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I first saw Herbin "Tamango" Van Cayseele tap-jam in 1989 in a Manhattan SoHo loft. A gifted improviser, he ricocheted between brilliance and the ordinary. Van Cayseele (Van rhymes with "Ron," Cayseele rhymes with "gazelle") was still learning how to control his craft, but it was clear he was a dancer to watch. Good looking, debonair even, Van Cayseele had a vibrant style that fused bebop elegance with something raw. The body line was lean, pulled in, elbows close. He began his dance from a "cold start," feeling the floor for rhythms. Gradually he revved up, picking up speed and inspiration from the accumulations of sound that seemed to rise up from his feet like a dust storm. Focusing straight ahead into the ether as if searching for God, or gazing down at the floor, Van Cayseele would sometimes cock his head to the side, listening. Then suddenly, he would toss back his head, grinning madly. He had just caught the groove and now he could swing!

Van Cayseele came to New York City not because it is the tap mecca, but because of the toss of a coin. He had been "busking" around Paris and elsewhere in Europe with a small group called The Over Excited. They wanted to travel outside Europe, so they tossed a coin for New York or Rio de Janeiro. The Over Excited came to New York but disbanded about six months later. New York was a rough gig. But Van Cayseele stayed. He survived by working the streets and the Staten Island ferry with his boom box playing Oscar Peterson: "Five trips over and five back; it was hard," he said recently. But," he added with a smile, "we buskers are strong. We can survive as long as we have the music and the dance to keep us going. That was the thing. We didn't have much money but when we started playing, wow! We slammed."

Van Cayseele's trusting of a major life choice to the toss of a coin reflects his love of improvisation. The reason it works is that he knows how to pick his ingredients and how they will interact.

Since 1995, he has toured worldwide with Riverdance and Cool Heat, Urban Beat, an evening-length work he co-choreographed with Rennie Harris, Philadelphia's splendid hip-hop master. Along the way, Van Cayseele kept collecting sounds, rhythms and people. This eclecticism informs everything about his dancing and producing. A sharp talent scout, Van Cayseele has performed with all sorts of artists whom he brings together in performance; currently, an African stilt dancer, a singer from India, freestyle jazz-tappers, Brazilian capoeiristas, a human "beat-box" vocalist, hip-hop dancers, a DJ and a combo that plays African and Cuban drums, jazz, bebop, swing and Australian didgeridoo.

Urban Tap--the name of his company and, very often, the name of the concerts he produces--fuses an international cross-style that blends diverse dance and music into an urban sensibility, held together around the beat. It's an attitude, a loose way of holding the body, a way of letting the self get lost in sound.

Though Urban Tap is more than just a tap show, tap is the heart of the matter, and Van Cayseele's is urbane and sleek. Instead of hunkering over and hittin' hard in Savion Glover's signature style, Van Cayseele is fast and upright. When he gets steaming, he lets the upper body loose to dance as fully as the feet. But his style is anything but aerial and flighty. Instead, it is a refreshingly free polyrhythmic dialogue between feet and torso.

In Urban Tap's most recent performance, he and tap freestyler Max Pollack did tap-trades, their whole bodies dancing. Feet skittered across space, sliding, blurring faster than the eye could follow. Rhythms exploded, arms got thrown up and out in a "whaddya mean?" gesture, other times in an exuberant "OK, OK, you win!" Yet their taps were articulate, as easy to follow as sentences on a page. Alternately fun and serious, they were as wild --and as controlled --as two riled-up samurai warriors.

Born in Cayenne, French Guiana, Tamango (as he was called in childhood) grew up around the Yoruban vodoun religion of Guiana--his grandmother was a vodoun herbalist and healer. As an 8-year-old he had been "marked," possessed, he said, by his special loa (gods), Exu and Shango. Sometimes in performance he alludes to this when he talks about the magical mango tree. The audience may not know what he is referring to, yet they realize he is speaking about a spiritual experience. Van Cayseele links personal rhythms to deeper rhythms of nature and religion, merging the reality of his performance with a dream from the past under a strange tropical tree.

Such was the world he was torn from when he was shipped off to Paris to live with his father. "It was horrible," he recalled, "like being an outcast. I didn't know my father at all, Paris was strange and I didn't have any love." He endured because he was able to find love and encouragement from a French baron, who became the 9-year-old Herbin's surrogate father and later legally adopted him as his son. Baron Van Cayseele and his mother provided the child with the emotional support he needed in order to survive as the odd, artistic black kid in a white society--the one who was constantly drawing, writing poetry, lost in his own world. In turn, Herbin helped the baron's mother show cats: "We showed those big, fluffy Persians. We had sixteen of them."

The baron also got him tap dancing. Van Cayseele was 21 years old and hadn't tapped a lick. But the elder Van Cayseele mentioned to his son that he might like to contact Sara Petronio, a tap teacher living in Paris. Petronio was ideal. She didn't teach routines, she taught jazz, how to catch a groove and dance the music. "After an hour and a half, I was hooked," Van Cayseele said. "In the subway I started to put all those steps back together, in reverse. I started to play music. It was drumming. My heart started to fill up with emotion. When you paint or write, it must be inside. You don't really move, you don't feel your bloodstream gushing. But when you dance, you trance. It brought me other places."

