by Saladin Deir

Saladin Deir sits with the women of Savion Glover's STePz, his latest production at the Joyce Theater in New York City, to discuss fashion and femininity in an art form dominated by men.

New York, NY- George Balanchine once said that "the ballet is purely a female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener." With Savion Glover as artistic director and head hoofer in charge, man, as he relates to STePz, is clearly king in this lavishly abundant production. Collectively, these women are the antithesis of mere flowers that inevitably wilt away into existential finitude. They have a voice, strength and each woman possesses an individualistic style which rises to Glover's innate genius.

Here's how it went down...

SD: My background is primarily in modern dance and classical ballet.  I was very good at traditional African dance, which was my entry point into dance as a teenager in Chicago, and people used to tell me that if you were good at African dance, you should excel in tap dance. That's a falsehood if I ever did hear one because I was (am) horrible at tap so pardon my ignorance.  Tap, in my opinion, seems to be the most communicative and musical of all of the dance arts. You all masterfully extract amazing rhythms out of the music.  You were hoofing, stomping and shuffling into those wooden platforms as if your life depended on it. The force with which you tap requires an athleticism and power that comes across as masculine yet none of you look masculine at all.  How do you do maintain such a graceful and feminine carriage?

Robyn Watson (the soulful sophisticate):
Robyn Watson

I used to dance very aggressively, like a guy, and a wonderful tap dancer called Dianne Walker stopped me and said, "you're a girl so dance like a girl."  Savion also encourages women to dance like women. One of the most profound things that Savion has ever said to me was, "please let me know if there are certain steps that I approach as a man, not that you are unable to do them, but might not be suitable for you to do as a woman." I'm very aware of my height... I'm very tall... and I am also aware of my femininity.  I am a woman so I dance like one.  It's very natural for me.  I try to express that we as women can dance just as well as men. We have the same capabilities!  We can hoof!

Ayodele Casel (the self-assured veteran who worked with Glover in the 90s and has been reunited with him after 14 years):

A lot of women feel as if they have to do something to be feminine but we're women so we are already feminine by nature.  There isn't much that we have to do once we realize that. We can just relax into the dancing!  There is a lot of pressure, not just in tap dance, but also in society for women to be sexy.  If you are centered, if you ARE woman, you will naturally exude sex appeal and femininity.

Sarah Savelli (the glitzy tapshionista with a flair for fashion):
Sarah Savelli

I grew up studying all forms of dance in my family's studio in Ohio. As a little girl I loved the beauty of classical ballet.  My training in classical ballet translates into my tap dancing.

SD:  You perform to a variety of music from different genres including jazz, classical and cinematic theme music in this production. What role does music play in deciding what you wear for a performance?

Watson:  The music plays a crucial role but it's also the theme of the performance that helps to determine what we wear. In the process of figuring out what the ladies would perform in for this production, Savion was interested in seeing us in clothing that we would wear to dinner. The goal for me was to perform in something that would allow me to walk offstage, slip into some heels and go!  In our fittings, Savion would ask, "is that something you would wear to dinner?"

Casel:  In the "Bugle Call Rag" we wanted to have a 1940's feel but we're in 2013.  We could have easily turned it into a period piece but I look at myself and I see a girl from the Bronx.  It was actually Savion's idea for us to wear ties and vests...

Savelli:  The vests were the most difficult to find.  I danced in a Dolce & Gabbana vest.

SD:  Yes!  You are label dropping...

Savelli:  (laughter) From Loehmanns!  I want everyone to know that I got it from Loehmanns.  The music does play a huge role in every aspect of the performance including what we wear.  Once we have a deeper understanding of the music, we begin to question what type of fashion will be best for the performance.  I am in love with fashion!  It's all about what makes me feel good.  Everything I wear during a performance, from the flowers in my hair to the jewelry, is meaningful to me.

SD:  Savion must have the final say in what you wear. Do you ever clash with him?

Watson (a Philadelphia native):  Savion has been in the business for a very long time so he has a very clear vision of what he wants.  In the end, he's always very concerned about what we feel most comfortable performing in. We have different shapes and are different sizes.  Something that looks good on Ayodele may not look good on me. He understands that and encourages us to wear things that we feel are sexy and feminine.

Casel:  Savion would never force us to wear anything that is uncomfortable.

Savelli:  He knows that if you don't feel comfortable wearing something that you won't perform as well.  He'll ask us to find things in a particular style and either say, "that's a yes," or "that's a no for me." It's always an amusing and fun experience. He's great!

SD:  Let's face it!  A tap shoe is a tap shoe. Was it difficult styling a contemporary look for this production knowing that your only footwear option is a tap shoe?

Ayodele Casel
Casel:  The shoe comes first!  With this show it all worked out. I just happened to have things at home that were suitable for this.  I'm really not a fashion person although the teal pants I wore in
the last piece were custom made...

SD:  Yes!  The drop crotch pant?  I have an affinity for drop crotch pants.

Casel:  They have a slight drop crotch.  For STePz, it was very important for Savion that we had a cohesive look. Much of what we wore were personal pieces but it was cohesive.  We managed to stay true to our individual styles and just made it happen.

Savelli:  I own a collection of tap shoes.  Platinum, copper, patent leather, pink and different shades of purple tap shoes!  Not every tap dancer has the type of obsession I have with tap shoes. Having a range of colors and options just makes me happy.  It's my thing.

SD:  What, or whom, inspired you to pursue tap dancing as a career?

Watson:  Dianne Walker is number 1!  She is class!  When she's onstage you don't see an ounce of masculinity.  Also, Lois Bright who performed with the Miller Brothers.  Although she danced alongside two men, she maintained every bit of her femininity.

Casel:  I am definitely inspired by Lois Bright from the 1940's group the Miller Brothers and Lois.  She was the epitome of cool... absolutely jaw-dropping.  I also love Ginger Rogers.  I actually started tap dancing because of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Once I met Baakari Wilder and Savion it was over...I knew I wanted to tap.

Savelli:  I thought that I would continue on with classical ballet and then I saw Savion in the film Tap when I was 13 years old.  The film exposed me to a different style of tap and I thought, "that's what I want to do."  After that I would be so much more upset to miss a tap class than I was to miss a ballet class.  There was a moment when I was in ballet class struggling to keep my leg in a la second during an adagio exercise.  My leg was quivering and shaking!  I was over it!  From that moment on I started going to tap festivals and found a community of of dancers who could express themselves freely without the confines of other dance forms.  Tap dance helped me to discover myself as an artist and an individual.

Watson, Casel and Savelli in Savion Glover's "Bugle Call Rag"                                         photo: Elijah Paul

"See the music, hear the dance."
-George Balanchine

HEAR the cast of Savion Glover's STePz at the Joyce Theater now through July 6, 2013 at the Joyce Theater.  For ticket info log onto www.joyce.org.

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