In 1989, a nine-year-old boy was watching Tap (1989), in Alexandria, Virginia, USA. It is a dramatic film that emphasises on the deep influence tap dance has on an ex-criminal’s life. In the film, legendary actor Gregory Hines plays a man torn between his pride and the love for his art. Accompanying him were other yesteryear performers: Sammy Davis Jr and Savion Glover. It was the first time the boy had seen tap dancing as a form of self-expression. Young Andrew J Nemr was hooked. “I knew then that I had found my calling,” Nemr says. Today, at 35, he is one of the leading contemporary tap dancers in the world. “It has been the most unexpected journey,” he says.
Nemr’s tryst with dance began six years prior to Tap, the movie. The only son of immigrants from Lebanon, Nemr’s parents enrolled him in a dance school when he was three years old, so he could interact with children his own age. “Chris Collins Dance Studio was close by to where I lived. I trained there in ballet, tap and jazz, for seven years,” recounts Nemr. And at Collins, Nemr found his first inspiration to take up dance professionally.
A dream come true
A year after Tap released, in 1990, the star-struck Nemr travelled to New York with his parents to meet Hines at a tap dancing workshop. Meeting him was a “larger than life experience” for Nemr, and he began to train directly under Hines. “He took a liking to me for reasons I don’t know. His example of generosity and his joy in sharing time with others are continual reminders of the kind of person I’d like to be,” says Nemr.
Nemr credits Hines as the greatest influence not only on his dancing style, but even on his personality. “As a mentor, he guided my growth to help me become the artist that I am today. He took his time, and encouraged me to take mine,” he says.
Over the years, Nemr has developed an experiential approach to dance rather than adhering to a limited choreography. A fan of spontaneity, Nemr defines his style as an exploration of rhythm and movement. “I am attracted to spontaneous moments of creation that happen organically with fellow bandmates or dancers,” he says.
To further his search of spontaneity and to discover artists to work with, Nemr took up teaching at the early age of 17. And though initially, his inexperience unsettled him, he was eventually convinced he was on the right track.“I knew that so long as the knowledge I had was valuable to those I would be teaching, I had a responsibility to teach,” he says.
Fittingly, Nemr went on to establish the Tap Legacy Foundation with Hines in 2002 in New York. TLF is a platform that encourages the youth in the city to explore tap dance and Nemr hopes to continue building a community that is bound by their love for tap dance.
Nemr’s three-decade-long career so far has seen him share the stage with tap legends including Hines and dancer Savion Glover. But Nemr’s most acclaimed work remains Echoes In Time that released in 2010. A project that came as a funding grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (a US government initiative to preserve various performing and fine art forms), it was a vision to recreate the signature works of tap dance soloists from across generations.
A novel project, it covers the works of tap artists from the late 1800s (such as Bill Robinson) to the late 1900s (such as Gregory Hines). Nemr reminisces about the early challenges that he and his dance troupe — Cats Paying Dues — faced: “I thought it was impossible. But then I realised that our approach to the concept was too serious. Tap dance is fundamentally cheerful. So we changed course, and the joy of the pursuit also lifted the dances we recreated,”
The “pursuit of joy” Nemr talks of, is inspired from his love for human nature. “As a choreographer, my core motivation is the story. It could be abstract, or narrative, but behind every piece is a story that deals with human experience. I like to find a common artistic language to emote,” he says.
And to find this common artistic language, Nemr hopes to choreograph an Indian fusion piece sometime in the future. “I am always interested in seeing how two art forms can relate to one another without losing their essence. Indian dance has such a long tradition. A fusion piece will be awesome,” he says.
Andrew Nemr will speak at TEDxGateway on December 5, 10am onward.
Where: National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point.
Visit tedxgateway.com/live to catch the talk