Tap dancing ran in Orlando Hernández’s veins from the moment he could walk.
“As a kid, I would always move my feet around a lot,” he says. “I later realized that I was doing a hop shuffle, hop shuffle, hop shuffle.”
Khalid Hill’s interest in tap dancing had a more practical origin. “My mother put me in dance school to deal with my clumsiness,” says Hill.
Both tappers are based in New York City. Hernández is currently on a summer tour with the tap group Music From the Sole, while Hill is teaching tap at the Broadway Dance Center, Harlem School of the Arts, and Bronx Community Charter School in the city.
Hernández and Hill are both returning to the 17th annual Provincetown Dance Festival this weekend at the Edgewood Farm campus of the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. They will showcase improvisational tap routines accompanied by live jazz performed by saxophonist Greg Glover.
Hernández began tapping after being inspired by the Tony Award-winning 1996 Broadway production of Bring in Da Funk. “My parents took me to see it when I was six years old, and I fell in love,” he says.
He started tap dance classes at a New Jersey studio before transitioning to New York City. At the Broadway Dance Center, he met teacher Lane Napper, who let him join the Thursday night adult classes to advance his technical development.
While Hill began with tap and jazz dance at the Roxbury Center for Performing Arts in his hometown, Boston, it was tap that gave him a unique sense of satisfaction.
“I felt like I could actually express myself in a way that just felt different,” says Hill. “To hear myself actually making the dance audible — there was something intriguing about that.”
Watching live improvisation by tap legends such as Gregory Hines and the Nicholas Brothers, Hill was motivated to take up tap dancing as a professional pursuit.
“Finding out that they were improvising was probably the biggest draw,” he says. “I saw them perform on stage, talked to them afterwards, and then saw them perform again and they were doing something totally different.”
Tap dance is a fusion of West African dance rhythms and the footwork of Scottish, Irish, and English clog dances and jigs. In the 1920s, metal tap shoes gave birth to the classic toe-tapping beat.
Hill and Hernández aim to honor tap’s intricate past in their work. “Tap is an American art form, but from the beginning it was multicultural,” says Hill.
“It is a part of the Black vernacular of the United States,” says Hernández. “Enslaved Africans danced to the beat of drums to signify a declaration of cultural continuity and freedom against plantation owners.”
Hernández believes that people are drawn to tap because it allows them to “engage with history and geography, expressing it all through dance and music.
“The possibilities of tap dance are endless,” he says. “I’m interested in exploring all the ways it can tell stories and express resistance and liberation.”
Both Hill and Hernández believe that tap dance’s interconnected audio-visual qualities make it distinct from other dance forms.
“Tap dance is also music,” says Hernández. “The music lives in the body, and we hold that rhythm and express it through movement and sound.”
Tap dance evolved in harmony with jazz, which happens to be Hill’s favorite genre. Jazz standards, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane tunes inspire Hill’s improvisations. “Jazz helps inform my voice as a dancer,” he says. “I listen to their solos and try to understand what they’re saying musically, and perhaps respond in kind.”
While Hernández also enjoys tapping to jazz, he prefers Caribbean and Latin American music. “It’s one of my home bases, musically and rhythmically, and I believe tap dance lives there, too,” says Hernández, whose family roots are in Puerto Rico.
“The music just makes your insides dance,” Hernández says. “It carries an internal momentum, like a magnet or a spiral; it naturally draws you in.”
Hill and Hernández are looking forward to improvising at the dance festival. “It’s a time when you can become more yourself, where the boundaries of the self dissolve a little bit because you are calling other forces and voices onto the stage,” Hernández says.
When Hill is not teaching tap, most of his performances are improvisational. He enjoys how every show brings something completely different. “You don’t really know what you’re going to see; it’s like you’re watching a movie play out,” he says. “The story is happening and being told as it’s being made up.”
Both Hernández and Hill like to “stick to the basics” when they improvise, they say.
Hill’s improvisational approach has changed in the last five years as he works more on his musical phrasing. “There was a time when I wanted to be able to hit a clean double wing or a one-legged wing in the middle of a time step, but now my focus is trying to get into the rhythm,” he says. He likes loose ankle steps, like a clean double shuffle.
Hernández sticks to a toe-heel, toe-heel pattern, and despite its somewhat unfortunate name, he appreciates the crisp sound of a “slurp.” Also known as a three-beat riff, a slurp is a touch or brush, dig, and toe movement.
“Slurps create a beautiful sound, and when you achieve that sound, it’s like crystal,” Hernández says.
Coincidentally, they are both loyal to the same tap shoe: the Capezio K360. Hernández says they have “the highest quality musical range.” Hill adds, “I can play around with tonality with the K360s. They just feel like they are my style.”
The event: Provincetown Dance Festival
The time: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 25 and 26, 7 p.m.
The place: Sam’s Stage, Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill Edgewood Campus
The cost: $40-$45; $25 for students at castlehill.org