Improv on tap

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Blending disparate dance traditions, an array of instruments, video mixing and spoken word, improvisational tap artist Tamango will bring a show to New York City tonight in which even he’s not sure what will go down.

“Anything that connects and allows us to express ourselves,” Tamango told GO Brooklyn in a phone call from Paris. “That’s what will happen.”

After touring shows around the world for the last few years, Tamango returns to Manhattan’s Town Hall to collaborate with the dancers, musicians and artists he’s worked with in New York.

“It will be a gathering of all the people that’ve been playing with me over the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s about getting into deeper improv and liberating our achievement.”

One of the artists who will be on hand is Williamsburg resident Belinda Becker, 40, an Afro-Caribbean and freestyle dancer.

“I’ve traveled the world with Tamango and the group,” she said, “and collaborated with the Kodo drummers, with Moroccan musicians and with West African musicians in Paris. He’s a really brilliant, very visionary person.”

Becker first met Tamango after he spoke to her at a dance class she had taken. There was no audition: he just liked what he saw and asked her to join the group.

“It was a vibe,” she said. “If he feels that certain vibe from you, then he invites you to perform with him. And then, it’s not a set thing. It’s very fluid.”

Tamango’s Urban Tap has garnered rave reviews around the globe for its genre-smashing improvisational shows. At the time of our chat, he was in Paris, where he was touring a show that combined the story of Josephine Baker with the events of Hurricane Katrina.

He grew up in French Guiana and then moved to Paris, where his interest in tap dancing took hold. Once he came to New York (“the result of a coin flip,” he said) he met a group of like-minded individuals interested in blurring the boundaries between genres, and with these collaborators he has developed shows that mash together numerous elements in his tap: jazz, capoeira, hip-hop and African dance traditions.

“I think it was out of a need of expression,” he said. “New York has always been about sharing the arts.”

Becker was drawn to his worldview in 2000 when they met. Since then, she has toured around the world with him and the other artists, whom she likens to a “traveling gypsy troupe.”

“His vision is having all these worldly type dancers and musicians, unifying by the elements of rhythm and improvisat­ion,” she explained. “I felt very at home with what he was doing.”

Tamango draws inspiration from his early years in our city.

“From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, there were a lot of things happening in New York,” he said. “It was this turning point that made me want to create Urban Tap. It’s what people strive for in New York; it’s all about sharing. We might not be coming from the same country, but we have the same love of expression and improvisation, and an urban connection.”

But he is also a musician and is comfortable playing the drums, trumpet or guitar.

“I look at myself as a musician first,” he said. “Music for me is my understanding. I approach it like I’m a conductor. In the end, the instruments are all the same. It’s about the love and passion.”

At Town Hall, he will be joined on stage by anywhere from eight to 10 dancers and musicians, some from New York but others from around the globe.

“I bring different people from the world,” he said. “It’s to celebrate the improvisational art form. I’m always interested in discovering other talents and expressions, and that’s the key of longevity. Improvisation is not something that dies. It’s ever-evolving.”

He has been hailed in the New York Times and the Village Voice for his tap-dancing skills and improvisational brilliance. Writers, critics and fans all speak to his ability to meld styles and elements into an onstage force. But lacking a singular tag — say, dancer or musician — has proven a challenge for audiences and industry alike.

“It’s pretty tough,” he said, “because we still live in a world where people want to see you as one thing. You’re a dancer or a musician. People still have trouble acknowledging that you’re an artist who does many things. That’s pretty much what I suffer the most from. But it never stopped me from creating.”

Tamango will perform “Urban Tap” at 8 pm on March 7 at Town Hall (123 West 43rd St. at Sixth Avenue in Manhattan). Tickets are $40-$45. For information, call (212) 840-2824 or visit

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
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