I’m writing this here so that whomever writes the book of tap dance history during this period will have a resource other than the immense number of facebook posts to go through. As is my habit, I will gloss over the commercial and deal more specifically with the first hit to the tap dance community that “RONA” (as my ER doctor friend likes to call it) has dealt us.
From an observer and practitioner’s vantage point, it has been wonderful to see tap dancers rally. Dancers have gone to every platform possible to teach free online classes. Entire dance schools have transitioned to online learning. The first global tap jam was held by the London Tap Jam, and the DC Tap Fest became the first ever exclusively online tap dance festival. There will surely be more. Folks are communicating like never before and that can be a good thing.
Now for the harder news. Two days ago it was announced that Al Heyward passed away. The announcement was short. I heard it through a facebook message. Complications from COVID-19.
This is the first thought I had: Who in the tap dance world today knows who Al Heyward is?
I’m going to do a horrible job of summarizing Al’s impact on the tap dance community from memory here (please search for more information as it becomes available). Summarizing Al’s life is not my goal. My aim is to offer a glimpse as to the impact he had on me as a young dancer coming up in the scene in NYC in the 1990s.
Al was tall. A towering figure, especially for me. I was a short preteen when I first met him. Al had a soft voice. You know the kind. It was so soft it made me would make you wonder what “angry” would sound like coming from him, or if “angry” existed at all for such a person. It did, don’t worry. Al was fully human, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
Al Heyward was one of the quintessential fans of tap dance. He enjoyed being around the art form (and the people) so much, that he dedicated a solid portion of his life to making sure that the craft was celebrated. He did this through his work on the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day and the production of the annual Tap Extravaganza®.
The Tap Extravaganza® exudes different feelings for different people. For me, it was one of the best full community gatherings. Imagine, as I remember it, anywhere from 700 to 1200 tap dance enthusiasts (practitioners, celebrities, fans, family, and friends) of all ages gathering to celebrate a select few. Recognized leaders and up-and-comers would honor their elders – those selected that year to receive the Flo-Bert Award.
I make note of the award, as it was named after two performing artists who may be lesser known in the tap dance community but no less important to our history. Check out Florence Mills and Bert Williams when you have a chance.
Back to Al. My experiences with him were always wrapped in a graciousness that dispelled the responsibilities he carried. He co-chaired the committee to select the honorees, produced the annual awards show (and sometimes two shows a year), all while working a full-time day job. That is an accomplishment to be acknowledged. He seemed to keep his sanity and soft touch in the midst of most it, too. As someone who got a break performing at the Tap Extravaganza® (1998, in honor of Bunny Briggs), and produced and directed the show (2011, on behalf of the Tap Legacy™ Foundation) I tip my hat to you, Al.
I wouldn’t consider Al a show business cat. I would consider him a people business cat. When he asked my how I was doing, he wanted a real answer. When he asked me what I was up to, he was genuinely curious. When I fell out of touch with dancers from my own generation I could count on Al to share important community news with me. He cared about the connections. He cared about the community.
My first image of Al will always be in his tuxedo, dressed and ready to host the annual Tap Extravaganza® (he wore it even if he wasn’t hosting out of respect for the honorees), but that isn’t quite right. More important are the memories I have of his kindness, thoughtful opinions, and support of the people in our community.
I’ll miss you.