In the Studio

The Difficulties of Keeping an Art Form Alive

Pamela Heatherington's studio. Photo by Lauren Karstens

Pamela Hetherington is a Philadelphia-born dancer and educator, and the founder of Take It Away Dance Productions. Her new Fairmount studio, soundspace 1525, provides the city with a dance venue specifically geared towards percussive dancers. Here, she talks about just how rare that is.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

When I recall tap dancing as a kid, I remember two feelings: abundance and freedom. I was so lucky. Twenty or so years ago, I had no idea how much work it takes to to keep an art form alive.

It is challenging to sustain any kind of art-making living. However, I would say that percussive dancers, around the globe, consistently encounter one specific challenge that makes or breaks your ability to survive. It’s not endemic only to Philadelphia to be sure. The hurdle is that most space and theater owners don’t allow percussive footwear on their floors.

In Philly, I was constantly competing for the two or three floors in town where I could dance. It sounds like a “first-world problem,” but, eventually, the shut-outs got to me. I started to do less and expected less of myself, putting up my lack of studio time as the excuse. I practice an art form that I can’t practice in most dance spaces and, ironically, though tap dancers practice an art form that’s designed to be heard on a wood floor, when you’re space-grabbing, you’ll dance on anything. Most likely, it’s marley. Or concrete. Or tile.

This space problem, which I’ve been dealing with for at least fifteen years, underscores a much larger, thornier, question, which is the question of tap’s visibility within the spectrum of dance forms. Michelle Dorrance said it best, in a recent interview, when she said that tap dance is oppressed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. If a university doesn’t offer tap as a major (or even provide a proper tap floor), dancers are less motivated to keep training, let alone see themselves working professionally in the form. If you don’t have a space in which to make things, then you stop making things. When there aren’t things to show, you don’t have shows, and audiences drift away.

I built this space because I want to be a part of solving the problem of how to keep tap dance present, how to support other tap dancers so that we can make new work, and how to draw all kinds of people in to see who we are and what we do. I want to change the game.

This is a space for Philadelphia, for dancers to create in, learn in, rehearse in, and dream in. It won’t be the last.


All photos by Lauren Karstens.

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