Rhythm Freak

What are those random clicks and scrapes doing accompanying a recording of "The Girl From Ipanema" at Gil's Café? Maybe those clips from the movie That's Entertainment projected on a screen above the stage are a clue. About half of the people eating or drinking at the tables wear tap shoes, absent-mindedly hitting their feet against the concrete floor.

It's Sunday night, and this little nightspot is filled with an atypically all-ages crowd: Scattered among Gil's Brazilian regulars and neighbors from North Beach, there are musicians with instrument cases and some high-schoolers from Kendall. An elderly couple in neatly pressed sportswear sits expectantly at the front table as a jazz trio takes the stage and starts to jam loosely, segueing into a Herbie Hancock tune. That's the cue for Ico Manzanero -- who wears baggy pants, suspenders, and a newsboy cap over his stand-up hair -- to leap onto a wooden platform in front of the musicians and start tapping. He initiates a rhythmic call-and-response with the drummer, laying his feet down hard and fast. As the music takes on a Latin tinge, Manzanero glides into his trademark salsa-tap style, and then punishes the parquet in a wild, shuffling stride.

Three, four, five more tappers take the stage. The young crew -- tap students who Manzanero calls the Tap Maniacs -- take turns soloing, challenging each other and the musicians with ever more complicated routines. The septuagenarian from the front table walks hesitantly to the platform, but is soon hoofing it up, singing and doing soft-shoe to "Take the A Train."

Bopping from the stage to the sidelines with a microphone in hand, Manzanero plays host. He whoops, cheers, raps, sings, and cracks jokes. "Come on everybody, show some love," he shouts. "And if you don't like it, run."

Manzanero's weekly jam session/tap slam is modeled after those the 25-year-old entertainer has frequented in Harlem. Venezuelan-born and Queens-bred, he is part of a generation of urban tappers bringing a fusion of new moves and hip-hop attitude to the traditional African-American dance form. The tap-dancing renaissance was inspired by Gregory Hines and initiated by Savion Glover, whose streetwise power tapping in the 1996 Tony-winning Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk reinvented the dance for a new generation. More recently, P. Diddy's penchant for tap has upped its cred with a younger crowd.

"Now a lot of girls and guys are like, 'Wow, you can look cool tapping,'" says Manzanero. "You can shuffle, loop, throw yourself in the sky, and do it in a way that you look cool. I think a lot of people are tapping now because you can tap to anything: hip-hop, funk, jazz. Tap has become more rhythmatic.

"One thing about tapping, you truly become a rhythm freak," he adds. "You get beats from radio, people shouting, cars passing by. When you see you can pick up any sound from the street and repeat it with your shoes, you really get addicted."

Manzanero, who cites Sammy Davis, Jr., Cab Calloway, and Hector Lavoe as his idols, taught himself to tap as a child by copying the styles he saw on old movies on TV. He incorporated some of his tap moves into the break dancing he was doing on the street. "It made me different," he remembers with a laugh. "The other kids were like 'Who's this guy? Is this Flashdance or what?'"

The dancer, who also took acting classes at a young age, soon got serious about tap. He studied with the respected tapper Luther Fontaine, and started showing up at New York's tap jam sessions, where the competition was rough.

"There's where you learn you have to put in three or four hours of tap dancing a day," says Manzanero, who sometimes practiced with friends on the Brooklyn Bridge after midnight.

In the late Nineties, Manzanero toured with the road production of Jelly's Last Jam. He later began tap dancing to salsa music, and performed with Larry Harlow's orchestra. He appeared with the Fania All-Stars in a show at Madison Square Garden.

"I don't want to be known as the salsa-tap guy," Manzanero cautions. "But one thing I want is to get across to the Latin people that tap exists."

Miami's Latin culture helped motivate Manzanero to move here a year ago, but he has since become connected with a diverse network of tap dancers from Homestead to Broward. He began teaching at In Motion Dance Studio's two locations, and it soon became apparent that his students and other local tappers lacked a forum. Manzanero searched for two months before finding a home at Gil's.

Finding musicians to play with him was another struggle.

"In the beginning people are like 'a tap dancer?'" he admits. "But when a musician can play for a tap dancer, he's already on another level; tap is a formidable instrument in its own right."

Manzanero was fortunate to hook up with bassist Leo Brooks, drummer Omar Tavares, and keyboardist Saulo Ferreira, who form a hot jazz trio that spars easily with the dancers.

In the near future, Manzanero plans to record an album that fuses jazz, hip-hop, and Latin rhythms, with tap as the featured instrument. And he's working on putting together a choreographed show. But on Sundays, Manzanero just wants to give Miami's tappers a place to shine.

"For me, tapping truly makes me feel like the happiest person in the world," says Manzanero, grabbing his microphone and heading to the stage for another round. "When they get up there [at the jam] and they do it, no matter what, they're going to get applause. I'm going to make sure they feel good."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Judy Cantor