Birthday, Jimmy

•October 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Smooth Operator: Jimmy Slyde

Born James Titus Godbolt, “Jimmy Slyde” (1927-2008) is a legend both in and out of the tap community. Early in his childhood, Slyde’s family moved from Atlanta to Massachusetts, where he began dancing at Stanley Brown’s studio. He is said to have learned how to slide from his teacher, Eddie “Schoolboy” Ford. Early in his career, he joined forces with Jimmy Mitchell (who went by the stage name “Sir Slyde”), and the two performed for a time as The Slyde Brothers.

Remembered as a consummate performer and a tap dancer’s tap dancer, Slyde appeared with many jazz-era greats, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He and some of his contemporaries embraced the new sound of bebop in the 1940s, and even as this emerging musical style in some ways turned away from its historical connection to social dance, Jimmy threw himself into interpreting the looser, manic energy of the new sound of jazz. It is ironic that, like bebop music, tap from this era was just coming into its own and flourishing artistically, even as audiences turned to new forms of expression. Slyde, like many of his contemporaries, found work hard to come by, until the tap revival of the 1970s and 80s. In a way, it is to this period, and to his frequent teaching and performing on the tap festival circuit, that the high regard in which he is held within the subsequent generations of dancers can be traced.

I was lucky enough to see Slyde perform in the late 1990s, and I remember being struck by his signature style, which, as impressive as it is on film, was even more impactful in person. He barely seemed to touch the floor, and when he did, it was with a controlled attack who’s delicacy belied its power.

He is, to me, the perfect combination of elements in a dancer. He has showmanship for miles, but it is understated, and he doesn’t get in your face with it, merely dances and shows himself honestly and simply. He is an amazing technician, and never seems to miss a beat, but the technique quickly disappears and you just see this graceful, musical movement. He is not just moving, he is in his own words “painting pictures” which seem to leap out of the floor and into the air fully formed. It all comes together and you feel, watching him, like you are just sitting down with him and listening to him talk.

jimmy-slyde-03

His signature slides (from which he took his name) are, as anyone who has tried them can attest, not as easy as they look. I have heard dancers trying to deconstruct the precise combination of physics that goes into such a smooth, graceful movement. Momentum, inertia, gravity, friction, all have to work together, and Slyde must have practiced hour upon hour to perfect the elements that he makes look as easy as breathing.

Beloved still, Jimmy is often cited in classes I have taken when a teacher wants the students to “smooth it out.” He remains one of my biggest tap heroes, and I am sure I am not alone remembering him as a superb dancer, musician, and artist…

Happy Birthday, Jimmy.

(Note: this post was originally written in Baakari Wilder’s tap class at Montgomery College, Rockville, in May of 2013. Each week, students were required to write a short paper about a different figure from tap’s history. I waited carefully until I was ready to write about one of my very favorite tap artists, Mr. Jimmy Slyde.) 

Bibliography

Tap Dancing America, Constance Valis Hill, 2010

“Jimmy Slyde Taps on George Benson’s Guitar,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW3CbQZSVIs

Retrospective, New York Times, Claudia La Rocca, 2008

Writing About Trad

•September 30, 2014 • 3 Comments

I am currently a student at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, WV. Before transferring here, I took classes at Montgomery College in Maryland. One of the best things about being in school has been the happy discovery that I am enough of a nerd to really enjoy writing papers. In 2013, at the end of a semester of DANC100 (a lecture class serving as an intro to dance for non-majors) at Montgomery College, Lisa Traiger, the professor,  said, “You write really well. Would you be interested in writing an article for an e-journal I edit for?”

Hell. Yes.

Some existential angst, a few late nights and many drafts later, On Crafting An Alternate Dance Career is live, and I can now legitimately claim to be a writer. I admit to no small amount of excitement about this.

The above link will take you to part one of a two-part article. Part two is here. If you are interested in traditional music and dance, the performing arts, and questions of “authenticity,” stop by. And let me know what you think…

Maivish!

