A Conversation with Michela Marino Lerman

By Abena Koomson-Davis

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Conversation, like life, is polyrhythmic. On a November evening, Michela Marino Lerman and I were rhythm-a-ning1 on a Zoom screen. What follows is the reprise: an assembly of my questions, Michela's responses, and my experience of Michela and Love Movement's performance at National Sawdust.

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Days before our conversation, I took a tour of videos, articles, and photographs of Michela and her work. I was pulled into the multi-layered, multi-directional world of tap. One word kept coming up for me: topography. I tell Michela this. We speak about the layers of her work. “Tap can embody depth and substance, culture, and history beyond any surface level entertainment value. I think it still catches people by surprise, even with the work of all the masters that have come before me.” She shares about the challenge of getting audiences, or whoever is witnessing, to think beyond the limits of their knowledge of tap.

Photo by Jill Steinberg

I share about the first time tap moved me: Gregory Hines on Sesame Street. Her voice is ignited at the mention of him. “I mean, Gregory is directly responsible for the life path that I chose. He was revolutionary as an artist and advocate for improvisation and improvisational tap dancing. He shed light on so many incredible Black tap dancers that didn’t get the recognition they deserved throughout their careers. So when he made the movie ‘Tap’ (and other films) he brought them all on. That activism was inspiring. So was his advocacy for proper sound amplification and flooring for tap. It's not something most people really know about…but as tap dancers, it's a very big deal to us.” On a more personal note, Michela speaks of his humanitarianism. “He was the kindest, most accessible, and generous person. You know, at 13 years old, I could email him at 11:00 at night, and get an email back 20 minutes later! Gregory Hines!! He cared about me and whatever silly question I had. It changed my life. It’s still so emotional. He's no longer here.” She takes a beat. “Yeah. He just means everything. A real champion of tap…of being human."

Photo by Jill Steinberg

There are four tap floors. Three downstage and one upstage. Michela goes to the one upstage between the bass and the horn section. As sounds fill the room, I close my eyes, and hear the ‘boom pa pa mpa’ of talking drums of my homeland Ghana, and lands beyond. I open my eyes, and here is Michela etching, soaring, pounding, sowing, grounding, and flying rhythms in all directions. All at once: the cadence of history and culture, the swing of joy and striving, the polyrhythm of every heartbeat in the room, all of us surrounded by the pulse of ancestors and those yet to come. 

Photo by Jill Steinberg

Of her roots Michela says, “Ancestrally, I come from such a mixed background. My ancestry is Italian, Ukrainian, Egyptian, and Amazigh…who are an indigenous North African tribe, Turkish, and Persian. You know…it's a lot! I've written music that pays tribute to some of that ancestry. The perseverance is the most poignant. Every group that I have flowing through my blood has persevered through heavy stuff, and fought with each other. To try and find peace within that is a testament. I think about my ancestors, even the ones whose names I don't know, who still make themselves so present in my life. I try to recognize them and honor them as much as I can."

Photo by Jill Steinberg

"I wrote a song called ‘Moor to Life,’ but I wrote ‘M-o-o-r' for the Moorish history in the Mediterranean. It was influenced by Gnawa, which is music from Morocco. I've been digging deeper into Gnawa music and North African culture. There's a percussive dance called Gnawa Foot Dance, and when I saw that, I was like…Oh my God, everything just makes sense!” The pitch of Michela’s voice rises in delight. “Everything makes sense and it just clicked in me. It rooted me to what I do in a way I have never felt before, and it's good to feel that connection, you know?”

Along with Michela, the three tap dancers (Orlando Hernández, Melissa Almaguer, and Tommy Wasiuta) concur on and off beats in conversation. They rise, fall, turn, swing, sway, and rock steady on the tap floors. Russell Hall’s full, rich bass notes stretch the soundscape wide across the horizon where Miki Yamanaka’s piano shimmers at the edges. Ahmad Johnson’s percussive tapestry weaves in and through the dancers’ melodies. The frontline of Alphonso Horne (trumpet), Griffin Ross (tenor saxophone), and Rashaan Salaam (trombone) lift us into a chorus of call and response as Shenel Johns’ lush, amber vocal tones bring message and melody together. Love Movement is topographical. It is spiritual, inspirational, and improvisational.

“The hope of reaching people and allowing them to see something of themselves in whatever we're presenting. Here I am. I am blessed to be on this stage doing what I love to do…for you. You've come and paid your admission, and I don’t want it to just be surface level. I want someone to be able to feel the experience within themselves. Hopefully, it does something for them, and then pays itself forward."

