Dallas — A native of the Washington, D.C. area, Justin M. Lewis first fell in love with tap dance after watching the movie Tap (1989) starring Gregory Hines with his grandfather when he was around 5 years old. Lewis started dancing at Knock On Wood Tap Studio in Silver Springs, Maryland, and later joined their pre-professional company Tappers With Attitude. Lewis attended Columbia College Chicago from 2007 to 2009 where he majored in Performing Arts Management before deciding to leave the world of academia to focus on his professional dance career. His first professional tap gig occurred at age 10 when he performed with legendary jazz musician, drummer Chuck Redd. Since then Lewis and Redd have done several performances with the intention of helping fuse the tradition of tap dance and jazz music back together again. Throughout his career Lewis has also had the opportunity to dance with many notable tappers, including Savion Glover, Baakari Wilder, Jason Samuels Smith and Dianne Walker.
Lewis’ unique movement style, which he deems a fusion of tap and contemporary that incorporates more new aged music, has become well known throughout the national dance competition circuit. For many seasons now Lewis has traveled to different dance studios around the D.C. area and across the nation to help correct and critiqued pieces for competition dance groups. He has also judged at various dance competitions all around the country, including Starpower International Talent Competition, Inferno Dance and Ohio Dance Masters. Most recently, Lewis was a principal dancer on a tap dance show at Universal Studios in Hollywood called Tap Worx. He is also a swing performer for an international show called Feet Don’t Fail Me Now presented by Rhythmic Circus. Currently, Lewis is the master tap choreographer and artistic director of Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn, Virginia.
Lewis will be bringing his high energy and fly tap skills to Dallas this weekend for the second annual Rhythm In Fusion Festival (RIFF). Produced by Malana Murphy, RIFF runs Jan. 15-18 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre in downtown Dallas and features master classes for both students and teachers, a tap jam, student showcase and facility performance. Guest artists include Lewis, Chloe Arnold (Syncopated Ladies), Sarah Reich (Post Modern Jukebox), Nicholas Young (STOMP) and many more. More information is available at www.rhythmnfusion.com.
TheaterJones asks Lewis about honing his tap style, the public’s increasing interest in tap dance and what he is looking forward to most at this year’s RIFF event.
TheaterJones: I know you are a huge supporter of tap festivals such as Dallas’ Rhythm In Fusion Festival (RIFF). What do you get out of participating in these type of events?
Justin M. Lewis: I get pure enjoyment out of seeing what kind of talent there is all around the country and even different parts of the world. I especially love seeing the youth and who’s up and coming right now and what new styles are happening around the country. This is one of the reasons I travel so much. I love seeing what’s going on around the country and that ultimately helps me navigate where I am going with my art form and how I should be developing it. I get really inspired going to these festivals because the hunger for learning these aspiring dancers have today is just out of this world. So, everyone who is a part of these festivals makes me want to become a better teacher than I currently am and further myself even more as an artist.
What would you like RIFF attendees to take away from your classes?
I feel what I try to put out to the people who come to the festival is my love for entertainment and performing. Any time I go see a show I ask myself from an artistic director standpoint if I am being entertained. And when I walk out the door at the end show I ask myself was I fully entertained and engulfed in what was happening on stage. So, that is one of the things I want festival goers to get out of me is that no matter what you do, it can be the hardest thing in the entire world or the simplest, as long as you are putting on a show that is the most important thing to me. I am a big advocate for performing as I have lived on the stage since I was 10 years old so it is a huge thing for me. Don’t get me wrong technique is still very important, but I know a lot of non-technically trained dancers who are some of the highest paid dancers out there right now because they are the most entertaining to watch. I would like to instill that into the young dancers to make sure they know that as long as you go out there and put on a show you can make your professional dreams happen.
For those new to your class how would you describe your tap style?
I was only 16 when I first started teaching and back then my class was structured around the rhythmic hoofin’ style that I was raised on. Looking back it’s really funny how much my stuff has adapted because when I first started out in Tappers With Attitude we were your typical tap youth ensemble. We were all about basic tap steps and smooth jazz music. So, when I first got into teaching this was all I knew. It wasn’t until I started travelling around the country teaching at various competitive dance studios and conventions that I realized this old style of tap instruction just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. The students just weren’t responding the way I wanted them to so, I took a step back and altered my approach. In the end I took music that the kids were interested in and movement from other dance genres, including hip hop and jazz, and created my own tap style.
I don’t know exactly what you would call my dance style. I kind of created my own feel by incorporating new aged music and more contemporary movements. My style is really a fusion of tap and contemporary which I have jokingly coined conTAPorary. For example, last year at RIFF I performed to a Sam Smith song which I got a lot of good feedback on. I like choreographing tap numbers to more contemporary, slower pieces of music. There are just so many different elements you can add into tap dance now that are intriguing to some, but not others. You’re just never going to be able to please everyone.
How much of your class time is focused on technique versus rhythmic and percussion exercises?
In all honesty maybe 5 to 10 percent of my classes are focused around technique. I grew up taking a lot of tap technique classes, but for me it is all about showmanship and performing. This kind of goes back to one of your first questions about what I am trying to put out there for my students. Don’t get me wrong. Technique is very important and I will spend 15 to 20 mins of an hour class doing just strict technique, but to me that is not the single most important thing.
How did you get into choreographing for competitive dance studios and judging for national dance competitions such as Star Power?
I didn’t grow up as a competitive dancer so this was completely foreign to me going in. I randomly got involved when I started teaching at a competitive studio and it started building from there. I started gaining more contacts and Gary Pate from Starpower International Talent Competition reached out to me. With Starpower I worked various odd jobs backstage for three years before stepping into the role of judge. I also got on Gary’s case about putting tap back on the roster for Wild Dance Intensive and he was able to give me two dates. So, last year I got to travel to Long Island and Detroit and both cities went crazy over tap. I brought in fun music that the kids could get into and were pumped up about and at the end of the day studio directors were going up to Gary asking for more tap classes in the future.
How has the job market for professional tappers changed over the last decade?
There are definitely more opportunities for professional tappers today than there were 7 or 8 years ago. There was a point in time when tap was dying down, but it is definitely surging back up. Ten years ago there was just not enough work to go around for tap dancers. That is not the case today. I started out teaching at a handful of studios and now I travel to at least 30 studios throughout the year. And just look at what is happening on Broadway right now. There are three tap shows going up in New York City in the coming year; Shuffle Along, Top Hat and Tap Dogs. I mean three tap shows, two on Broadway and one off Broadway, in a single year is really unheard of and proves that tap dance is making a resurgence.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com