•July 5, 2014 • 2 Comments

Pretty excited about joining the collaboration of Jaige Trudel and Adam Broome last year. Playing music with these two has been a supremely satisfying experience so far, and we have a bunch of exciting gigs coming up in 2014/15! The above is our new promo reel, which, you know, you should feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested. If you want so rockin’ music for your festival, dance, wake, etc. you should drop us a line…

Is it The Shoes?

•March 7, 2014 • 10 Comments

Taps

I get asked about shoes. A lot. By students, friends, even complete strangers. Often, after a show, the first and only question from kids is “Can I see your shoes?” I show them the bottoms of my shoes, complete with gleaming metal taps. “WHOAH!” They are impressed. But often the subject of shoes can be confusing to dancers who are just getting started. Taps? Leathers? How much should I spend? With that in mind, here is some info aimed at prospective shoe-shoppers and other interested parties.

Many dance forms have a specific shoe, and one that is often peculiar to their own traditions. Flamenco, tap, clogging, ballet, Irish step, English clog; they all have shoes that have evolved alongside the dance form and are very particular to it. At the same time, many styles do not rely on specialized shoes, although some came into being partly because of footwear for particular workplace environments.

For our purposes, let’s take a look at tap and Appalachian flatfooting and clogging. Both forms can benefit from specialized shoes, but are in no way dependent on them. I usually tell anyone who is just starting out, “get something comfortable with a leather sole.” This is a little vague, so to be more exact, lets say an all-leather Oxford style shoe. I like cap-toes, but wing-tips, brogues, anything like that will work just fine. You want something that feels good on your feet and makes a good sound on the floor. You’ll get a much better sound if that leather sole is extra thick. My favorite trick is to cruise the goodwill for old dress shoes, and then take them to a cobbler and get extra leather put on the bottom. Going this route, you can get a good pair of multi-purpose dance shoes for $50-$100.

But what about the taps? Shoes with taps on them are good when you may not otherwise be heard, but taps make a pretty intense sound, and in a situation where you are working with live acoustic music in an intimate audio-setting (my usual scenario) taps or hard-sole shoes can be a little overpowering. The leather soled shoe has the potential to be a much subtler instrument. That said, anyone who is performing with any regularity will probably want both (I usually make a last minute shoe-decision based on the floor, the acoustics, the size of the room etc.) If you do an outdoor show in front of thousands, there’s a good chance that your tasty leather-on-wood sound will get lost unless you have a good mic and the sound dude is really on top of his or her job. (I can already see the comments flooding in. Let’s just say for now that “dude” is not gender-specific, OK?)

My all-time favorite shoes are made by Just Tap, a small family owned business in Hillsborough, NJ. These folks make a really superior shoe. They don’t make sizes, the shoes are custom fitted to your feet using measurements and tracings. Not surprisingly, they are by far the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn. Get these if you can, you will NOT be sorry. And tell them I sent you, I have not given up hope of an eventual celebrity endorsement…

Whether you are looking to flatfoot at a dance and need some leathers, or take tap class and are therefore looking to get some tap shoes, plan to spend as much as you think you can afford. Except at the goodwill, shoes are an area where you usually get what you pay for. A range of $50-$275 may seem like a lot, until you consider that for your purposes as a percussive dancer, these are your instrument. Try getting a decent violin for $300…

Another great shoe is the Bloch Jason Samuels Smith tap shoe. For $130-$175, these are a very reasonably priced option, probably the best “pro” quality shoe you can get without spending a bit more. They come with taps already attached (and they are not easily removed) which is either a plus or minus, depending on what you are looking for. They are heavier than other shoes I have tried, and the taps are bigger. This takes some getting used to, but I found them to be excellent once I got used to the extra weight.

