Music for Class: Music to the Max
The greatest tap dancers could hold an audience’s attention with their charisma,” says Max Pollak, who spent time with legends Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green and Lon Chaney during weekly tap jam sessions at New York City jazz club La Cave. “Sometimes, you can learn more having breakfast and listening to one of them recalling their life than taking 700 dance classes.” The biggest lesson that Pollak took from the greats? Simply tap dancing isn’t enough to truly make it—every artist needs something special. Pollak studied ballet, jazz, theater and music, and, over time, he developed his own signature style, RumbaTap. Now, he keeps audiences in awe with a unique combination of tapping, singing, clapping, body percussion and fiery music.
An Austria native, Pollak was first introduced to Afro-Cuban music while performing in a band with Latin percussionist Bobby Sanabria, an influence that led to the development of Pollak’s style. “RumbaTap is more of an integrated percussion style than a tap dance style,” he says.
Pollak has toured extensively with his music/dance ensemble, performing, teaching and holding university residencies worldwide. There are three things that he describes as key ingredients: African-American rhythm tap dance, body percussion and, most importantly, Afro-Cuban folkloric music. His classes are structured like music classes, focusing on musicality, rhythmic patterns and how they fit together like puzzle pieces. “At first, the students are making the music,” he says. “Their feet become a metronome, and their voices and hands each do different rhythms. I bring recorded music in a little bit later.” DT
Artist: Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
Album: Afrocubanismo! Live
“Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are my mentors. I’ve performed with them, and they have had a very big impact on my artistic growth. I like to start with Afro-Cuban folkloric music like this, because you can hear all of its parts very clearly, which helps students understand the music that comes later in class.”
Artist: Slavic Soul Party!
“This great band from Brooklyn mixes Balkan and Turkish music with New York–style brass-band funk. I use crazier music like this when I teach improvisation. It has odd meters, and it’s a little difficult to decipher. I want to challenge students to really improvise without relying on steps they have rehearsed, so I like to throw them curveballs.”
“Lenine has elements of northeastern Brazilian folkloric music. It’s unusual and groovy. People connect to the funkiness, because this guy is a great guitar player. The sound engineering is interesting; it sounds like everything is moving around. And if you speak a little Portuguese, his lyrics are very good.”
Artist: The Paul Carlon Octet
Album: Roots Propaganda
“Roxane Butterfly, Tamango and I used to perform in tap jams with saxophonist Paul Carlon. His band (now called Los Américas) plays music from the Caribbean, Colombia, Brazil and Cuba mixed with jazz. My tap dancing is recorded on some of their CDs. If there’s a certain pattern on the recording, students can listen to it and dance along, then turn it off and try it by themselves.”
Artist: Max Pollak’s RumbaTap
“My group’s CD comes out this summer. The percussion comes from six tappers dancing on custom-built boxes or cajons. We don’t have a bass or a piano, but a marimba and three saxophones, which represent the three sacred Bata drums in Afro-Cuban spiritual music. And we have two vocalists. The approach is folkloric, but the expression is through dance and through the rhythms of the hands, feet and voice.”
Photo by Michael Melnyk, courtesy of Max Pollak