Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2001

Size 12 1/2. Big shoes to fill. You’d have to do some pretty fancy footwork to walk the walk (or, more aptly, dance the dance) of Savion Glover, the 28 year-old wunderkind of tap.

He’s been dubbed ‘the tap ambassador of his generation,’ ‘the man who saved tap dancing,’ ‘the Michael Jordan of tap.’ The New York Times praised his ” almost supernatural physical gift.” Gregory Hines (no tap-slouch himself) called Savion “a genius, arguably… the best tap dancer that ever lived.”

Can you be all these things and humble, too? Incredibly, yes. By phone from his home in New York, Savion (his name derives from “savior”) is soft-spoken, reticent. But he’s filled with passion when he talks about dancing.

“When I dance, I feel free. It’s my best way to communicate.”

“The art form keeps me humble,” he continues. “As long as we have people like Buster Brown [age 89], Jimmy Slyde [age 78, still dancing], Gregory Hines, Diane Walker, they handed this down to me, this art form. And I try to pass it along.”

Those oft-mentioned mentors reportedly called him The Sponge, for how he soaked up everything they knew about dance and life. Passing (but by no means relinquishing) the torch, he’s been mentoring young Cartier Williams, who’s now 12.

That’s just the age when Glover began his own professional career, starring on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid. He returned to Broadway in Black and Blue, and co-starred with Gregory Hines in Jelly’s Last Jam. At 13, he appeared onscreen in “Tap” with Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. And on the small screen, he spent five seasons as a “Sesame Street” regular.

In 1996, at age 23, he won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, two Obie Awards, two Fred Astaire Awards and was named Choreographer of the Year for his ground-breaking, jaw-dropping chronicle of tap as a reflection of African American culture, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.

Since then, he’s executive produced and choreographed an ABC special (“Savion Glover in Nu York”), choreographed an HBO movie (“The Rat Pack”), created a dance company, NYOT (Not Your Ordinary Tappers), performed for President Clinton at the White House, starred in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” choreographed a now-stalled musical for Disney Theatricals, choreographed a new, hopefully Broadway-bound musical about basketball (with LL Cool J in the lead) and co-wrote an autobiography (“Savion: My Life in Tap”).

Though Savion started out as a drummer in Newark, New Jersey, performing regularly in a band, Three Plus, at age 5, his mother famously reported that he began tapping in the womb, in time to her typewriter at work. He got his first tap shoes (on cowboy boots) at age 7, and then began a 7-year stint of jazz, ballet and tap classes. His close-knit family remains actively involved in his career: his brother Abron dances, his brother Carlton stage manages and his mother sometimes comes onstage to sing.

He’s performed all over the world, but he always makes time to attend and teach tap classes. Spreading the gospel of tap is his life’s mission. He calls his experimental style “the slang of tap,” a vernacular expression of the pulse and rhythm of the street where the dance form originated.

“I’m always going over rhythms in my head,” he says, “when I’m walkin’, waitin’ for a train, whatever… It’s like a new language. In the book, I’m breaking it all down for my generation, the dance, the language. It’s not shuffle-hop, heel-riff-heel. It’s ‘oo-bop-a-dee-dop-de-dee-dop-de-dam.’ I’m giving you what it sounds like; it’s up to you to create the step.”

He hasn’t yet created the steps for his new production, Savion Glover in Concert, which (in a coup for Broadway/San Diego) starts its two-month tour locally. “Of course,” he says, “I’ll have some guest artists. But it’s mainly me, in a tap concert.

“We just plan on rockin’. I wanna rock the house like never before. I want to give people the opportunity to enjoy tap in the concert realm. There’s no book or story, just the dance — though there’s a story in every song, every routine. It’s part calypso, jazz, reggae, hiphop classical, swing. For younger people, older people, all types.”

Glover’s solo dancing is completely improvised.

“I get inspired by different things: who’s in the audience, what I did or saw that day, what I had for dinner. [The musicians and I] have been working together for several years. So maybe we’ll get together the day before we leave for California. Sometimes we plan the show, then I come in 1/2 hour before and change the whole thing.”

Glover’s percussive, experimental style focuses only on the manic intricacy of the footwork. His hands hang loose, his body’s bent over. Sometimes he’s so into jamming with the musicmakers that he turns his back to the spectators.

“We sort of create our own world onstage — myself and the musicians. I hope the audience invites itself in or feels so comfortable they can be part of it. We advise dancers to bring their tap shoes; they might get pulled onstage. It’s really a jazz show, a jazz concert, with me on feet. I try to create melodies with my feet. I’m really a musician; I play the feet.”

[“Savion Glover in Concert” runs September 4-9 at the San Diego Civic Theatre; 619-220-TIXS]

©2001 Patté Productions Inc.