Last year, I wrote about my pop and locking work with Walter Freeman who went on to perform on Broadway for 10 years as an American tap dancer in Riverdance. Walter and I attended many of the same tap classes when I was in high school.
But my introduction to tap began much earlier. My mother enrolled me in ballet, jazz and tap when I was a toddler, probably around 2 or 3 years of age. I continued tap dancing with regular lessons and training well into my late 20s. When I moved to Los Angeles after high school, I was fortunate to study tap with Hinton Battle, who won his second of three Tony Awards for his role in The Tap Dance Kid.
When I was about 22 or 23, Mahmoud Reda visited California on a workshop tour. In addition to his folkloric work, Mahmoud starred, choreographed and performed in several popular Egyptian movies; he was very much an Egyptian Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. One of my favorite memories of Mahmoud’s visit was attending a tap class together at the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in North Hollywood.
Later, when I performed in the Middle East, the club owners were thrilled when they found out I could tap dance and insisted that I perform. Tap dancing was incredibly popular, especially from the classic Egyptian and Hollywood movies that featured grand dance and musical numbers. And I actually had my tap shoes and drum sticks (from my “chair drum” performance) with me, as I had packed them in my suitcase.
Rather than featuring tap dancing as a completely different act, I wanted to incorporate it into my regular dance set. I developed a duet with the drummer. I would tap, then add finger cymbals, then the drummer and I would question and answer back and forth, and then we would wind up to a big finale. The audiences loved the act.
Students have asked me why they thought my tap dancing fusion was so well received by Middle Eastern audiences. I had well over two decades of experience in both belly dance and tap by the time I performed the fusion of the two in the Middle East. I was a teacher of both with extensive performance experience in both. I knew the music and rhythms for both the Middle Eastern and jazz genres. It was a “responsible fusion”. That responsibility included knowing and respecting the technique, music, and culture of both dance forms.
Image 1: Suhaila, 1978. Photo by Romaine Photography, San Francisco.
Image 2: Suhaila performing her “chair drum” tap dancing routine at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, CA when she was 10, the same year she began teaching tap.