In 1995, I was 15 years old and obsessed with tap dancing. We didn't have the internet at my house until a few years later, so most of my teenage understanding of what was happening in tap dance came from old movie musicals on VHS and Dance Magazine. Not much has changed in Dance Magazine from then until now - they still rarely cover tap dance - but I remember tearing out a feature article about Manhattan Tap touring the world with a live jazz band, and I was blown away. I wanted to do THAT.
For my entire journey in tap dance, I have often felt like a wanderer in a foreign country, without a map, without much command of the language, seeking pieces for a puzzle, for which I don't even know what the final picture is supposed to look like. In fact, the image is shifting all the time, and the idea of what it could be only comes into focus for brief split seconds, before I'm off to wandering, studying, listening and searching again. I've filled in the gaps with information I have stumbled upon, with names I have heard dropped, from my own reading of the few primary sources of merit, by traveling to meet masters, and much later, by shedding endlessly to find my own sound (And once I started exploring jazz music, the quest multiplied beyond comprehension). The search is definitely part of the process. So, in 1995, I was searching for a kind of tap dance that would feed my mind and challenge me to be like the dancers I'd heard about, and my mom found the University of the Arts. They had evening adult classes taught by LaVaughn Robinson, and in the summers, LaVaughn taught for the 2-week summer program.
I was always tall for my age, so I sneaked into the adult classes and grabbed what I could from the back of the room. Those evening classes were my scratch-the-surface introduction to LaVaughn's genius: an hour of us doing the same 8-bar phrase over and over. And, also new to me, the entire class was done without music. That was definitely cool and made me feel advanced, but to my teenaged mind, doing the same "simple" phrase dozens of times was "easy." Oh, how I had ZERO, ZIP, ZILCH conception of the education in timing, phrasing, accents and groove that LaVaughn was dishing out in front of me. Twenty plus years later, I'll teach a LaVaughn phrase to a class and I'll still find another new detail or nuance to it that I've never heard before. That's true musical mastery - when your material is so rich that you can listen to it hundreds of times and still find something new.
I continued taking LaVaughn's weekly class into the summer time of that year. In the summer of 1995, my parents paid for me to take two weeks of all-day classes at the University of the Arts' "Summer World of Dance," and I was in heaven. I was in Center City, by myself, dancing all day, on a high. This was long before UArts had the fancy buildings with air-conditioning, and because of the heat, they suggested you only take four 90-minute classes a day. I didn't do that, because LaVaughn's classes were in the late afternoon and evening. I took 6 classes a day, so that I could do two tap classes in the evenings. Most of the people I was dancing with were nowhere near the level of diehard that I was, so those summer classes were empty. Did I have any idea how lucky I was? Not really. And still, LaVaughn taught that same "easy" 8-bar phrase, which I dutifully executed, "perfectly." To my teenaged mind, that's all tap dancing was - the perfect execution of steps. What else was there? I had no clue. One memory that I still return to, time and again, was LaVaughn, listening to his class practice his music, taking a beat, and then laughing to himself while telling us, "it's more than a notion." If I had to have one sentence inscribed on my tombstone about tap dancing, it would be: "it's not about steps."
In 1996, at the age of 16, Robert F. Burden, Jr. took over LaVaughn's evening classes at UArts, and meeting Robert started me on a 15-year journey with Tap Team Two and ultimately learning and performing a large body of LaVaughn's material all over Philadelphia and the East Coast. I thought I was on my way. But the journey wasn't even started yet.