Miller and Ben, the Israeli Hoofers, fuse Middle Eastern style with tap
By Joshua Bartlett
“Move your tuckus,” pleads Avi Miller to his students over the microphone. “God created your tuckus to shake it!” With 14 students packed into a small classroom at the Nola studios in midtown Manhattan, Miller and his partner, Ofer Ben, use their indefatigable energy and nonstop patter to nudge the aspiring adult tappers to step on it. The occasion is the semiannual Tradition in Tap workshop, sponsored by the dynamic Israeli duo and held over a weekend last November.
Moving and shaking are just two of the talents Miller and Ben offer to tap dancing aficionados. They hold tap seminars all over the world; teach regular classes on Fridays at Broadway Dance Center in New York; formulate creative ways to approach dance education; instruct students on the tonal quality of tap dancing; keep the heritage of tap dancing very much alive through Tradition in Tap, Inc.; perform with their company, Tap Tel-Aviv; and manufacture their own line of tap shoes. Oh, and they’re funny. Like, vaudevillian stand-up-comic funny.
Miller and Ben have been working together since 1990, when Ben began taking Miller’s tap classes in Tel Aviv. “A few months later, he took over the business,” jokes Miller.
“Which is a good thing, because we have no money,” counters Ben. During a conversation with these guys, sometimes referred to as the Israeli Hoofers, one can expect the kind of interruptions, contradictions, anecdotes, and mutual jokes normally restricted to older Jewish married couples or Borscht Belt veterans.
Israelis and tap dancing aren’t usually linked together in a phrase, but Miller and Ben have no problem smacking out a time step to the strains of “Hava Nagila.” In fact, Miller says that Israelis have a natural predisposition for tap dancing. “The main reason is that people in Israel like to improvise; in their lives, even in the military, they have to be creative,” he says. “Jazz is really popular in Israel. In the same way, tap is an individual language, a way to express yourself.”
According to Halakha, Jewish Orthodox law, men and women aren’t allowed to dance together. (Less than a quarter of Israel’s population adheres to the restrictions.) That would make solo tap dancing, if not exactly kosher, an art form that can pass.
Miller and Ben heavily emphasize their own approach to tap dancing; they call it “Middle Eastern movement” or “Israeli movement.”
Miller and Ben heavily emphasize their own approach to tap dancing; they call it “Middle Eastern movement” or “Israeli movement.” “Historically, tap dancing comes from African Americans,” says Ben. “The Middle East is part of Africa, somewhat part of Asia. All the movements come from the stomach down, not from the knees down.” Belly dancing and folk dancing, a significant part of the cultural fabric of the Middle East, stress the movement of the entire body. “Our Middle Eastern style fuses well with our tap style,” he adds.
Watch a class taught by the Israeli Hoofers and you’ll see a constant battle, often involving some good-natured kvetching, with students who don’t use their core while tapping. “We have found many wonderful dancers in jazz or hip-hop who move with their entire body,” says Miller. “But once they go into tap class, they suddenly become very limited—only dancing with the feet. We try to enlarge that by opening it up 180 degrees.”
Sometimes they don’t have to say a word to the students—a glare will do. “We call them dinosaurs,” says Miller, imitating a prehistoric reptile with tensed claws in the air that don’t move.
“And we don’t dance like Jesus Christ,” says Ben, sending up the students who tap dance with their arms stiffened into a crucifix position.
Miller’s theatrical roots began as a child actor; he played the part of Jody in the Israeli version of the television show A Family Affair. He started studying tap in 1972, at the age of 12, with the late Israeli master teacher Ya’acov Kalusky, who became his mentor and eventually his tap dancing partner. Miller performed to raise money for the troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and danced in operettas with the Israeli Opera. From the age of 13, he was teaching at Kalusky’s studio.
Ben, who is 13 years younger than Miller and was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, didn’t start studying dance until he was 17. “Tap is completely alien to many Orthodox Jews,” says Ben. “It took years for my parents to agree to come and see me dance.”
Within a year of their meeting, however, Miller and Ben opened their own studio in Tel Aviv devoted strictly to tap classes. In addition to the kids’ classes they offered 16 classes a week for adults at different levels. Eventually, they opened branches in Jerusalem and Haifa.
They began dancing as a team, “Miller and Ben—The Israeli Hoofers,” at various events from jazz festivals to celebrations honoring Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to bar mitzvahs. (At one bar mitzvah, they arrived to find wall-to-wall carpeting. Unfazed, they unhinged a door and used it as a minuscule stage.) “Please tell the readers we don’t do bar mitzvahs anymore,” says Ben.
