When Professor Robert L. Reed, founder of the St. Louis Tap Festival, passed away last July at age 58, he left many friends and students behind. In November they remembered him at The Big Apple Tap Festival in Manhattan.
On the festival’s second day, the faculty spoke about Reed, and by the end of the talk, many were crying. Tap historian and dancer Rusty Frank said Reed’s legacy began after a 1989 performance, when he said, “I just want to know what I can do to keep tap alive.” At that time, fellow performer Brenda Bufalino told him: “Do something! Perform. Produce. Start giving back.” Reed started St. Louis Tap Festival shortly after, which went on to attract dancers from around the globe.
Jimmy Tate highlighted Reed’s tap lineage. “Robert’s mentor was Maceo Anderson,” Tate said, “one of The Four Step Brothers, who were instrumental in breaking the color line. Maceo was Robert’s adopted grandfather.”
Maud and Chloé Arnold spoke about Reed’s belief in them as they were creating L.A. Tap Festival. “Growing up, we never got to go to tap festivals,” Maud said. “He was African-American. To be able to see him create a successful tap fest was huge for us.”
“Robert was one of the first people to support us,” Chloé added. “He gave up his time…financially. And he was instrumental in preserving the legendary tap dancers. Like militantly so. He made sure, too, there was inclusion in passing it on. Socioeconomically and multiculturally.”
Logan Miller, who’d studied with Reed in St. Louis from the age of 10, said: “I was minutes away from quitting. I was the only boy. My studio director didn’t think I was good enough to take his class. Robert said, ‘I’m not going to turn away anyone who wants to take class.’ I owe everything in my life to him.”
Dianne Walker gave the most personal reflection on Reed. “He was like a brother to me,” she said. “We argued and fought furiously. I miss my brother. I’m sorry his life was cut that short. I think about him, and I think about something Jimmy Slyde said: ‘They didn’t leave you; they left something for you.’”
“He just grabbed us, basically, and took us into the same family, like we were big shots,” said Ofer Ben, co-director of the festival. “He made us feel amazing. We lost somebody who gave so much. To us personally.”
On the festival’s final day, co-director Avi Miller presented a video retrospective to a packed studio. In the clips, Reed performed incredible acrobatics, walking on his hands, doing flips and splits and combining tap with break dancing. An earlier clip of The Four Step Brothers doing back flips and landing splits on “The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Show” showed their obvious influence.
At the end of the presentation, Miller said: “You are all ambassadors of the artform. We didn’t invent anything. Remember your ambassadors. And as Robert used to say: ‘May the tap gods be with you.’” DT
Photos courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival