When I’m asked why tap dance matters, why it’s a
worthy skill to learn, I usually come back to the same
answer: freedom. As a young girl, I found the freedom
to be loud. To be brash. To be different than my family.
Tap dancing allows me to express my artistic side, my
creative side, my funny side, my rebellious side.
In school, in public, in church, I wasn’t always
taught to say how I felt. The spirit I found within tap
dancing allowed me to speak up for myself, gave me a
voice that I didn’t always exercise. As tap dancers, we
learn quickly that, just like jazz music, tap dance has
that undeniable spirit, the spirit of freedom of speech.
And as a woman, being angry or having different ideas
isn’t always encouraged in us. But it’s our job as artists
to ;ght through that, or at least it has been mine. My
drive continues to come from that ;ght. I improvise
with my feet because I believe I have something exciting
to say. In that very moment, it is my chance to share.
I learned a lot about sharing in high school, when I
would attend tap jams at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy on Monday nights, led by Jason Samuels Smith.
I would listen in awe to countless tap dancers from
around the country who would pass through. It was
truly incredible. There weren’t any musicians accompanying us. Just our feet, and what we had to say.
Slowly, I began to learn the references for some of
the steps. I watched and listened to the dancers, and
eventually myself, quoting Jimmy Slyde, Gregory
Hines, Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs and more. Learning about the masters, about their lives, about their
struggles, about the serious racism they experienced—
it changed my life. It taught me to have respect for
this American art form, and give it value. When these
forefathers (and mothers) of tap dance had no voice,
they had their craft.
I have not nearly experienced the oppression
that generations of tap dancers before me did. But
what I continue to be inspired by is the freedom
they found within the dance. The freedom to
be the most creative. Reach the farthest. Take
The freedom to fall. Fail. Try again
on the other side. Establish groove
and take the listeners on a journey.
The freedom to try not to
repeat oneself. Then try to repeat
oneself. Play with the listener. Have a conversation.
The freedom to have an argument.
And the freedom to not apologize for it. ■
Sullivan honed her skills
by attending tap jams and
learning from the masters.
“Tap dancing allows me to
express my rebellious side.”