One tap at a time
Where the arts and spirituality meet, this tap dancer-pastor’s moves inspire
By Mary V. Cass
Master tap dancer, pastor, TED Fellow, influential public speaker — how does Andrew Nemr make such a difference in so many roles?
In January 2018, Nemr received the Spirit of Windrider Award at the Sundance Film Festival for his unique talent in integrating his creativity as an artist with his ability to convey to a vast public the ideals of love, faith, and today’s need for contemplation.
Nemr was born into a Lebanese family that immigrated to the United States in 1976 after the outbreak of the civil war there. He was introduced to the world of dance at a very young age, mainly due to his parents’ desire to have him socialize with other children.
He soon began to excel in the craft. His advancement was strongly enhanced by being mentored by famous tap dancers, such as Gregory Hines and Savion Grover. Nemr soon developed a particular skill for this form of artistic expression that has led him to be considered as one of the most diverse tap dance artists today.
“Tap dancing is an oral tradition, so you need to be around people who incarnate the craft,” he shared. “From Hines and Glover, I was exposed to improvised tap, or rhythm tap, which allows dancers to express themselves, but from a common tradition where what is heard is just as important as what is seen.
“It’s like story telling. It has an audible aspect, which means it has a different kind of emotional effect rather than regular dancing or music. The purpose behind the tap dance is more important than dancing itself; this is where I find a framework for the spiritual.”
Nemr’s fame as a tap dancer grew, but at the cost of considerable wear and tear on his body. “At a certain point, when I was already running my own dance company in New York City and there was a lot of physical energy expended, I began to feel that if I was going to give up my body for something — to offer my life as a gift, it had to be for something that I felt profoundly called to.”
Soon after, a career counselor asked him, “What do you think you are supposed to be doing?”
Although he had never been involved in an institutional church, with tears in his eyes, he spontaneously replied, “I think I am supposed to become a pastor.”
During his formation as an evangelical pastor, his understanding of the relationship between spirituality and dance grew.
“I believe that art is a heightened experience of the human person, who is a spiritual being,” Nemr said. “As an artist I was always drawn to the communal expression of dance, one formed by the stories of a particular community, which can be expressed on a stage, but also on a street corner, or in a field. One of the ways I approach this art, which can be expressed to everyone, anywhere, is not so much as a creative endeavor but as a pursuit — a search to communicate what needs to be communicated to a group of people in a given moment.
“As in the preparation of a Sunday sermon, God can direct me to say through dance what he knows needs to be conveyed to a particular audience. This form of improvised dance, which is tap, gives me a lot of leeway to say to him, ‘What is it that you want me to say today?’
“As when I say a word in a sermon that was not in the text and that I had never said before, the same can happen in dance — I find myself performing a step that I had never done before. I believe it’s what God is saying through me in that moment to the audience.
“The exploration of the relationship between the beautiful creation of the body and its ability to do what I would call an ‘inspired move,’ without specific instruction or a calculated plan, is one of the aspects of a journey that I am on — something that gives me such joy.”
He feels strongly that God has brought into his life the people he needed — skilled mentors — and allowed him to have certain experiences in order to form him to do the work to which he was called with discernment and courage.
“I had no idea I would end up where I am today: a kid of Lebanese descent, from the suburbs, who ended up being grafted onto an Afro-American tradition (tap dancing) and becoming a pastor and public speaker. There is no other reason but for God.”
Nemr related a particular experience he had in Japan with a production crew filming his life story. During those days, he visited an ancient chapel on the Goto Islands, which marks the secret hiding place of the persecuted 16th century Japanese Christians. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and remain in silence, in quiet prayer.
Moved by God’s presence, he took off his shoes and silently danced his contemplation of the divine.
“When deep calls to deep, we are called to answer and we put aside worldly notions like tap dancers needing shoes to dance,” he said.
Clearly Nemr brings his unique expertise as a tap dancer to a deeper level. Today, running his own dance company and organizing shows doesn’t leave him much time to preach to a congregation. Instead he communicates his spiritual thoughts and stories while tapping out his moves, creating an experience of contemplation in motion for his audience.
I asked him what his artistic expression and his spirituality want to say to the world today, which often suffers from division and disharmony.
“I think my role, if there is one, is to create spaces where the conversations around the particular needs of a community or group of people that make up my audience can happen. My wish is that they can contemplate a vision of the future that is different from what we are experiencing now and feel motivated to take the steps needed to improve society.
“So often it seems that our culture is ripping apart with negative forces. If this is the case, then there must be forces that create the opposite, spreading unity and harmony.
“If everyone experiences joy in the same space, then they have a common experience, which is a stepping-stone to community. The framing of that space in which these values can be experienced as a community is a skill that I am always fine-tuning as a choreographer, director, and producer of shows.
“It also helps to know how people see you — if it’s only as a ‘star,’ well, you can change that perspective into something more: an experience that is healthy, positive, enduring and dynamic in that space you have created for them.”
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