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: What is it like working with Savion Glover?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
It’s fun. In rehearsals, we come to different realizations. All these different emotions are going on because, of course, we start to think about our teachers, our mentors. All of this stuff comes into play. Even though they’re gone, we’re still learning from them. They left us a tremendous amount of information that we’re still in the process of learning from—before we can even begin to think about trying to separate ourselves from it to do something different. What you do with it determines how you are as a person. We’re not imitating, but giving honor to it and presenting it in a way that shows what the possibilities are, and that’s what allows us to be unique.

Time Out New York: Do you think you have to be inside the tap world to understand the complexity of what you’re doing?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
No! I’ve found through our travels that the people who really understand it aren’t the tap dancers or connected to show business. I think they’re more open to just receiving it, as opposed to feeling that you have an understanding about it already. They’re just like, “What is it?” They’re not looking at it from the point of, “I know what this is” or “I know what this should be.” 

Time Out New York: Are you quoting from specific dancers?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
We do, but it’s in a way of us giving our respects. It may not be a specific quote, but based on something they’ve already said.

Time Out New York: Who is in the back of your mind?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Always Steve. Dianne Walker, Baby Laurence, Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde. Gregory Hines, of course. Buster, LaVaughn, Lon Chaney—we keep them in our minds in whatever we do.

Time Out New York: How much dance material is set in this one?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
There is more choreography. But inside of that, there’s always room to improvise as well. I think it’s a nice balance. We definitely collaborate; [Glover] allows me to be part of the process, but the majority of the choreography, he does.

Time Out New York: I want to know more about this show. Is it crazy? I like it when the relationship between music and dance is more pure. 
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I think it’s going to be something that everyone can enjoy.

Time Out New York: What does that mean?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
You have to see it. Once you come and see it, you’re going to be, Oh, okay, I get it. I don’t want to give it away. You’ll enjoy it. [Laughs] I’m positive.

Time Out New York: I’ve talked to people over the years who have had falling-outs with Savion. Has that ever happened to you?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
No. We’ve been able to maintain our friendship. We both learn from each other. I think because of our relationships—me with Steve, and him with Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines and [Lon] Chaney and Chuck [Green] and Buster [Brown]—those experiences allow us to connect. We can relate to each other in a different way than I think some other people can. We’re very passionate about the art form. They meant so much to us. There is a personal attachment to these men and women; we feel like what they shared with us has been life-changing and it’s a way of life. It’s what I’m living to do, as opposed to what I’m doing for a living. I think that’s what has helped us maintain our friendship. 

Time Out New York: What kind of tap dancers are you drawn to?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Ones I can hear. [Laughs] Let me hear something intelligent that you’re expressing through your sound, as opposed to something flashy or tricky. Big steps, I’m not really a fan of; if I close my eyes I’m hearing the same rhythm over and over and over. It’s like a musician playing one note, but doing different things—playing with their finger, playing with their toe and playing with their elbow, but it’s still the same note. That’s not interesting. I have nothing against a flashy move, but if you’re going to do it, know how to incorporate the rhythm. Know when to use the move. Chuck Green said, “You can’t always do what you want to do; you have to do what’s needed.” Sometimes dancers get caught up in doing what they want to do, and they don’t realize the difference between the want and the need. It’s not just maintaining time and tempo, but knowing when to play that rhythm, knowing when to do that move. Knowing where you are inside of the music so by the end of the song, you’re not out of breath because you’ve done all your best moves in the first 16 bars of the song.  

Time Out New York: Do you think about how you look when you dance?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
It depends on what I want to present. Sometimes I’ll do a concert and say, I’m going to look like this because this is how I’m feeling and who I am and how I want to present the music. They’re conscious choices. If I want to smile, that’s how I’m feeling as opposed to, I’m going to be onstage—I have to smile right now. If my face has different expressions, that’s how I’m feeling the rhythm.

Time Out New York: What does the tap world need now?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
To me, the whole world is the tap world in a sense, and we have to make sure that our voice is being heard and that we’re aware of what it is that we’re expressing. The art applies to life, and the life applies to art. We get so caught up in the “I” that we don’t focus on what’s bigger than us and that something out there has brought us all together. The art for me is the bigger picture. I don’t make tap dancing. Tap dancing doesn’t exist because of me. Tap dancing has been around before me and it will be here after me. All I can do is try to be one with it and allow it to play its role in my life by making me a better human being.

Time Out New York: You come from all of these masters. Who are you in this scenario?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I’m someone who’s still trying to figure it out. My students say, “Who are we supposed to watch?” I say, “You guys have the luxury of YouTube—you can still watch these dancers even though they’re not here, so if you think I know what I’m doing—I’m still trying to figure out what Steve was doing. So don’t watch me: In order to really know what it is, watch Steve.” A lot of times when people pass, we give them their respect and then we push them to the side. I’m nowhere near the dancer that they were. So I’m still a student. I’m still trying to figure it out. And I’m better off than I was before. 
Savion Glover is at the Joyce Theater June 18–July 6.

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