A nice option for those on a budget is the Aris Allen. The sole is not as thick as you might want for percussive dance (they are perfect for partner dancing) but a good cobbler can easily fix you up with a thicker, leather sole. Once you factor in this additional expense, you are almost up to the cost of the Bloch shoe above, but if you want them as leathers, they are a good starter shoe. They won’t last quite as long as some of the other choices discussed above, particularly if you dance a lot, but for students on a budget, they are a great option.

As far as the taps themselves go, Capezio, Sansha, Bloch, and others all make different styles of taps that are slightly different sizes, so you may need to experiment to find what fits your foot best. I have slightly wide feet and have found the Sansha taps to be a better fit than the narrower Capezio taps.

What does all this mean? Well, you have options. It really depends on what you you want the shoes to do. My vote? Throw down for the Just Taps. Your feet will thank you.

Mattfeet

P.S. Since hearing a pair years ago, I have been on a quest to find someone who is making wooden taps, so if you have a lead? Well, you know where to find me…

Soundcloud

•February 6, 2014 • 8 Comments

Hi Folks!

I’ve been meaning for a while to put some original tunes I’ve written up on Soundcloud. Well, I’ve done it. You can listen here: www.soundcloud.com/mattolwell/

The theme of the first few posts is family, so these three selections are all inspired in one way or another by my daughter.

Here’s a taste:

Let me know what you think…

Food for the Uninitiated

•October 9, 2013 • 6 Comments
Chicken salad with parsley and chickpeas

Chicken salad with parsley and garbonzos

I love food. More than just about anything else, with the possible exception of music and coffee. One of my greatest pleasures in life is cooking, especially for others. I am always a little dismayed when friends profess not to enjoy cooking or to being scared off by it. I always want to yell, “No, no! You can do it too!” So here we are. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive instruction, rather, some basic info to get you going. There are lots of resources out there once you get interested and get your feet wet.

So here it is: Food Manifesto Part One.

The goal here is to take some of the mystery out of cooking for those who want to learn more about preparing simple, delicious meals. It really doesn’t have to be hard, fancy, or the province of some elite, foodie, artsy-fartsy kohlrabi snobs.

Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point, that if speed and convenience are your only guiding criteria, a homemade pasta sauce is going to have a hard time competing with Hot Pockets. Food made from scratch is never going to be quite as quick or labor-free as something you thaw in the microwave. But, (and this is a really really big but) it will taste much much better. I am often amazed by just how big a difference there is between prepackaged/fast food and it’s made-from scratch cousins. And to me, that means its worth realigning our priorities to allow us to engage in a human activity that is as old as culture itself and has the potential to be supremely enjoyable.

OK, end of lecture. Lets talk about your kitchen.

chef-knife-labeled

  • Pots and Pans: For my money, you absolutely cannot beat a cast iron skillet as an all-purpose cooking vessel. Once you learn how to season and take care of them, they are the best. Get one. If you get a have one, you will get by for years as I did, with just that and a good size pot. Cast iron will, if treated properly, act like a non-stick pan, and heat very evenly, due to its thickness. Plus it looks cool and will make you feel like a hoecake bakin’ baddass.
  • Knives: Forget a big, expensive set of many fancy-looking knives. They are nice if someone in the house has a high-paying job, but for us mere mortals, all we really need is a good-sized chef’s knife, and maybe a paring knife. I do about 90% of my cutting with a chef’s knife that I keep sharp. Get a decent one. Knives are an area where you get what you pay for. If it is sharp, it will cut easier and with good knife technique, you will, paradoxically, be less likely to cut yourself. And if you do, the cut will be cleaner and heal better.
  • Heat: If you are ever in a position to choose what kind of stove to get, do yourself an immense favor and get a gas stove. Gas heats more evenly than electric, and it heats and cools much more quickly, giving you control over how much heat you subject your food to. Plus, trust me, gas is just so much more fun to cook on.

