'Kaz' Kumagai brings tip-top tap to town

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“Anyone can enjoy being be a tap dancer in their daily life; all you have to do is casually make a rhythm with your feet when you’re walking down the street,” Japan’s leading exponent of the art, Kazunori Kumagai, insists — seemingly oblivious to the gulf between him and most of the rest of clod-hopping humanity.

“I believe if people did it as part of their daily lives for fun, the world would be much happier,” the 36-year-old New York resident adds with a laugh.

“Kaz,” as his American friends call him, was talking with The Japan Times at a rehearsal studio where the father of a 4-year- old daughter with his wife, pop singer Kahimi Karie, was preparing for an upcoming Tokyo run of his latest program, “Dance to the One,” after a yearlong absence from Japan.

Speaking calmly and sometimes laughing shyly, Kumagai recalled how his imagination took off when, as a 5-year-old in Sendai, he saw the Hollywood tap- and ballroom-dance legend Fred Astaire on television with his partner Ginger Rogers in such classic films as “Top Hat” (1935), “Swing Time” (’36) and “The Barkleys of Broadway” (’49). After that, his love of tap blossomed further when he saw the charismatic Sammy Davis Jr. (“Porgy and Bess,” 1959; “Sweet Charity,” ’69 and “That’s Dancing!,” ’85). But it wasn’t until he was in high school and saw the 1989 film “Tap,” starring the great Gregory Hines, that he was “totally knocked out and finally found a tap class and started to practice.”

Then, after fatefully failing to get into a university in Tokyo, at age 19 he headed off alone to New York. “In those days,” he explains, “there wasn’t any tap culture in Japan — and actually there’s not much more now — so to pursue the career I wanted it was an obvious choice to cross the ocean.

“I studied psychology at New York University, but every day I was itching to dance — and then some lucky coincidences led me to the center of tap world.”

Key to Kumagai’s future was a chance meeting in the street with the tap maestro Savion Glover, who he then went to see performing in the black-history tap-dance musical “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” Afterward, he joined a three-month workshop being run by the cast, and that — as he says with a smile — was his entree to New York’s exclusive tap-dance community.

Soon, because that community is very small relative to its theater or mainstream dance counterparts, another fateful encounter occurred when Kumagai went to train at his regular studio and found the tap-dance icon Gregory Hines practicing there that day.

“After a while,” Kumagai recalls, “he noticed me and said he remembered seeing me dance at a showcase performance — and he casually asked me to join him. So we danced together intensely for two hours and became friends.”

Just then, because he only had a student visa, Kumagai had had to decline an offer to join the cast of “Noise/Funk” despite passing the audition. When Hines realized this, Kumagai says, “He offered to help me get a work permit, and wrote a letter supporting my application. I couldn’t believe that, and especially since his death (in 2003) I have felt ever more strongly grateful for his kindness.”

In fact, Hines’ letter included the remarkable compliment: “I do feel you have ‘the gift’ and work ethics to move ahead in tap as far as your feet will take you.”

After that, with his paperwork in order, Kumagai stayed in New York for seven years, working consistently and clocking up 10 consecutive appearances at the annual Big Apple Tap Festival, the world’s largest — with the Village Voice newspaper describing him as “the Japanese Gregory Hines.”

Then, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, he moved to Tokyo for a while to see what it was like because he’d never lived there — though he now works around the world from bases in both Japan and New York.

“I love the great diversity of New York,” he explains. “For example, everyone at my daughter’s nursery school has different cultural backgrounds and the teachers are open-minded to listen to any opinions. It’s totally different from the Japanese style of education with all its strict, fixed rules.”

On the other hand, Kumagai admits to being concerned that, since 9/11, the U.S. entertainment world has tended to become more conservative and commercial — and less artistically challenging. Consequently, he was “so lucky to experience the tap culture in the mid-’90s,” he says. “Then it was really flourishing thanks to amazing imaginative artists like Savion Glover.”

However, he feels that that culture may have stalled a bit in the last decade since the passing of legends such as Hines and fellow New York native Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, who was 92 when he died in June 2013. Also, he says, it concerns him that “the U.S. entertainment world doesn’t pay enough respect to the greats of tap culture, and trains its spotlight on big-name white performers.”

Nonetheless, declaring it his mission to “dance tap till I die,” Kumagai has opened Kaz Tap Studios in Tokyo and Sendai to offer the same sort of creative closeness he experienced in New York — and possibly to provide a bridge across an ocean for its students.

This time, though — in what promises to be a memorable Tokyo event — he’s swung that bridge the other way with “Dance to the One,” an original program he’s created, in which he will be joined by musicians from New York along with Michelle Dorrance, a top U.S. tap artist he’s often danced with. It’s enough to get your clod-hopping feet making music right the way through Shibuya.

“Dance to the One” runs Jan. 17, 18, 19 at Bunkamura Orchard Hall close to JR Shibuya Station. Call Ticket Space at 03-3234-9999 or visit “Tappin’ Into Tomorrow” runs Feb. 1, 2 at Owl Spot, Tokyo; 03-5391-0751.