As Alex Dugdale was walking through a subway station in New York City during the summer of 2001 little did he know the course of his life was about to change forever.
“Here was this man playing Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ on steel drum. Something clicked inside of me because I knew that song. There was a dance that went with that song.”
Only 11, and in town with his mother to participate in the annual New York City Tap Festival, Dugdale asked his mother if he could dance along with the musician. She said yes, and so did the man.
“I didn’t know this dude, some 40-year-old black guy with dreadlocks playing in the subway,” Dugdale said. “I didn’t know him and I felt a real connection with this stranger in that moment through music and dance. That was the moment I thought, ‘Man I am going to take this to the next level.’”
Dugdale grew up in Seattle and studied both instrumental music and rhythm tap dance with Cheryl Johnson. He then attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester New York. It was there he met dancing legend Bill Evans.
Now, Dugdale will join Evans for Fascinatin’ Rhythms: An Evening of Tap Dance and Live Jazz Music at Fort Worden. The performance is a joint production by Evans and Centrum.
“I am really excited to do this,” Dugdale said.
Working with Evans, still spry at 79, has been incredible, Dugdale said.
“He is one of the most graceful people regardless of age in the world. His movements are so fluid and his steps are so purposeful. They are not heavy. He is not a hard dancer.”
Every arm wave and every toe heel brush is done with purpose, Dugdale said.
“And yet, on top of that he is still so graceful. It is incredible and inspiring to dance with him and to learn from him.”
World famous dancer
Evans was named one of the world’s three favorite tap dancers in the Dance Magazine Readers’ Poll, and began his professional career as a classical ballet dancer before switching to modern dance in his late 20s. He later founded Bill Evans Dance Company, which was based in Seattle.
“I was a ballet dancer as well as a tap dancer and so I have more of a lyrical style,” Evans said. “Alex grew up as a hoofer. He is hard and driving. What is interesting for him at this point in his life is sophisticated rhythms.”
In 1978, Evans brought Bubba Gaines and Cookie Cook, two of the African American artists who created the art form of rhythm tap, to perform their show, ‘Shoot Me While I’m Happy’ in the Bill Evans Summer Festival of Dance at Seattle Center.
“I love movement, and tap dancers, the old African American masters who created this artform considered themselves musicians. Many of them were also drummers.”
During the Big Band era all the big bands had at least one African American tap artist who played the floor with his feet and sometimes also drummed, Evans said.
Evans said he has been continually inspired by those great hoofers.
“With tap dance, I love the feeling of being a musician,” Evans said. “I like considering my body as a musical instrument, not just a visual object that makes lines and designs. I love creating music with my body, and not just the sounds I make with my feet. I feel the music pour through my whole body.”
Centrum produced the first of many Evans Dance Company residencies in 1980 at the JFK Building.
“It is my favorite of the old buildings here on the Fort Worden Campus. Starting in 1980, that is the building where I most often worked,” Evans said. “There is something about that space that is magical. There is lots of natural light, nice resilient wooden floors.”
Now, Evans is returning with new dance colleagues he has worked with over the years.
He will be joined at the JFK Building by Courtney World, his tap dance colleague for many years in western New York; Dugdale; and by the Wichita-based jazz pianist James J. Kaufmann.
Dugdale will perform on the saxophone, clarinet and trumpet while J.J. will perform the piano to support the rhythm tap dancing.
Dugdale will switch between making music with his sax or trumpet and making music with his tap shoes in several pieces.
The evening will include a dynamic variety of styles and moods of tap dance performed to an equally diverse set of jazz music standards.
“Part of the evening will be improvisational, both music and tap dance,” Evans said.
“We will perform a few rhythm tap standards by the great African American artists. And then some of my original choreography. It will be a varied evening of dance.”
On Saturday only, the program will also include two modern dance works performed by participants in Evans’ 43rd annual Summer Institute of Dance.
World grew up in western New York and met Evans when she became an MFA candidate at the College at Brockport, where Evans was a professor. She soon joined the Evans Company, and she performed for many years in Evans’ choreography, both modern and tap.
“She and I performed together very regularly,” Evans said.
World is now the director of dance at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Kaufmann was an accompanist in the SUNY College at Brockport Department of Dance when Evans became a professor there in 2004. Kaufmann has a master’s degree in jazz music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and has also trained as a classical pianist.
He and Evans have collaborated on many projects since 2005.
Dugdale first collaborated on an Evans tap dance show in 2011, when he was an undergraduate jazz performance major at the Eastman School of Music.
“Bill moved to Port Townsend and that is when we connected again,” Dugdale said. “It has been great. I did a show last February and then he approached me about doing a show and I immediately jumped at the opportunity to work with Bill to relearn these classic dances.”
Dugdale said he is honored and excited to be in the show, and is glad he stopped to dance in the subway nearly two decades ago.
“It has taken me all over the world and the country and I have met amazing people. It is hard to put it into words how meaningful it has been.”