So much for our tools, how about some Basic Principles:

  • Fat. Don’t be scared of it. Fat somehow got a bad rap and now you can’t even buy whole milk yoghurt in a lot of grocery stores. Non-fat food is a blight upon the land and we must work tirelessly to eradicate it. (And don’t even get me started on carbs.) Your body and your brain need some fat to function properly. Now I know what some of you are thinking… and this does not mean you get to eat butter by the stick. Obviously like so much else in life its all about moderation. And not all fats are created equal. Use good fat. Olive oil is a great place to start for cooking. And get know your smoke points. If oil gets too hot, it starts to smoke. This means bad things are happening to it. So get a few different oils and use them appropriately. Speaking of olive oil, I’ll teach you a neat trick…
  • No matter what you are cooking, cut up an onion and brown it over medium heat in a little olive oil. It will make the house smell really amazing and get everyone excited about dinner. I learned this trick from my mom.
  • Some meat and vegetables are really really easy to overcook, making them mushy and tasteless. Some good examples are shrimp and most seafood, snow peas, spinach, kale, broccoli, etc. Be careful with these and know that most food will keep cooking due to the action of its own heat even after you take it off the stove, so you have to experiment and learn how to anticipate. I cook snow peas for less than a minute, basically just long enough to get them hot. They are so much better if they have some crunch left. Ditto broccoli.
  • In contrast, tofu, mushrooms, chicken (dark meat like the thigh, due to its higher fat content), eggplant and some other vegetables are very forgiving, and are not nearly so easy to overcook, making them good choices for someone just learning the ropes.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.58.48 AM

Whew. Hopefully you are still with me because here come the fun part..

DINNER! Here’s a staple meal at our house. Its all stuff that’s not super hard to make, so hopefully its a good starter meal. We are going to make baked chicken, couscous, and greens.

Chicken: Get thighs with the bone in and the skin on if you can. They will hold their moisture and flavor better. Once I started cooking thighs instead of breasts, I never went back. They are often less expensive, don’t dry out as easily, and are more flavorful than breasts. Rub them with olive oil, and roll them in salt, pepper, and whatever other dry ground spices you have on hand. Don’t sweat the spices, this will be good with just about anything. Put them in a baking dish and bake in the oven at 375 for 30 minutes. Check them at this point for doneness by cutting into one of them at the bone. The meat should have lost its translucent look, and there should be no redness near the bone. You can put them back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes if they seem like they are not done.

While the chicken is baking, make your…

Couscous: This is basically Moroccan pasta that looks like a grain. You pretty much just pour boiling water over it and let it sit. Yup. That’s it. When it’s ready, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle a little salt on it. I think the Near East brand is the best one that’s widely available. It’s really delicious.

While the couscous is soaking, cook up some…

Greens: Collards, kale, whatever you think looks yummy. Cut it up and throw it in your awesome, well-seasoned cast iron skillet in a little OLIVE OIL (see a pattern here?) and cook over medium heat for a couple of minute. Drizzle on a little balsamic vinegar while it cooks. Balsamic is sweet  and tangy and a really good thing to have around. Stir the greens so they cook evenly, and DON’T LET THEM GET SOGGY. Take them off the heat while they are still a little crisp.

Put these items on a plate and enjoy your handiwork.

There. Sounds like dinner to me. And now I’m hungry.

I not only love to cook, I love to talk food and cooking, so holla at me if you have questions or want to come over and geek out about some food.

As Julia would say, “Bon Appetit!”

The Meaning of Buck Dance

•September 13, 2013 • 1 Comment

Is a show featuring Baakari Wilder, Good Foot Dance Company, and Urban Artistry. It is a result of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage Local Choreographers Commissioning Grant, which we received in 2013.

It will take place September 19 & 20, at 6pm, FREE and open to the public at the Kennedy Center. It will also be available as a live webcast, and as archived film footage.

We are tremendously excited about this project, into which so much work has gone. Won’t you join us?

 
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