A Christian tap dancer in New York
Andrew Nemr on faith and the intricacies of his art
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On a chilly New York day, tap dancer Andrew Nemr, 37, had just left rehearsal for his latest show (“Rising to the Tap”), a solo-performer autobiographical piece. It had been a grueling day—he was choreographing, directing, and dancing, the culmination of two years of work on this show—but he has a performer’s energy and the cheerfulness that comes from doing what he loves. He often fasts through rehearsals because it gives him a clarity of mind.
Nemr, the only child of Lebanese immigrants, has danced since he was young: When he was 7, he danced at a dinner theater. His parents wanted an outlet for him to meet friends, but tap became something much bigger. At age 10 he became a pro—getting a paycheck for dancing—and a protégé of the great Gregory Hines, who revived American interest in tap.
Nemr began his 20s by becoming a founding member of a tap company with legend Savion Glover. (He calls Glover’s mother “Aunt Yvette.”) At 25 he started his own dance company, Cats Paying Dues, now one of the top tap companies in the country. Nemr is elite, but not too fancy to dance when asked at family weddings, and he still has to hustle. “Of all the performing arts, dance is at the bottom, and of all the dances, tap dance is at the bottom,” he quipped.
The café where we stopped in after practice was blasting the Destiny’s Child hit “Bills, Bills, Bills”: “Can you pay my bills? / Can you pay my telephone bills?” Nemr mused on the wealth and materialism of New York: “The Lord and Savior that we follow had a particular life. ... If that’s a life that we’re supposed to be OK with, then everything else is bonus. And that puts a whole new spin on what you do. ... The choices have to be informed by, I believe, something greater than just, ‘Where’s the money?’”
Nemr, not aiming for a Broadway jackpot, has a lot of projects going. He runs his dance company, teaches, and speaks all over. He is also working on a book of poetry. While in intense rehearsals for his show, he recorded an album with the band Holler Jake where his taps are another percussive instrument in the band.
When most people think of tap, they think of Shirley Temple or Gene Kelly—a theatrical, vaudeville dance. Audiences love that stuff, but Nemr said it’s not a form that gives space for tap to develop as an art. Nemr is more like a jazz musician, with his body an instrument. He keeps his taps “tight,” so the sound is clear when it hits the floor, not a looser tap that “jingles around.” Legs working, ankles loose, the weight concentrates in his upper body.
As jazz improvisation builds on blues scales, so Nemr riffs off a basic tap structure. At a recent TED conference he led a group of tap dancers in an improvised dance they managed to do in unison. In grittier corners of New York he also does live performances with jazz bands, bringing just his shoes and a small board to tap on. He used to perform every week with the jazz band the Cangelosi Cards in the packed back room of an Irish bar on Second Avenue.
“You’re dealing with vocabulary, a set of mechanics your body can do that’s part of a tradition. So that’s your language,” he said. “And then you’re using words which we tend to call steps, to create sentences, rhythmic statements, things that sound interesting, look interesting, hopefully create some sort of dynamic with the other people you’re playing with, who are watching and listening.”
Nemr has also managed to do a sermon while tap dancing, at Graffiti Church on the Lower East Side, where he and his parents attend. Speaking while tap dancing, he explains, is an old tradition. He thinks about tap as “speaking in tongues,” saying it’s a language that dancers often understand that the audience doesn’t, so he likes to interpret it verbally when he can.
His parents, who met at a youth group in Lebanon, fled Lebanon in 1976 at the beginning of the country’s civil war. They raised Nemr in the United States. His parents wouldn’t speak Arabic with him as a child because they didn’t want him to have an accent, but he speaks it now. His Lebanese immigrant identity has left him without an easy box to fit in. A press agent suggested he adopt a catchier name for his professional billings, but with the encouragement of Henry LeTang, another dance legend, Nemr stayed Nemr.
When he did a podcast interview with several artists of different ethnicities, the interviewer turned to him and asked for his take on their discussion as the “prototypical white male.” Nemr laughed: “Actually, I’m Lebanese.” Then, when people hear he’s Lebanese, they’ll often assume he’s Muslim: “I’ve gotten every confused identifier. … You end up being the person who can disequilibrate people, which is great so long as that serves a purpose.” The purpose? “Point them to Christ.”