When most people think of tap, they think of Shirley Temple or Gene Kelly—a theatrical, vaudeville dance. Audiences love that stuff, but Nemr said it’s not a form that gives space for tap to develop as an art. Nemr is more like a jazz musician, with his body an instrument. He keeps his taps “tight,” so the sound is clear when it hits the floor, not a looser tap that “jingles around.” Legs working, ankles loose, the weight concentrates in his upper body.
As jazz improvisation builds on blues scales, so Nemr riffs off a basic tap structure. At a recent TED conference he led a group of tap dancers in an improvised dance they managed to do in unison. In grittier corners of New York he also does live performances with jazz bands, bringing just his shoes and a small board to tap on. He used to perform every week with the jazz band the Cangelosi Cards in the packed back room of an Irish bar on Second Avenue.
“You’re dealing with vocabulary, a set of mechanics your body can do that’s part of a tradition. So that’s your language,” he said. “And then you’re using words which we tend to call steps, to create sentences, rhythmic statements, things that sound interesting, look interesting, hopefully create some sort of dynamic with the other people you’re playing with, who are watching and listening.”
Nemr has also managed to do a sermon while tap dancing, at Graffiti Church on the Lower East Side, where he and his parents attend. Speaking while tap dancing, he explains, is an old tradition. He thinks about tap as “speaking in tongues,” saying it’s a language that dancers often understand that the audience doesn’t, so he likes to interpret it verbally when he can.
His parents, who met at a youth group in Lebanon, fled Lebanon in 1976 at the beginning of the country’s civil war. They raised Nemr in the United States. His parents wouldn’t speak Arabic with him as a child because they didn’t want him to have an accent, but he speaks it now. His Lebanese immigrant identity has left him without an easy box to fit in. A press agent suggested he adopt a catchier name for his professional billings, but with the encouragement of Henry LeTang, another dance legend, Nemr stayed Nemr.
When he did a podcast interview with several artists of different ethnicities, the interviewer turned to him and asked for his take on their discussion as the “prototypical white male.” Nemr laughed: “Actually, I’m Lebanese.” Then, when people hear he’s Lebanese, they’ll often assume he’s Muslim: “I’ve gotten every confused identifier. … You end up being the person who can disequilibrate people, which is great so long as that serves a purpose.” The purpose? “Point them to Christ.”