During her first appearance at Jacob’s Pillow, Dormeshia Sumbry was all of seventeen, and already she was a show business veteran. This was in 1993, when she was an apprentice-turned-member of the Los Angeles-based company Jazz Tap Ensemble. Prodigies don’t always grow into great artists, but in this case, the remarkable poise and rhythmic accuracy she demonstrated as a teenager were true portents of the extraordinary tap dancer she would become, frequently cited by her awed peers as the best in her generation.
Observe her back then: first, in a recreation of a Bill “Bojangles” Robinson solo from the 1935 film Hooray for Love; second, in a duet with her fellow whiz kid, Derick K. Grant. The first clip preserves an ace pupil of tap history, a young woman in an old-fashioned costume (bowler hat, tailcoat, white gloves), rising to the challenge of a predecessor known for perfect clarity. The second reveals an early attempt to bring that tradition into the present: this young woman with her en-vogue Janet Jackson bob, improvising to a jazz band with a young man in dreadlocks, their MTV body language mingling with florid arm motions and toe-stands borrowed from the pre-World War II Nicholas Brothers.
An Exceptional Upbringing
When Sumbry was three, she asked one of her two older sisters to teach her some dance steps. Her speed in learning astonished her sister, and her sister’s teacher, too. A year later, the family discovered Paul and Arlene Kennedy, dance instructors whose mother, Mildred, had performed as “The Brown Bomber” on the New England vaudeville circuit. Working at first in park recreation rooms of Carson, California, the Kennedy siblings were uncommon teachers, hooked up by artery to the neglected heart of the African-American tap tradition. Sumbry was the sort of student who could soak up such information. Arlene Kennedy noticed how serious the girl was, not as animated as her classmates. Kennedy also noticed how this kid never made a mistake.
The kind of tap that the Kennedys taught was undergoing a revival. Kennedy students performed at events attended by such tap legends as John Bubbles and the Nicholas Brothers, and Sumbry gained a yet wider sense of the tradition when she was nine, and Arlene took her to perform in Rome. Also on the bill were members of The Copasetics and The Hoofers, Swing-Era performers who had been coaxed out of retirement by a new generation interested in their art as art. Among this new generation of adults was Dianne Walker; eager to get younger people involved, Walker had brought along her best students and had invited Kennedy (an old friend) to bring hers. Nine-year-old Savion Glover, who had been starring on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid, was in attendance as well.
Glover was even more of a sponge, and it was he, the boy, who was chosen to perform in the Paris revue Black and Blue with such veterans as Lon Chaney and Jimmy Slyde, learning from them every day, on and offstage. But when the show transferred to Broadway in 1989, Walker convinced the producers to bring in more children, starting with Sumbry and her fellow Kennedy student Cyd Glover.
“When I saw Dormeshia up there, on stage,” Arlene Kennedy remembered,“she looked like somebody had just opened up the candy shop. It was as if she was saying, ‘What took you so long to get me up here? This is where I belong.’”
Several critics felt similarly. Joan Acocella finished her review of Black and Blue with the following paragraph:
You look, finally, at little Dormeshia Sumbry, and you can’t believe your eyes, because here on a 13-year-old girl is the class and musical know-how—and the beautiful upper body, riding easy and cool over the pelvis—of the great male tappers… When she finishes a step, Dormeshia’s face scrunches up into a sudden little private smile, as if, oooh, she’s so happy to be doing this and, oooh, didn’t that come out just right. John Bubbles, the creator of rhythm tap, had that same squinty smile, that same sweet self-enjoyment. And so when you look at Dormeshia you feel that everyone is there, all the jazz artists, the living and the dead, and that the dead smile down on the living.
“We did eight shows a week,” Sumbry remembered. “All I did was sit in the wings and take notes. Each one of those guys had their moments with me”—dropping a little wisdom as they left the stage. Glover wasn’t the only one paying attention.
Glover, though, was the one receiving attention, or at least the bulk of it. While he had a major role as Gregory Hines’s potential stepson in Hines’s 1989 film Tap, Sumbry had to settle for a cameo as a shy, unspeaking girl in a dance class taught by Glover. When Hines starred the 1992 Broadway show Jelly’s Last Jam, it was Glover who danced alongside Hines, playing a younger version of the same character, engaging in an onstage challenge dance that was clearly of passing of the torch.
Meanwhile, Sumbry toured with Black and Blue in Europe, rising to dance captain of the adult women and even singing. She joined Jazz Tap Ensemble, a group that had been pioneering in the creation of concert tap and that was now becoming an important training institution. Still shy, Sumbry learned about music and how to conquer her fears, let loose, and improvise.
In 1995, Glover was given his own Broadway show, created by and around him as a star: Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. The dancing cast was all-male, a four-member boy’s club of Glover’s buddies, and the style was aggressive and hard-hitting like street basketball. But a year into the run, when cast replacements were needed, Glover called Sumbry and asked her to join. He knew she could do it. She danced as a man, except in one number, where she dressed as a business woman and did the same steps as the men but in high heels. (In the 2003 world tour of the show, she danced in female attire more of the time.)
Not long before Bring in ‘da Noise closed in 1998, she married the tap dancer Omar Edwards. Soon, they had children: a son, a first daughter, and nearly a decade later, a second one. They opened a dance studio in Harlem, and the whole family appeared in print advertisements for Capezio dance shoes. Especially in relation to the size of her talent, the career of Dormeshia is one that has transpired largely under the radar of the wider culture: in tap festivals, little known independent films, shows that never took off, and bit parts in projects involving more famous colleagues like Glover—or Michael Jackson, whom she taught tap for years.