When he danced, it was the first time he was looked at and noticed. "That was very important in my life," he said.

When he got to New York, he was introduced to the tap world by Jane Goldberg, another important figure in tap, who also gave him a place to sleep, some studio time and performance opportunities. Heather Cornell invited him to join Manhattan Tap, a troupe whose style is deeply rooted in bebop. But it was hard for him to hold to a routine.

Mostly Van Cayseele performed in jazz clubs, up-close and tight, where tappers are judged on how well they think with their feet. The feet reveal whether the performer can hold a groove. This is where Van Cayseele shines. The "golden years" of the club scene were 1990-95, starting with Indigo Blue, then La Cave, where Jimmy Slyde was the mentor-host, then Deanna's. Lots of the young lions of tap cut their chops in these clubs during the weekly tap nights. Tappers gathered once a week to strut their stuff, try out new material or just step out alone onstage under the benevolent gaze of the great tap masters like Slyde, Chuck Green, Lon Chaney and Buster Brown.

"Roxanne [Samedini], Max [Pollack], Van Porter, Ted Levy, and often Savion Glover--nobody would miss it," Van Cayseele said. "Working with the masters was great for us. Now there is nothing like it." He affectionately remembers the late Lon Chaney. "He was the most generous of them all. He was very encouraging," Van Cayseele said. "When he would do his thing--they were routines--it was so beautiful to see. How simple something can be. Listening to his patterns, it was like listening to a chant."

In 1995, when I was traveling with a small touring tap show, I watched Van Cayseele night after night for several weeks. Jeremy Alliger, then-director of Boston's Dance Umbrella, had assembled a hot group of solo tap-percussionists--Van Cayseele, Glover, Slyde, Diane "Lady Di" Walker and Josh Hilberman. What was remarkable was the attention the tap dancers gave to each other, clustering in the wings, watching whoever was soloing. Van Cayseele had developed brilliantly. Now he had endurance and grace, tapping for almost eighteen minutes nonstop, working without music, only the sound of taps. What had once been a "cold-start" that had to be revved up was now a genteel seduction, inviting the audience to pay close attention to his feet as they softly shuffled across the floor, feeling its surface, seeking the groove. Then, BAM! Slapping his heels down hard and rocketing off into different rhythms, Van Cayseele stayed light on his feet no matter how hard he hit. He ate up space, surging across the stage from one side to the other like a tornado.

In 1998, while performing at S.O.B.'s, (Sounds of Brazil) a popular club in Manhattan's SoHo district, Herbin Van Cayseele officially took back his childhood name, Tamango. That night, he tranced. It was, he said, "where I first talked. Before, I had been very shy to talk to the audience. But this time I didn't care. I could not get there until I could express my anger." He was telling the audience about a night he had spent in jail. "I was coming from Germany to Paris and some guy thought I was a drug dealer," he said. When the musicians started to play behind him, it was transforming: "I was not a rapper, not a singer. I was just expressing myself, and the musicians caught my intentions. That was when the name Tamango was made official," he said. "I had been going by that name, but only in a closed circle [of friends]. After this incident, I told them, `You have known me as Herbin. But from now on, it is Tamango.'" It marked a rebirth, a reawakening.

"There it was," he said. "A sound. Suddenly I knew how all the pieces of Urban Tap would fit--and the idea was not to have a showcase with one soloist after another."

What he envisioned was a production that merged all the divergent performers he liked--the tap dancers, capoeiristas, hip-hoppers, stilt walkers, human beat-box, jazz and funk musicians, African and Cuban drummers and disc jockeys. The 1999 performance at The Kitchen in New York was a watershed event. It earned Tamango a Bessie Award and brought him and Urban Tap to the attention of the dance world.

The way he merges his polycultural performance is smart, visually and aurally. For example, a creamy-slow, smooth Brazilian capoeira juga looks related to the American bebop ("scat") dancing earlier in the show. It is as if bebop has been stretched out into full leg sweeps, as if its percussive turns have been expanded into capoeira's slowly tumbling, off-centered head- and handstands.

Listening to Kenny Mohammed, an amazing hip-hop vocal stylist who does "beat-box" vocals, you hear how his breath-beats correlate with soft taps shushing on the floor. Then Mohammed and Tamango trade rhythms, the percussions shifting sounds and tempos, snapping out, hard-edged and aggressive as they play a witty game of "can-you-top-this?"

Tamango's gift to his audiences is that he is the collector, and he sees and feels his performers as friends, as collaborators. All his background filters through his production--the South American, African-Guianese roots, his European upbringing, the white father and black child, the busker and improviser, presenter and performer. Tamango presents himself and his artists to us as a harmonious whole, creating the larger urban style that defines one essential piece of our world of movement and music.

Sally Sommer is a freelance writer and a professor at Duke University.
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Title Annotation:Herbin Van Cayseele
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Previous Article:Black Dance in Toronto.

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