Tap's Reveille

"THERE SHE GOES--she's getting that look." Mary Collins chuckles under her breath, eyeing daughter Tyheesha tap dancing with a percussive force in their garage. The family cars have been evicted in favor of a floor of wood-remnant samples; the door is open to Como Avenue, where passing vehicles provide a whooshing accompaniment to the 18-year-old's complex cadence. "She's into it," Mary Collins continues. "I never seen a child--I mean young woman--dance like that. It's unbelievable to the point that it could be a true lie."

This might just be maternal pride talking, but it's tough to disagree: Tyheesha's got the beat. Collins has spent the past 16 years witnessing this "look," a mixture of focus and rapture that overtakes tap dancers when the groove is right. Tyheesha's natural ability surfaced soon after she could walk, and by age 4 she'd shared a stage with Sammy Davis Jr. Now she hoofs a path forged by 23-year-old mentor Savion Glover of Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk fame. Far from being a starstruck teen, however, Tyheesha is refreshingly unfazed by her unusual gift and the caliber of her colleagues, who include greats Gregory Hines and Brenda Bufalino. "My mom would ask me, 'Don't you know who these people are?' She was in awe. But they're down to earth. You can have an everyday conversation with them."

As the eldest of eight children--all adopted by Collins--Tyheesha knows how to comport herself in crowds; during the interview, she patiently untangles a hair tie from a disembodied doll's head for her youngest sibling, Destiny. When the time comes for the photo shoot, she opts for Adidas shorts, rather than a sequined top, to go with her well-worn Alexander tap shoes. The choice suits Tyheesha's manner--relaxed, fluid, youthful, just a hint of flash.

Yet, ask Tyheesha to describe her movement style, and she becomes tongue-tied. Tappers communicate almost instinctively, like jazz musicians. "I can't explain it, I don't know where it came from," she says. Tap language is a collection of dialects reflecting the unique sounds shoes make as feet hit floor. Nonsense phrases like "shiggy-diggy-bop" are as intelligible to a tap dancer's ear as "shuffle-hop-step," to a more formal choreographer. "It's like a call and response," Tyheesha explains of the interplay between tap partners. "Brenda [Bufalino] told me to look for when someone is holding a straight pulse, and when someone wants to go double time." Tyheesha demonstrates while she speaks, clapping her hands slowly, then accelerating the beat. "You get a real musical sound from two people tapping."

Much of Tyheesha's knowledge has been gained from years of attending nationwide festivals. While Minnesota offers strong modern dance and ballet, tap, in comparison, has been less visible. "I'm not saying the studios here are bad," Tyheesha states diplomatically. Yet she concedes that a lack of access to advanced classes (aside from those of local teacher Char Weiss), ultimately provided the impetus for Collins Productions' Tappin' in the Twin Cities Festival.

"A lot of studios are interested in competitions," Tyheesha explains. "But as far as studying under somebody and developing your art, there's nothing. We're trying to get tap here; we want it as big as ballet, as big as jazz." To this aim, Collins's all-star event features three days of classes, plus a hot closing performance featuring Savion Glover, Barbara Duffy, Sam Weber, and Bufalino--not to mention Tyheesha's "Crew."

The campaign to bring tap north began in 1994 when maestra Dianne Walker and Yvette Glover approached the Collins family about starting a festival. Glover, Savion's mom and den mother of the tap community, bubbles with optimism when it comes to Tyheesha's potential: "[She] was tapping before I met her--maybe on a smaller scale, because Mary [Collins] didn't know what to do with her to broaden her scope. I took [Tyheesha] under my wing. It's been like a family affair."

Such familiarity kept Tyheesha from isolation during her beginning years, and should continue to support her as she leaves for New York to live with Glover and study with Bufalino.

Although Gene Kelly once said tap is a man's business, Tyheesha--who enjoys exposure to the pioneering women of the field--is part of the next wave. "She has the benefit of ground being laid for her and hopefully she will be able to make herself very present in it," observes Bufalino. "Women really had to break open a lot of doors and to a great extent, it's still a man's game. But I hope there will be a continuum. I hope I haven't done all this work for nothing. I expect a lot from Tyheesha."

Tappin' in the Twin Cities runs August 21-24 at the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium. Call 690-6700 for tickets and 488-8881 for class times.

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