Gettin’ Down with DeWitt
By Tara Sheena of Dance Informa.
DeWitt Fleming is a master tap dancer—his fast-paced, fancy footwork is electric and he has the personality to match. As someone who came to dance by way of acting and playing the drums, Fleming has made an enviable career out of something that, even he admits, has never felt like a “job.” From scoring gigs with the legendary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, to a guest spot on the acclaimed T.V. show, Boardwalk Empire, Fleming does it all with a positive attitude that proves contagious. While on tour for Riverdance in Europe, he exchanged a series of e-mails with Dance Informa, where he spoke about early influences, standout advice and what makes his tap shoes so darn awesome…
How did you get started in dance?
“I studied acting at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. My senior year we had to learn tap dancing for musicals. I loved it right away because I am a drummer. I learned drums when I was 12. Tap is very similar. I would skip out on my acting classes to go take tap in the dance department. I stayed in the studio as late as they let me, practicing everyday. Then I would go home and watch tap footage. I would sit in front of the T.V. for hours and try to learn the steps or choreography from the footage. I look back at it now and laugh because the things I was trying to do were so advanced. I had no fear. When I arrived in New York [at 18 to go to school for acting], I was blown away by all of the talented tap dancers from all over the states and the world. I went to a club called Swing 46 every Sunday for their Sunday tap jams, run by the late, great tap master Buster Brown. I learned a lot from just going to Swing 46 every Sunday and meeting all of the different dancers.”
When do you recall dance being something you really wanted to pursue as a career?
“I actually don’t remember thinking that I wanted to pursue tap dancing as a career. It just kind of happened. I knew I wanted to pursue performing as a career when I was about 15 years old, but that was acting and playing the drums. When I first learned tap dancing, I loved it so much I just wanted to dance all of the time. So I did. As I became better I started to get gigs, but it was so much fun for me it never really hit me that this is my career. I guess I kind of still feel that way. I get so caught up in dancing I never really stop to think about that.”
Did you have any mentors or tap idols growing up?
“The person who inspired me the most was Gregory Hines. It’s weird because I remember loving the movie Tap as a kid, but it never crossed my mind that I could learn how to tap. Gregory Hines really stuck out in my mind way before I even thought about dancing, and to this day I can’t quite put my finger on why. When I was introduced to tap, I went back and looked at footage of Hines and I really felt a connection to what he was doing. Tap dancing was so appealing to me because of the musicality and rhythms. He really embodied that. Music really engulfed him when he danced.”
What has been a really important lesson that you’ve learned during your career?
“I think there are a lot of really important lessons I’ve learned during my career, but I’ll just share two. The first one is always be prepared. I have always heard that but I only took it for face value. To most people it means that when you have something coming up [like a big performance], make sure you are very well prepared for it. It really means be prepared even when you don’t have anything coming up. Be prepared right now. I can’t remember how many times I have been called in for something big in my career with little to no time to prepare. I quickly learned that in this business you truly have to be ready to go in the drop of a dime.
The second lesson I’ve learned over my career is that being an artist is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Artists are not like 9-to-5 workers. We can’t just walk away from our desk and have nothing to do with it until we get back to it the next morning. Everything in our life affects our job: what we eat, what we drink, what we watch on T.V., the music we listen to. We really have to be careful about what we let enter our body and mind. Artists are very special people.”
Any advice you would give to young tap dancers hoping to have a career dancing?
“Love what you do. Work Harder. Be yourself. You are much more interesting [as yourself] than trying to be someone else.”
What makes an awesome pair of tap shoes?
“First and foremost is the sound. I like a nice warm sound to come from my shoes. I like a shoe that allows me to produce a lot of different tones so that I have options when I dance. I like a sleek looking shoe. I also like a shoe that’s comfortable, and one that I can dance in for hours.”
What kind of tap shoes do you wear and what makes them so special?
“I wear the modified K360 Capezio tap shoes. I chose those tap shoes for a lot of reasons. I love the quality of sound from the shoe. I like how I can manipulate the sound coming from the shoe. I don’t feel like I’m restricted to only a few tones. I feel like there are so many tones that I can produce from the shoe. I love how the shoe molds to your foot. I can wear them for hours. I also like how clean and sharp the shoes look. I think it’s also cool how you can customize the shoe based on color, thickness of the sole, width of the shoe, even the type of heel you like.
I think Capezio understands that tap shoes are instruments. If you are a drummer you have different snares, cymbals, drum kits. You don’t use the same ones for every gig. I feel the same about my tap shoes. I have ones with thicker soles, thinner soles, smaller heels, and taller heels. It all affects the sound of the shoe. One might be better for one gig, and the other one better for another gig.”
What’s next for you?
“Right now, I’m on tour with Riverdance in Europe. By the time I get back to NYC this summer, myself and [fellow tap dancer and Capezio Athlete] Jared Grimes will be putting up another Broadway Underground at BB Kings. It’s a great platform for dancers. The talent that comes to perform in the show always amazes me; it’s really inspiring.”
For more on DeWitt, visit www.dewittflemingjr.com.