I ask Michela about the link between improvisation and building relationships. “I’m an advocate for improvisation as life, because it’s rooted in having trust…ultimate trust in yourself, in the universe. So I often find it funny when improvisation is looked at as something separate, because everything is improvisation. We're improvising this conversation right now! People don't realize they're doing it, and I want to say, ‘You're doing it! You're doing great! You’re making it through life!’ Improv is not this scary, scary thing. For example, if you do something incredible that makes the moment come to a climax and explode, all your band members can respond and build that moment up even higher. Or if you have a moment where something falls flat, you have people around you to respond to what you're doing. And sometimes a mistake can become a more magical thing. It takes a direction you didn't even expect. So it's all about finding people who are on that vibration with you, and willing to go on the journey through a performance, a rehearsal, building your repertoire, whatever. When I choose people to work with, I choose them because I like what they bring to the table. They will shine…not so they can outshine the rest of the bandstand. It will be a collective shining, a collective uplifting. Often with dancers, I'll give them a chunk of choreography, and say, ‘That's the skeleton. Now, add something. Embellish it. Make it yours.’ I really try to cultivate that, because when you step back and you listen to it, it sounds great. Our rehearsals are filled with so much rhythm…rhythm just pouring out of the walls. And lots of support. Lots of laughter, lots of hugs, lots of joy, and lots of support all around.” Michela and I nod our heads in sync and burst into gleeful laughter. Her energy transmits effortlessly, even on a Zoom square.

In fact, synchronous outbursts of laughter have been a refrain throughout the interview. I share with Michela that I am reminded of a powerful line written by the poet Toi Derricotte, “joy is an act of resistance.” The color of her voice grows more round. “Tap was born out of a horrible moment in history where drums were outlawed as a response to revolts by enslaved African people. The drum rhythms were the actual plans for a rebellion. And the rebellion was so successful, it scared plantation owners and led to the outlawing of those drums. Those rhythms, and all that music, never left the psyche and never left the spirit. It just transferred to the body…the feet and the ground…and became tap dancing. So, I mean, if that's not joy as an act of resistance right there, I don't know…what else is that? Tap is the pinnacle of that idea, and jazz is essentially the same trajectory. That's what I have to say about them as art forms…and then for myself…the show we did at the Joyce Theater earlier this year, was rooted in trying to tell my story as a survivor of sexual abuse and assault through my art. It's a similar notion of not letting that experience tear me down and tear me apart, but to arrive at a place of joy. I love the idea of the balance of life and death and rebirth and allowing that cycle to be what it is, to celebrate and acknowledge it. To not be afraid."

I ask Michela what sustains her as an artist. 

"Hope. The hope of reaching people and allowing them to see something of themselves in whatever we're presenting. Here I am. I am blessed to be on this stage doing what I love to do…for you. You've come and paid your admission, and I don’t want it to just be surface level. I want someone to be able to feel the experience within themselves. Hopefully, it does something for them, and then pays itself forward. You know, there’s no shortage of overwhelming information of how to be, how to look, disasters going on in the world…So it's also about pointing out the power of kindness. Healing is no small feat, and it gets overlooked so often. It takes strength to continue to be a nice person in this world, to continue to fight for positivity and joy. There’s power in softness, stillness, and vulnerability. It makes me think of a tree.” She gestures to pull down roots and stretch limbs. “A tree is balanced in its darkness and its light. Hope sustains me when someone comes up to me after a performance in tears and just thanks me. I know I've done my job. I know that all the tears I've had behind the scenes or fighting to put something up has been worth it, even for just one person." 

In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston writes, “there are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I ask Michela which one this is. 

She leans back. “Ohhh, man!” Half laughing, half incredulous, she exclaims,“I don't know how to answer that question…If you knew how this year has gone for me…” She laughs even harder, then settles into a smile. “It's answered. I have new questions now, you know? But this year answered a lot of questions from my past. I have to stand for what I feel and believe. Now the new questions are like, now how do we do this part? We got here…now what?”

The night of music finally comes down. Love Movement is singing. We are singing back to them as one by one, they exit offstage and back behind the curtain. The song that remains is the one we are singing to each other, an audience of friends and strangers, adults and children, artists and witnesses. Tonight, I am one of the people Michela was talking about, moved by the artistry of tap, and the richness of improvisation. Just beyond the horizon, I await the stories Love Movement has yet to tell.

1. Rhythm-a-Ning is a 1957 composition by Thelonious Monk which appeared on the album Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk. I invoke both Monk (piano) & Blakey (drums) as rhythmic innovators of their respective instruments.

About Abena Koomson-Davis

Abena Koomson-Davis is a performer, educator, and wordsmith. She is the Musical Director for the Resistance Revival Chorus, and Chair of the Ethics Department in the Middle Division at Ethical Culture Fieldston School.