Steppin' it up
Successful lawyer becomes a tap dancing pro
Glancing at Germaine Ingram's resume, "professional tap dancer" is the last thing you'd expect to see among her stacked credentials.
Ingram - an Ivy league graduate, law professor, litigation attorney, civil rights lawyer, and former chief of staff for the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia - was trained by, and dance partner of, one of Philadelphia's most celebrated tap dancers, LaVaughn Robinson. She's been showcased at countless shows, both locally and internationally. Tomorrow she'll perform at the Philadelphia Folklore Project's 2007 Dance Happens Here.
Philadelphia born and raised, Ingram graduated from Penn Law in 1971 and completed a fellowship at Harvard University shortly after. For 30 years she practiced and taught law. In 1994 she worked as general counsel for the school district, and later as chief of staff for Superintendent David Hornbeck.
It wasn't until her mid-30s that she performed her first time step and discovered her passion for tap dancing. She has been dancing professionally for 27 years.
"My last year in law school I started taking modern dance classes, and sort of continued either doing dance classes or mime classes," she said. "That was my physical cultural expression until I started tap dancing."
Out of pure boredom and curiosity, she decided to give tap dancing a try. She wandered around Philadelphia, taking classes here and there, but failed to find satisfying instruction.
"At that point I had no expectation of becoming a professional," Ingram said. "I just wanted to learn more about this art form."
She heard from a friend that a man named LaVaughn Robinson would be teaching a master class in West Philadelphia, and that she'd be a fool not to attend.
"It didn't take me more than a few minutes to say, 'OK, this is what I want to sound like and look like as a tap dancer,' " she said. "I just started harassing him until he agreed to teach me."
Robinson said yes, but only under the condition that they'd meet at 7 on Saturday mornings.
"I think that was his way of testing my commitment," Ingram said. "I don't know why he was convinced to spend his time teaching me."
Robinson - who grew up tap dancing on the streets of South Philly and performing in night clubs for loose change during the Depression - showed Ingram bits of routines, and eventually invited her to gigs to perform short numbers by his side.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do because she has talent," Robinson said when asked why he decided to mentor Ingram. "She was a good dancer when I met her, but she just needed some training."
One of their first big performances together was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1984, which focused on African-American urban folklife traditions. They shared the bill with disco kings and queens, stepping groups, gospel choirs and the Scanner Boys with international hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris.
"For two weeks we were there, sharing with people from the United States and from all over the world, the African-American folk traditions that are very much a part of the cultural legacy of Philadelphia," she said.
Passing on local and ingrained traditions from generation to generation happens to be a goal of Ingram's. As a member of the board of the Philadelphia Folklore Project for 18 years, she and the program aim to help people understand the importance of culture.
For Ingram's performance tomorrow, she and an ensemble of three dancers, eight musicians and one spoken-word artist will share the stage with Flamenco del Encuentro in a split show, linking the footwork of African-American and Spanish percussive dance traditions.
The piece she choreographed originates from the novel "!Click Song," written by African-American novelist, journalist, essayist, editor and educator John A. Williams. Tyrone Brown composed the music. Before this performance, Ingram had never choreographed a piece derived from text.
"It's been such an enormously fertile developmental process," Ingram said. "It took me in directions that were so much broader than the book itself. I ended up doing extensive reading on topics, issues and people who are suggested by the book that sort of jump off the page and sent me off in lots of directions."
Director of PFP Debora Kodish said Ingram's involvement in the organization is a way for her to connect her dance skills with her educational values.
"In everything that Germaine has done, her knowledge and creativity as an artist, and the value and skills of someone who is really committed to their education, Folklore has been a way for her to place with both sides of that," Kodish said. "In some ways we think of art as being one thing and cultural work or organizational practice to be another, but that's not always the case."
Ingram said it's hard for her to separate her civic and artistic goals.
"They all kind of come together, or at least I pretend they do," she said. "It gets really challenging to keep all of those balls rolling at the same time, but it helps to find the threads that connect them." *
Dance Happens Here, Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 8 p.m. tomorrow, $20. Includes post-show Q&A. Dance classes for $5 are scheduled with Ingram and members of Flamenco Del Encuentro earlier that day. To reserve a space, call 215-925-9914. More information at www.folkloreproject.org.