The Man Who Saved Tap Dancing

Savion Glover Revives An Old-Fashioned Art Form

When Yvette Glover's youngest child was born, she believed his life would have a special purpose. She considered naming him "Savior" but decided on "Savion."

Just 26 years later, it turns out her instincts were right. Savion Glover has been called "the man who saved tap dancing." But it's tap dancing like the world has never seen before. Correspondent Charlie Rose profiles Glover for 60 Minutes II.
Savion Glover is the Michael Jordan of tap. Here's what his mentor, Gregory Hines, himself a world-class dancer, has to say: "We're not talking about a good tap dancer. We've got to establish that right away. He could arguably be the best tap dancer that ever lived. He's a genius."

Glover has taken an American art form that was considered old-fashioned and fused it with the raw energy of rap music and hip-hop.

"The dance should be respected," Glover insists. "It should be like an opera. It should be like something at the Met or Carnegie Hall."

In the 1930s, tap dancers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson charmed audiences in vaudeville theaters and at the movies. But many dancers who wanted to perform in front of white audiences, live or in the movies, had to play to racial stereotypes, and many of the recorded performances that survive from that era reflect that. By the 1960s, many black Americans considered tap offensive.

It is an image that Savion Glover only now is tapping into oblivion. He says his aim is "to give to the next generation the dance. The dance as a way of expression. Not as only a way of entertaining but as a way of expression, a voice." To Glover, that voice can "speak real light and bright, or you can speak real heavy."

He started as the 10-year-old star of the musical The Tap Dance Kid, then appeared for years on Sesame Street. He was a 12-year-old prodigy when Gregory Hines first saw him. They later starred together on Broadway in Jelly's Last Jam. Glover was then 18.

Says Hines: "You know, when I go see him, if he knows I'm there - and he does this for other tap dancers, too - he'll do some of my steps." He does it in tribute to what Hines taught him. "The only thing is, you know," says Hines, "he'll throw it in, but he'll throw it in at, like, Mach 2."

Is Hines jealous? "Of course! You know, I'm thrilled. I say, 'Oh, I'm so thrilled, you know, that's my step. He did it. For me, how nice!' And then I think, 'Man, I would really like to do that step that fast," Hines declares.

Glover took the first bold steps towards reinventing tap in 1996 with the musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. In it, he showed tap that was light years away from old vaudeville hoofing and won a Tony award in the proess.

He has, according to Hines, "re-defined the art of tap dancing."

As a kid, Glover watched old Fred Astaire movies. It was his introduction to tap dancing, and Astaire's dancing still makes Glover smile.

Is it possible for a young black man from Newark, N.J., to have the kind of career that Fred Astaire had? "Oh yeah. Quite easy," says Glover.

His faith in himself comes from his mother, Yvette. Savion's father left them before he was born, and Yvette Glover raised her three sons on her own. She knew early on that her youngest had a special gift. "I mean, before he could walk he was banging," she says. Banging? "Banging with rhythm."

At first, that rhythm was confined to banging his mother's "pots, my pans, my walls, my floors, the sofa, everything," she recalls. She arranged for him to take dance classes.

But first, Yvette Glover laid down some strict rules. Savion and his brothers had to work hard and stay out of trouble.

"Everyone in Newark knows us," Yvette Glover says. "Other children used to say, I used to say, 'Now you guys wherever you go you better be on your best behavior because I will know if you're not.' And they would come home, and sometimes they'd tell me, 'You know, Ma, everyone knows us. We can't do anything.'"

If Yvette Glover's presence was a powerful influence, so was the absence of Savion's father. "I actually got his number - you know what I'm saying? - a little while ago," Savion Glover says. "But I haven't called. I'm still trying to figure out, do I, am I, going to call him Dad, or am I going to call him Mitchell, which is his name? I don't know the approach."

But the dancer still goes home to Newark whenever possible. At a show at the Newark Performing Arts center last winter, his mother sang, his brother danced, and Savion rocked the house. He brought along part of his extended family, his other mentor and father figure, Jimmy Slyde, a tap dancer who is now 72.

Slyde believes that Glover aspires to "not allow tap dancing to be forgotten as it was" and to not see tap dancers like Slyde forgotten. "I think that hurts him more than anything," Slyde says.

The old tap dancers nicknamed Glover "The Sponge" because he soaked up everything they knew about dance and about life. "Those men were there to show me the right way, you know what I'm saying?" Glover says. "Where I could've went the wrong way with this - inside the dance or not. They were there to show me the right way."

Asked if Glover reminds him of himself at a younger age, Slyde says, "In a sense, because he's not easily shaken. You know? He has humor. He's not stuck on himself. And he's a mama's boy. I love that. I love that. I don't think there's anything better to be." And what's the characteristic of a mama's boy? Slyde says it's being "one who cares."

Tap dancers will tell you tht they don't reach their peak until their mid-40s. Savion Glover, to many the savior of tap dancing, is just getting started at the age of 26.

If zero to 10 is the range of his potential with tap, where does Glover believe he himself is now? "I would say I'm maybe about five and a half. Maybe just shy of a six," he replies. But even Glover thinks that "if I stay on the path that I'm on now, they're going to have to build a new chart."

These days, Glover has a protégé of his own. "This is the future of the dance right here," he says, introducing 10-year-old Cartier Williams.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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