The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Finding a Floor

Finding a Floor

Finding what helps us express ourselves

A few years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic – that thing that everyone remembers but fewer people talk about now – I found myself in a new city. I had a safe place to stay, solid friends, and just enough stability to work on what needed to get done and what might be next. It was a soft landing in a tumultuous time, and I am grateful for everyone who helped me. There was just one thing that was missing: wood.

I tap dance, after all, and I needed to find a way to practice and play. Finding a floor is like finding a good piano. They are around, but it takes some searching. Thankfully, I had been to the city I landed in before for work. When I travel for work, if the venue doesn’t have a suitable floor for tap dancing I either have to bring something or have something built onsite. In this city, I had had floors built in the past. This meant that there was a possibility of old floors still being around.

I Thought It Was About the Shoes?

Tap shoes are a thing in Tap Dance Land. So much so that many people become focused on them. What color are they? What materials are they made of? How are they built? The shoes are given so much attention that many, including tap dancers, think that we play our shoes. In classes and workshops, I often find myself having to make the following correction: We play with our shoes, but we play the floor. In the same way a drummer plays with their sticks or hands, or a pianist plays with their hands (and feet), tap dancers play with their tap shoes. The shoes are the tool we use to strike the instrument. The instrument is the floor.

Very early on in the founding of Cats Paying Dues I had the opportunity to acquire a specially designed Tap Dance Instrument. Designed by Robert Harari for a tap dance show in Germany, the floor had laid dormant. Rob had been the designer behind the touring floors of Gregory Hines and later Savion Glover, and had some of the most complete knowledge around tap dance, floor materials and construction, and sound. Now with my own floor, I was able to gain even further insight into the preferences, challenges, and creative solutions, that went into tap floor design.

Design Considerations

Rob’s Tap Dance Instrument is a unique solution for touring tap dance productions – I still use Rob’s floor when performing Rising to the Tap. For every instance, or need, design considerations like access to materials, usage, and cost come into play. While the Tap Dance Instrument is a phenomenal creation, you wouldn’t likely see one permanently installed in a dance studio. Different demands lead to a different design. While both designs consider sound quality and surface texture, for example, the dance studio floors have a dramatically different use case. Instead of ease of construction, amplification, and shipping being primary considerations, dance studio floors need to withstand hours of use, consider the impact of those hours on dancers’ bodies, and have a different economic model around them.

All the Floors

I’ve danced on some really nice floors in my time. Each floor comes with its own character, formed by a combination of the materials used to build it and activities that happened on it. Even the construction of the building it’s in can affect the feel and sound of a floor. Here are a few that have left significant memories for me.

The floors at Fazil’s (8th Avenue between 46th and 47th Street, NYC), a rehearsal studio dating back to the 1920’s, were old and worn but had the nostalgia of a vintage automobile. While a newer car might have some advantages – like working air conditioning – nothing quite beats the driving experience of the old car, especially for the automobile aficionado. The floors at Fazil’s were lightly treated if at all, so you felt all the texture of the wood. Tap dancers like Baby Laurence and the Copasetics had danced on those floors, and all the current dancers could be found there. Walking the hallways of Fazil’s was like treating yourself to a buffet of rhythm.

Fazil’s was an institution. A five floor walk up in the middle of midtown Manhattan, you could feel the energy of the theatre district while sitting on the windowsills in the studios overlooking 8th Avenue. Who needs additional inspiration when all of New York City was literally right outside? Walking up the two flights of stairs to get to the front desk was like walk across the border into Tap Dance Land. I cut my tap dance teeth at Fazil’s, started Cats Paying Dues there, and returned as often as I could before the entire building was ultimately torn down to make room for a hotel.

Studio 7 at DANY Studios (upstairs on the corner of 38th Street and 8th Avenue) had one of the most inviting floors I’ve ever danced on. It was hard wood (the preferred material), lightly treated (the preferred surface), and floating (the preferred construction). The construction and surface of the floor, coupled with the acoustics of the room itself, provided the opportunity for a wide spectrum of pitches and fullness of tone that was immersive. The sound you made while dancing in that room engulfed you like a big hug. DANY quickly became the regular rehearsal space of Cats Paying Dues until it, too, closed and was renovated. The studios would reopen with a different name, management, and layout. Thankfully, my experience of dancing in Studio 7 is memorialized in a few scenes in the documentary film Identity.

During my time coming up in New York City there were many more floors that left memories. From rehearsal spaces like Chelsea Studios and Woodpeckers, to venues like Showman’s, Swing 46, and St. Nick’s Pub, each is attached to a period of growth, particular lessons, and wonderful people.

Searching and Finding

Now in a new city, I had located and acquired the small floors I had spec’d for work. They were a solid solution in a time when dance spaces were severely restricted. Many dance spaces would ultimately close their doors forever on account of the effects of the pandemic. For me, a year of dancing in a tiny room on a floor no larger than 4’x8’ got me itching to be in a larger space.

As the world began to open up, I began my search for a floor. With memories of some of the great floors from NYC in the back of my head, I sent emails to almost every dance studio in the area. Of the studios that responded only three had wood floors, only two were floating, and only one was lightly treated and available for rentals. It wasn’t a surprise that this studio was in a family-owned operation with the founding octogenarian matriarch still at the helm. This floor had some history behind it.

Unlike other crafts, tap dance doesn’t start with a blank canvas. It starts with an empty (and silent) room. The floor is the only thing in the room that physically captures what happens during the dancing. Floors that have existed over time in the same space have a particular character because of the kind of dancing that has happened on them and the kind of care they received. This is what forms the floor.

Something similar can be said of the people doing the dancing. While the floor was important, my conversations with Fazil, the staff and DANY Studios, and others I met along the way were equally formative, not to mention the time I spent alone in the room. As I became a regular at these spaces, the older folk helped me understand the tradition I was stepping into. With folk closer to my age, the conversation would trend towards the current challenges and successes we all were experiencing. The conversations, and kind of dancing I was able to do on the different floors, left their mark on me. The combination of what I received and what I did formed me as a dancer during that time.

And so, I have entered a new yet similar adventure. A new floor, one that was thoughtfully constructed, cared for, and well-formed; New people – longstanding members of the local dance community; A new time. While I may step onto the floor with a mind to play, rehearse, or record my weekly Tap Dance Notes, my time always includes conversations with the family to whom this floor belongs. While I was simply searching for a larger floor to dance on – a larger space to fill with dancing – what I found was nothing short of a gem in this corner of the world.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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