Ready for breathtaking wings and fast pullbacks? Thomas Wadelton uses his feet to set up an exhilarating rhythmic tension, making interesting patterns with a melody flowing underneath. You never know what he is going to perform but if you listen carefully you will hear the story of mysterious love, a mad scientist and a brave marine biologist quietly swimming with sharks.
coverphoto: Tamara Pinco
Heels are drumming, arms are swinging and Thomas Wadelston’s characteristic hair bun is bouncing. It is Easter in Stockholm and the Stockholm Tap Festival in on. The cascade of taps stops as Thomas grabs the audience’s attention. His feet slip into caressing the floor in circles, creating a sweeping sound, followed by an affectionate flurry of taps. He works quickly and smoothly, ending the phrase by pulling up high and flashing off a turn. I get the feeling that he’s trying to tell me something. No matter how impressive ninety million taps a second can be, Thomas’s slim figure, secretive smile and green shoes makes me listen carefully. He is cheerfully whispering and it teases my ears; it’s a tune I ́ve never heard before and it makes me wonder: what is his secret?
Rhythm tap is a complex art form. I didn’t have a clue how hard it is until I tried it myself. In order to stay with the beat, and be able to do the things that you think you want to do, you first have to develop complete control of muscles you normally never use. Thomas knows it all. He ́s been practicing the ABCs of tap since he was a kid. Surrounded by great oceans, kangaroos and a loving Aussie family, he was an active kid with dreams realistic to his young heart. His mom often asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up and the answer was the same every time: a tap dancer, a marine biologist or a mad scientist.
– Strangely, even before I was old enough to really know what tap was, my answer didn’t change much over the years. I did know how to make a lot of noise and I loved the idea of swimming with fishes and sharks and could definitely see myself mixing potions in some castle, Thomas recalls as I catch him for a chat between classes at the Stockholm Tap Festival.
It is a beautiful spring day in late April and the venue is full of chattering as Thomas lets me in on his story. He has the same deep rippling laugh and secretive smile as when he performs. He radiates joy in a brilliant teddy-bear-like way, as if he is carrying a pleasant secret.
– I don’t know what it is, Thomas laughs and continues:
– I love magic and that’s what I look for in everything I do. I like to think that it issomething extraordinary in the world, probably it’s already right here. I feel it the most when I ́m dancing and improvising.
Thomas was four when he asked his parents to put him in one of Melbourne’s local dance schools. He tried various disciplines, including ballet and jazz, but tap dancing was his favorite. To him, it was about making sounds, like a kid with a drum set, and he was devoted. At twelve he chose a new dance school, with a competitive approach. The other students, mostly girls, were amazing and he recalls how they could do crazy things like wings and fast pullbacks. The Australian entertainer and tap dancer, Christopher Horsey, made another great impression.
– He was probably the first other man I ever saw tap dancing. He had me dance to Prince and showed me videos of Sammy Davis Jr.
Thomas was excited to meet the dancers who inspired him and when the first Melbourne Tap Festival was around the corner in 2005, he was counting the hours until he’d have the opportunity learn from them. Unfortunately, two days before the event, he fell off his skateboard and broke his ankle.
– I went to the festival on crutches but it still blew my mind seeing Jason Samuel Smith and Grant Swift. Grand Swift was a teacher of mine for many years after that and he was a big influence. One of the strangest and most wonderful people I know, Thomas says and mentions Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia as sources of inspiration too.
During his teens, Thomas was annoyed with having to learn math and grammar in school. He felt that every moment not dancing was time wasted. Why couldn’t he just dance all the time? At eighteen he was finally done with multiplication tables and moved to Austin, Texas. World-renowned Acia Gray, the Tapestry Dance Company’s artistic director, invited him to join her full-time professional tap dance company.
– It was great. I owe a lot to the teachers and brilliant dancers who I shared those three years with.
Today, Thomas is a freelance performer, teacher and music maker, consistently working and traveling the globe. He has taught workshops and has had the chance to share his knowledge in many places.
– I’ve been lucky so far. I feel very fortunate and I’m thankful for the opportunities that have been given to me.
What do you look forward to this coming year?
– I would love to perform every day, until I get sick of it. And I would love to play with a band, maybe tour with a variety show or circus. I feel like I ́m asking a lot but performing is my favorite thing to do at the moment. I think of Nina Simone and Sammy Davis Jr., constantly working. That’s what I have to do too.
When asked what tap dancers he is inspired by today the answer comes quickly; Thomas can’t get enough of seeing clips of the old timers, like Bunny Briggs and Baby Laurence, two of the great improvisers in the 1940s and 50s. They approached tap dancing as another instrument in the jazz ensemble. They based their rhythmic patterns on a melody strain, created changes in syncopation and told a story by building up rhythmic tension, creating poetry with their feet. Jimmy Slyde mastered the art form too and he is another source of inspiration for Thomas.
– I love to see people who look like themselves and who move like themselves, which is not an easy thing to do.
When you teach, what knowledge do you wish students to leave your classes with?
– I would like to see them enjoy tap dancing, especially improvising. I don’t think there is any prerequisite for this, you don’t have to wait, you just do it. It’s an essential part of jazz and it’s my secret pleasure to watch people who just recently began dancing improvise. Usually, they are the ones who are the most free.
Does knowing how to dance Lindy hop make you a better tap dancer?
– I think it does! The more I watch old dancers and see how they move, even not dancing, just walking or moving through space, I can tell what music they listen to. I see this more in swing dancers than in tap dancers these days. That’s just how it has evolved. I don’t know Lindy well but I enjoy dancing it and it has been my interest for the last couple of years, the movement feels natural to me. It’s been a search of mine–because I don’t come from American culture, from the black tradition of tap dance–I’m trying to understand the root of things, understand it as a folk dance. It makes so much sense to me, to see people social dance and doing these jazz movements. It has a general flavor to it, it’s exciting and to me it feels old.
Why is the history important?
– It gives us grounding, keeps our feet on the earth and for me it makes the dance meaningful, not just shuffling and flaps. When you know the stories and the music, it’s suddenly a treasure chest and very rich, it is very real. What makes improvising so exciting is that you feel such a deep connection to the past, but also to the present and the future. It’s very fulfilling.
What experiences in your life have had an impact on your dancing?
– Being in love, that’s the nicest one. It’s kind of the primal emotion. Somehow all emotions translate into the dancing. Tapping seems to be the medium I have, the paint I use at the moment. I feel that ́s the most natural expression to me.
Are you in love?
– Yes! But I can’t say more, it’s complicated, but I do find it enriching.
Thomas wraps up the interview with his secretive smile. He leaves me with a paper full of notes and a confirmation, realistic only to a vivid heart:
– I do kind of feel a bit like a mad scientist when I do my dancing. Improvisation and tap dancing to music is a bit like mixing chemicals and different ingredients, you never know what is going to happen.
FACTS ABOUT: Thomas Wadelton
Home base: None, Thomas is constantly traveling for work
Family: A mystery love and family in Melbourne; mom, dad, and a brother. Work: professional tap dancer, performer and storyteller