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Cecly Placenti, Artistic Director

  • Writer's pictureMiranda Stuck

‘Mr. Tap Dance’: Tony Waag and Why You Should Know His Name

Tony Waag on stage with a microphone pointing upwards. Tan suit. Blue background.
Photo by Amanda Gentile

“Everybody has rhythm in their soul and a heartbeat,” says Tony Waag, acclaimed performer and choreographer and founder of American Tap Dance Foundation. When it comes to the art of tap dance, Waag does it all. A Dance Magazine Award recipient for his contributions to the industry, Waag has created, presented, and curated for over two decades, redefining the tap dance community in New York. “It took a lot of work, but I’m very grateful I have a community of people who really, truly stuck by me and supported me,” says Waag.

Featured in hundreds of concerts including performances at the legendary Apollo Theater, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the United Nations, part of Waag’s superpower is creating his own opportunities. On a national and global scale, Waag has opened studios, curated educational programs, created annual festivals, and toured with multi-faceted artists, all while continuing to advocate for the tap dance community. “Ever since I moved to New York, I’ve been actively pursuing space for a much larger group of people because the tap community has grown,” says Waag.

Beginning his dance career somewhat untraditionally, Waag was a sculpture and fine arts major at Colorado State University. Though he was taking mime classes as an elective, his eyes were opened to the world of tap dance after meeting acclaimed artist Brenda Bufalino who is still his mentor. “ I was really drawn to tap dance. Growing up, I was watching all the old Hollywood musicals late at night, the black and white Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers numbers,” says Waag. “I was always drawn to the second leads like Donald O’Connor or Ray Bolger because they were funny and eccentric.” Shortly after switching his major to Dance, Waag moved to San Francisco and trained under master tap dancers such as Eddie Brown and Tony Wing. He also began choreographing for cabaret shows and earned his Actor’s Equity card as a performer. In 1981, Waag moved to New York City.

Tony Waag dancing onstage. Musicians behind him. Blue background.
Photo by Amanda Gentile

“The first day I was walking around the streets of New York, I was looking for a job; a career,” says Waag. As crowded as New York City is, he serendipitously ran into Bufalino on the street and she invited him to take class and perform with her. In 1986, Waag and Bufalino created The American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF) with the mission “to perpetuate tap dance as a flourishing contemporary art form on a National and International level; provide a basis for the growth of tap dance by teaching new generations through comprehensive educational programs; and preserve the artistry of the early generations of tap masters.” Bufalino conceptualized tap dancers as musicians, initiating the nonprofit’s original name, American Tap Dance Orchestra, which toured the world for nearly 15 years after which time Waag made an impactful realization: New York City did not have a tap festival. “Everyone had been talking and complaining about the fact for years, and I realized at the time that I could handle creating it,” says Waag. This July, Waag celebrated 23 years of Tap City: The New York City Tap Festival. The festival is rich in programming and diversity, offering masterclasses, choreographic residencies, a boat ride, and even a historical walking tour of the city’s tap landmarks. As Waag describes, tap is an art form which has its own rich texture and roots in history that are imperative to acknowledge. “It’s complex and wonderful, and is to be shared with everyone,” says Waag. “I think the general public is learning more about Tap dance as an American art form and appreciating it more, recognizing that it's a classic dance form done by American classic dancers.” While the annual festival welcomes new artists and voices, it also gives inspiration to the younger generation of tap dancers. Tap City is filled with entertainment and education including youth programs and Tap Future/Tap Awards and Rhythm in Motion concerts. All ages and demographics are welcome; Tap City, and tap dance, is for everyone. “You don’t have to be a certain race, age, or citizenship; an important part of Tap is that it’s multi-generational,” says Waag. “Tap doesn’t own some of the harsh limitations, such as ballet does, on the body. If you do it right, you can be 109 years old and still get tapped out.” The annual event lineup is truly, “a one stop shop for today’s top tap,” says Gia Kourlas of The New York Times.

Tony Waag onstage joined by a large ensemble of dancers. Red background.
Photo by Amanda Gentile

When viewing tap dance as performance art, one is immersed in musicality and rhythm. The dancer’s shoes shuffle, slide, and hit the floor, creating their own musical score abundant with syncopation and layers of sound. Their feet may move at lightning speed yet their upper bodies remain calm. “You can relate to the sensation of it, if done properly,” says Waag. “You can feel that it’s a vibration. Tap dance is grounded.” Acoustics matter for the success of a tap performance, especially the type of wood floor and shoes used. “That part has always been a challenge,” says Waag when speaking about accessibility for tap dancers. “It’s kind of crazy when someone would call and ask me to perform and I ask, ‘Do you have a wood floor?’ and they say, ‘Well, no, but we have carpet.’” With flooring and sound being of utmost importance for a successful Tap show, Waag is actively searching for progressive nonprofit organizations and individuals to contribute to making more space for Tap dance in New York City.

For years, Waag’s feet have been articulating stories with musicality, variety, and collaboration, emphasizing the importance of individuality. “To be a performer, you put yourself at risk,” says Waag. “You come out and say, this is who I am. And sometimes you’re afraid to do that. It’s all about expressing yourself; the sensation is to be present.” With his passion for tap dance and his drive to advocate for the future of the art form, Waag continues to seek new ways to connect to audiences and the next generation of tappers. “I’d like to say that there’s going to be a much larger home for tap dance in New York City,” says Waag. “Through this art form, magic will happen.”

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