Some of Miller’s unique philosophy about tap dancing education originates from his five years in the Israeli military. “My training was as an instructor officer,” says Miller. “Teaching teachers was my job. In the military you have to have the soldiers ready to go into action, even if they don’t want to.” (With some exemptions, all Israeli citizens are conscripted into the army for a period ranging from 21 months to 3 years.) Miller had to find creative ways to teach many different techniques and break things down into segments and ideas. “I was teaching extremely complicated stuff—like firing missiles. Rocket science is rocket science. I was teaching those techniques, so I incorporated that into the techniques of teaching tap.”
One important principle that Miller and Ben have gleaned from working with highly revered tap dancers and teachers is the concept of tonality, or what they call “sound quality technique.” Years earlier, Miller had studied sound engineering and discovered that the drums are among the most complicated musical instruments to record.
“The tap is a drum, very sophisticated and complicated,” says Miller. Over time, as tap dancers experimented with dancing on the three parts of the foot—the heel, the ball, and the toes—different sounds were emitted. “The heel has a heavier sound, like a bass drum; the ball of the foot is a snare drum, and the toes are like tom-toms,” explains Miller. “In advanced classes, you can take those three parts and work them in different ways, like the outside, inside, and front of the toes; the inside of the heel; or the dig of the heel.”
Getting tap shoes to make those kinds of sounds requires more than putting taps on street shoes. In Israel, purchasing the cheapest tap shoes was still comparable to buying Dolce & Gabbanas, because they had to be imported. A local Israeli shoe manufacturer asked Miller and Ben to help him manufacture decent shoes, but after the Palestinian uprising of 1999, when Palestinian workers were ousted from the country, production costs became too expensive. In 2003, on a teaching trip to Thailand, they found a shoe manufacturer who was passionate about producing good tap shoes. The result? Miller & Ben Tap Shoes, naturally.
“We investigated how to make a shoe from scratch,” says Ben. “Now we have 8 styles of shoes and 48 different colors and patterns. At conventions, people get freaked out by the variety.”
Their learning process drove Miller and Ben to study with master teachers in New York, and then in turn invite them to Israel to expand their knowledge. What resulted was the formation of one of their greatest passions: Tradition in Tap, Inc. Working in the studio with masters like Chuck Green, Honi Coles, and Jimmy Slyde made them want to help preserve the legendary performances and technical styles of the greats. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to keep the legacies alive through workshops (like the one last November that honored Ardie Bryant), performances, archives, and research, as well as to educate the public about this neglected aspect of dance history and to provide scholarships for talented students.
Coming from a part of the globe where emperors often wiped out history to create something new, Miller and Ben want tap dancing’s heritage to be respected. “So much of tap is not documented, and so many of those African Americans are gone now,” says Miller. “If you say the word ‘preservation’ to most Americans, they turn and walk away. There is nothing performed in tap that I have not seen already. See Bunny Briggs perform, for example. We have some new stars that are taking it to new places, but of that generation of masters, 95 percent of them are gone.” Eventually, Miller and Ben would like to create a tap dance museum in New York.
In 2002, Oklahoma City University held a ceremony bestowing doctoral degrees on nine tap dance masters: Briggs, Slyde, Leonard Reed, Fayard Nicholas, Henry LeTang, Cholly Atkins, Jeni LeGon, Buster Brown, and Prince Spencer. Miller and Ben were invited to dance at the honorary performance. “It was amazing taking this slave street dancing and lifting it to the shrine of the university level,” says Ben.
Miller and Ben set up a permanent base in New York in 1995 after taking a year’s sabbatical to study there. “We learned so much in that year,” says Miller. “It took us years afterward to process what we had learned. We were extremely lucky because that year we met some of the greatest performers on earth. Most of them passed on afterward.”
Their advice to teachers, especially tappers, is clear: Take time to learn. Travel if you can. “You can be a wonderful teacher, but if you don’t have anything else to talk about . . .,” Miller says with a shrug. “It’s important as a teacher to have knowledge of other walks of life. Tapping and nature are primal. It all comes from the same place, so get out into nature.”
The Israeli Hoofers incorporate humor liberally into their classes and performances to help students and audiences enjoy themselves. “We take tap very seriously as an art form, but we don’t take it too seriously. We see too many people looking miserable onstage,” says Ben.
“The reason we do jokes onstage is because we don’t have much to show when we perform,” says Miller with tongue in cheek. “I am getting very old and out of shape.”
Ben adds, “Plus, he keeps forgetting the steps, so we have to make up for that.”
In a world where war is omnipresent, especially in the Middle East, could tap dancing help promote peace? Miller thinks that historically there is a precedent. “Gangs on street corners used to challenge each other at tap dancing instead of wielding knives,” he says. “You see a lot of energy vented in tap dancing at competitions. Instead of having a war, if the Palestinians and the Israelis would go to a street corner and tap their way out, they could maybe come to an agreement.”
And, after 19 years of partnership, how do they handle their own conflicts? “All of our disagreements are settled peacefully, because Ofer owns 51 percent of the business, and I don’t want to be thrown out on the street,” says Miller.
Ben replies, “Two slaps and you move on.”