NEW YORK - Tap Dance is an essential American Art form, but its artistry has been weighed down by the history of racism in United States. In an era of racial justice, one New York City dancer sees the history differently and is making some history of his own.
He taps. She sings. Together DeWitt Fleming Jr. and his wife Jennie Harney Fleming make beautiful music together.
What You Need To Know
- Tap dance sensation DeWitt Fleming Jr. dances while his wife Jennie Harney-Fleming sings - he is her musical accompaniment
- Dewitt wants to honor the history of tap dance, which is often tied to racist tropes like blackface and minstrel shows demeaning to people of color
- He says it's important to understand that much of the African culture was stripped away from slaves and yet they found a way to keep the rhythms of hand clapping and foot tapping alive
DeWitt is an accomplished drummer, but he uses his tap dancing to accompany her singing.
"I just try to keep the form as straight as I can to let her be able to, you know, do what she wants to do vocally,” DeWitt said. “And then, you know, when she gives it to me, then I take the form and mix it all up and you know, kind of, have fun with it, and then just like a normal accompaniment drummer or piano would do," said DeWitt.
The couple met in 2015 on the set of the musical ‘Pearl,’ directed by Jennie's father, Tony Award-winner Ben Harney. They married two years ago.
When they first started booking gigs together, Jennie sang and DeWitt drummed. Then they realized they could create something unique.
"There's something different with someone using their feet. And DeWitt surprises me all the time with the different resonance he'll find with different parts of his feet or his heel," said Jennie.
We caught a rehearsal of the Flemings, along with their 9-month-old, Ella.
Sadly, tap dancing has long been associated with minstrel shows and blackface — a racist entertainment trope that featured performers in black makeup playing demeaning roles.
Dewitt says tap can and should still be celebrated as a uniquely African American art form, despite its complicated past.
"A lot of things that come from our African culture was stripped away from them,” he said. “So, they were clever enough to figure out a way to keep this one part of their culture, and they didn't care if people were making fun. And we should be thankful for that, and we should honor them for that.”
That history comes to life in DeWitt’s groundbreaking new album - with sax player Erica von Kleist — and the music made by his feet.
DeWitt says this is tap's true evolution; from African slaves using rhythms expressed through hand clapping and foot tapping, to this style of dancing.
It’s certainly been difficult to find work this year, but the Flemings have been cast together in a regional production of the hit Broadway show, "After Midnight." Whenever they perform, there's always shared larger goals.
"The human experience, connecting with people resonating with people, you know, telling a story that, for the sake of impacting, uplifting people, encouraging people, you know, love. All the things we need more of," said Jennie.
And that includes music made by the feet.