When she has had a good vehicle, such as Charlie’s Angels, a Charlie Parker tribute conceived by Jason Samuels Smith, critics have lauded her with superlatives. “Are there enough words in the dictionary to praise Ms. Sumbry-Edwards?” Claudia La Rocco asked in The New York Times.“These Heels, and Flats, Are Made for Tapping” by Claudia La Rocco in The New York Times, October 23, 2009 In 2011, she made the cover of Dance Magazine and her shared evening with Michelle Dorrance at Danspace Project turned heads. Her performance back on Broadway in the 2013 throwback revue After Midnight earned yet more acclaim. Yet, somehow, wider renown has proven elusive.
It’s in the words of her peers that Dormeshia’s worth is best honored. In one Pillow post-show discussion, Derick Grant compared her to Michael Jordan: “He had a God-given ability but he also worked harder than anybody on the team. While you’re asleep, she’s shedding [practicing].” Michelle Dorrance called her “a true master of the fundamentals. It’s like watching a prima ballerina doing tendus: you think, ‘That’s how it should be done.’ She makes it look easy, so you think you can do what she can do, but you can’t.” Jason Samuels Smith, among others, has called Dormeshia “the greatest tap dancer alive.”
In Her Prime at the Pillow
What’s so great about Dormeshia? Footage from her Pillow appearances can help elucidate. In 2013, she returned to the Pillow—after a gap of two decades—as a co-star and co-choreographer (along with Dorrance and Grant) for Dorrance Dance’s The Blues Project. Choreographically speaking, Dormeshia’s most noticeable contribution was to a number using the Lindy Hop, which she had learned in Black and Blue, watching and later dancing choreography by the Savoy Ballroom legend Frankie Manning. The Blues Project choreography cleverly crossed the Lindy with poses, up rocking, and top rocking borrowed from hip-hop, illuminating an under-recognized lineage.
Her big moment, though, came in her improvisational solo, the climax of the show. Addressing this moment in a PillowTalk, the show’s composer, Toshi Reagon, explained how at first she could not understand how to play for Dormeshia: “some people are on another level.” Eventually, though, Reagon chose the song “Dream Variations” from her own childhood. (It was written by her mother’s group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.) The mood and lyrics, drawn from a Langston Hughes poem, seemed to “resonate with Dormeshia’s spirit.” Notice the needlepoint detail cushioned by effortlessness, all the tiny pieces shaped into larger waves, percussion given the breath of song. “Nothing lights a fire like a dream deferred,” Reagon sings, and Dormeshia strikes sparks with her feet.
Sometime during the process of The Blues Project, Ella Baff, then artistic director of the Pillow, asked Dormeshia if she might be interested in putting together her own show. Roping in her old friends Derick Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, along with a jazz trio and the contemporary dancer Camille A. Brown, Dormeshia created a production called “And Still You Must Swing.”
The title came from a remark by the great Jimmy Slyde about the difficulty of tap: about how you must master technique in your feet and grace in your body but how neither of those matter much if you aren’t making music, if you aren’t swinging. Dormeshia had been noticing younger dancers with extraordinary technique who stumbled over simple steps because they lacked musicality. Her show would demonstrate basics, deep roots, strong foundations and what glorious structures of intricacy and feeling can be built from them.
“If we’re doing some fast crazy something, Dormeshia made that,” Grant joked after one performance. And Dormeshia’s choreography did show how complexity could be pursued without sacrificing swing. But even richer was a jointly choreographed trio number called “Swinging Me Softly,” an incredibly tasty update of the soft shoe tradition, flanking Dormeshia’s swirly-armed elegance with the suavity of her two gentleman collaborators.
Compare it (below) to 1993 footage of a teenaged Grant and Dormeshia recreating the soft shoe of Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins, a 1940s routine infamous for its audaciously slow tempo. In both, bursts of speed are flashed but held in check. In the new dance, though, the tension between simmer and boil is regulated with even greater intensity, as adjustments of tempo (doubling the time, cutting it in half) play with and against similar adjustments by the band. These dancers make the audience moan. When Dormeshia, slowly strutting off, turns back and smiles, the finger she points acknowledges how she’s wrapped us around it.
The most powerful footage of Dormeshia in the Pillow archive, though, is something of an anomaly: one time when her professional composure cracked. The week of July 2016 that And Still You Must Swing debuted at the Pillow was also the week in America that two more black men were killed by police officers. One night, Dormeshia broke down in the middle of her solo, rubbing her hands and holding back tears to say “It’s not easy when your people are being killed in the street” and “I can’t apologize, cause it’s real, y’all.”
This moment is impossible to miss in the clip below, a rare glimpse into the strong emotions that this dancer’s mastery usually masks or sublimates into rhythmic brilliance. But don’t overlook what comes before, as she resists her feelings but can’t avoid them. Her honesty as an improviser won’t let her coast on the surface; she keeps digging in and touching a nerve. No apologies necessary; this is real.
Pay attention, also, to what follows the breakdown: how her art helps her go on. “Let it out, D,” Grant says in support, and it’s as if, along with her old friends, all the tap tradition she has inherited is there to help her express the moment and survive it, too. It’s as if the dead are looking down at what the little girl in Black and Blue has become and even through tears they are smiling again.