Marshall Davis Jr. talks about dancing with Savion Glover

Tap dancer Marshall Davis Jr. talks about dancing for Savion Glover at the Joyce Theater

Time Out New York: Like you’re riding it?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yes. Definitely the ups and downs—let me get in this little pocket over here in between these two notes that are close together already. If this is the 16th note, then I want to play that note that’s like a 32nd note inside of that. If it’s a 32nd note, I want to play that note like it’s the 64th, but still maintain that time. It’s playing the music and that’s when an approach is dealing with the phrasing; maybe not ending the phrasing after four bars or eight bars, but seeing how I can go over the phrase. Maybe where it sounds like I’m ending a phrase, I still know where I am inside of that eight-bar phrase or 16-bar phrase, and then I move on from there as it comes around to bring it right back to the top of the phrase or right back on the one inside of it. That’s usually my approach. And then also thinking about Steve a lot. Thinking about people like Jimmy Slyde and Buster Brown and LaVaughn Robinson. Okay, what would they do? Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but you realize inside of it you’re learning something new. You hit something by accident that works out and then you go with it. So you learn it in the process of expressing yourself.

Time Out New York: You must have to stay so present.
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yes. Depending on how we’re presenting the performance, I definitely will go into a space where I’ll just zone out and just be one with the dance.

Time Out New York: How long did you study with Steve?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I studied with Steve for about two years up until he passed at this performance in Lyon. [Condos died after a performance at the Lyons International Dance Biennial in 1990.] I wasn’t there; Savion was. I remember my father having to tell me after school one day that he passed, and it was really difficult for me. I always thought of it as when Obi-Wan Kenobi passed in Star Wars; Luke could still hear him and became stronger. I felt that. I was 13. I had a lot of opportunities, because we started doing performances in his honor the following year. So we went back to Lyon and performed there and also did something called Miami on Tap that his wife set up. Honi Coles was the MC; Savion was on the bill. LaVaughn Robinson was a part of that as well and the same thing happened in Paris. Savion and my friendship really developed during that time. When we did the Tap Day challenge, we also got to go to the premiere of Tap, so that’s when I first met Savion, but we didn’t really know each other. We also did a show at the Village Gate for Steve’s memorial service. We were aware of each other, but when the other shows started, we became friends.

Time Out New York: When did you move to New York?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I moved here in ’96. Before that, I was in Miami performing and working with Ed Holland; he choreographed a lot of my routines for Star Search. Also Paul Kennedy in California choreographed a couple of my routines for Star Search as well.

Time Out New York: When was Star Search?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
’91 was when I won the Teen Dance competition, but I originally went in ’89 or ’90. But I turned 13 during the break in filming so they couldn’t bring me back for the junior division.

Time Out New York: Did you want to do Star Search?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Everything was happening by accident. Well, my parents had me audition—again, I didn’t know what I was auditioning for or anything. It was, “Wake up, bring your shoes.” They were just trying to have me gain experience auditioning and performing. They had no idea that this show would call back. My mother was surprised; we had to rush to get costumes, to get choreography done, and that’s when I started working with Edwin Holland in Miami. All of that was meant to be, but it was nothing that was planned. I had no idea what I was auditioning for or anything. I was aware of the show, but it wasn’t something that we would watch on a regular basis. I ended up winning.

Time Out New York: What did that do for your career?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
It was good. It opened up some doors for me, mainly in Miami. I continued to perform. I did some stuff with Miami Chamber Symphony to the Morton Gould Tap Dance Concerto. I learned a lot from that; Morton Gould actually had the tap rhythms written out. I could read quarter notes and eighth notes, but that’s all. My parents agreed for me to do the gig without really understanding what I had to do. They thought I would be dancing to the music. Burton Dines was the conductor. He was like, “This is the music that he has to learn,” so he would come to my house and help me memorize the rhythm patterns. But my mother also put me in a marching band in high school. My band director was Kenneth Tolbert, who played a very important part in my dancing as well. The things I was able to learn from him musically definitely played a part in my dancing after Steve passed.

Time Out New York: I’m obsessed with marching bands.
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Oh yeah. I was drum major my senior year and everything.

Time Out New York: I wrote a piece about the choreography of marching bands for the Times a few years ago. If I had known, I totally would have interviewed you. I went to Southern University, and it was such an amazing experience.
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Oh, wow! My band director was part of that whole marching-band tradition. I choreographed a piece on my students a couple of years ago that I dedicated to Mr. Tolbert. He passed last year.

Time Out New York: So you were the drum major?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yes, my senior year, and I was a part of the percussion section. My mother put me in there so I could learn how to read the music and really understand these rhythm patterns that I was going to be dancing for this concerto, because there were four movements that I had to memorize. Sam Weber also flew in and stayed with us about a week to help me with the choreography—the rhythm patterns for the concerto. He had performed before it as well. 

Time Out New York: As the drum major, did you have to learn a lot of tricks?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
No, because Mr. Tolbert wasn’t for a lot of the flashy stuff. He was more about us really understanding how to be musicians. We would do the dance routines. One year, we did the same one for the entire season. People were like, “Y’all are doing the same tired dance routine,” but it was the year that Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and our time was cut short. He wanted to make sure that the musicality was there. He knew that was more important than anything else. If you can dance, and you can’t play, what is that showing as a band? The movie Drumline really reminded me of him. I thought that someone had had him as a band director and had written this movie. It was definitely about the musicianship and musicality, and that’s how I approach dancing as well.

Time Out New York: Doesn’t it annoy you when they don’t show the band on TV?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
[Laughs] Yeah. Most of the time that was the reason everybody was coming to the game! Just to see the halftime performance. They show a little snippet; it’s like you’re missing the best part of the football game.

Time Out New York: Your parents are real dance parents. They must have been like, “My son is going to be an artist, and we’re going to help him.”
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yeah. My father went to school for theater. He’s a visual artist as well. My mother is involved in academia. That also helps with my teaching; she put my brothers and me in a professional teaching magnet in high school, so we were involved in a lot of things. Really involved.

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