Robyn Watson Tells (Her)stories through Tap

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

The name Harriet Tubman recalls many things, from the Underground Railroad to recent controversy over her appearance and subsequent lack thereof on the $20 bill. But rarely does the name of America’s most famous abolitionist evoke an image of tap dancing, perhaps because the art form had yet to exist in its current form in Tubman’s day, or perhaps because the trope of blackface minstrelsy so influenced perceptions of percussive dance during her time and the years that followed—but Philadelphia tap dancer Robyn Watson is set to change all of that, with a new production entitled The Blackbird Suites.

On July 26, Watson will present an evening of dance at the Painted Bride to include an excerpt from The Blackbird Suites entitled Notes from a Dark Rib. The full production, which she hopes to mount within the next two years, will eventually comprise a trilogy of works addressing the image and representation of black women in America. Harriet Tubman serves as the inspiration for a section entitled Navy and Lavender.

“I want to show that black women are not a monolith” Watson notes, “to kill the stereotypes that have been put upon us, that we have put upon us and that majority culture has put upon us.” To this end, she’s pairing Sally Hemmings (Lavender) with Tubman (Navy) in addition to choreographing sections inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer and Nina Simone, the last of which she’ll present later this month.

“It’s not a duplication of the historical timeline,” says Watson but she is still doing plenty of research and doesn’t shy away from the uglier chapters of American history. Take Sally Hemmings for example, the enslaved African girl long considered to be Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress.” As Watson explains, “There was an understanding that if you were considered black during that time, you were not human. Hemmings was sixteen, and not considered human. Maybe she learned to grow affection for [Jefferson] but the initial approach—we cannot deny that she was raped, and we will present that issue.”

Watson has no desire to point fingers, but rather encourage dialogue. “That’s the beauty of putting out work that may be offensive to some. Are you gonna run away or are you gonna come back and say ‘Let’s talk?’ Everyone speaks about Thomas Jefferson, how he helped liberate this country, meanwhile what was he doing at home? We’re complex people […] but how do we reconcile? How do we get to that better place?”

If her work brings to mind that of Philadelphia tap dancer Germaine Ingram, who created Parallel Destinies in 2010 to commemorate the nine African-Americans enslaved by George Washington who lived in the President’s House at 6th and Market in the 1790s, it’s because Ingram is one of Watson’s most trusted mentors. “Germaine bought me my first pair of K360s,” Watson recalls, referencing the Capezio-brand tap shoes worn by many tap dancers, including Savion Glover himself (with whom Watson worked on the 2016 Broadway production of Shuffle Along). She considers Ingram’s documentary, Plenty of Good Women Dancers, produced by the Philadelphia Folklore, a project to be “one of the best dance docs we have.”

This month’s excerpt, Notes From a Dark Rib, references the biblical story of Adam and Eve with a focus on black women in particular. It will highlight the music of Nina Simone and feature Watson along with local tap dancers Corinne Karon and Rochelle Haynes. Watson will also be introducing herself as an artist through a stand-alone set featuring Seriah Frazier on vocals and Wesley Rast on percussion, along with original poetry she’s writing herself.

For audiences unaccustomed to tap’s narrative potential—who might find the pairing of tap dance and Harriet Tubman strange—Watson encourages them to “take off the mask of what you think tap is. Continue to understand that there was always narrative in tap dance before. We’re going back to what tap dance was, not what it is. It has always been narrative. It has always been communication. […] There has been always been an opportunity for storytelling, movement, and sound. Choosing to do this trilogy, to represent who I am as a tap dancer who is black, and is a woman, I have a responsibly to maintain this integrity and to tell these stories.”