Rhythm is Life – Percussive Dance at Little Island’s Music & Dance Festival

by Liana Wilson-Graff

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Percussive Dance at LITTLE ISLAND’S MUSIC & DANCE FESTIVAL 2022 (NYC) revived every audience member when choreographers, dancers, and musicians came together on a sweltering July night through the communal energy of grooving and “percussing,” in Little Island’s idyllic amphitheater overlooking the Hudson River at Pier 55. The 10-day festival, co-curated by Little Island Artists-in-Residence Ayodele Casel and Michael McElroy, along with Torya Beard celebrated blues, jazz, hip hop, soul, Broadway and more.

Featured artist Luke Hickey, a NYC-based tap dancer/ choreographer, expressed how rare it is to see one bill completely dedicated to percussive dance. As a dancer myself this was something I did not realize, but instantly understood as the performance broke down all walls between audience and performer in a way only percussive dance could; rhythm is life and we feel that in our bones. 

Hickey pointed out the major success of the show was due to the hard work that went into the sound setup. Without crystal clear sound a percussive dance show does not work. Little Island’s outdoor show not only had sound that picked up the most understated drag of a bare foot, but did so outdoors in downtown New York City. Hickey said a show like this one ensures a long life for the percussive dance genre. The strong five-act Percussive Dance not only reminded us of the inherent attraction we have to rhythm and movement, but also made a special point of authentically honoring the many different cultures that have developed, mastered, and sustained their own percussive dance forms for generations. 

Brinae Ali (left) & Oludaré Bernard (right) performing “SONGS FOR OGUN”

Choreographer, dancer, singer/songwriter, Brinae Ali kicked off the clear opening, accompanied by singer, drummer, and dance scholar Oludaré Bernard. Their words and bodies enveloped the show’s two key themes: paying homage to the ancestors and legends of the genre, and finding connections between global forms of percussive dance. In constant reference to the traditional West African Yoruba religion, Ali and Bernard opened the show dressed in all white, in reverence to the African roots of what America knows best as “our own” percussive dance — tap. Bernard told us about Ogun, a warrior, and spirit of iron — that which makes a drum boom and a tap shoe click. Quickly Ali hiked up her long dress to reveal white tap shoes that, paired with her West African movements and Bernard’s drum, set the tone for the night with a poignant representation of diaspora.

In the second act, Barkha Dance Company shone in a technically complex, but endearingly theatrical kathak piece highlighting the sound produced by rhythmic spoken word, their bell-clad feet slapping the ground. The group then gave us exactly what we needed in a second piece. I could sense jaws dropping at the technical prowess and lightning speed of the dancers as they held up their live rhythms to a strong and dynamic composed piece playing through the speakers.

Barkha Patel Dance Company

In the third act, Luke Hickey, along with a three piece band, and dancers Jackson Clayton and Thomas Wasiuta, delivered an enchantingly cool tap performance of a whopping five pieces, each with their own unique energy. His collection called us back to a different time but with a modern flow; reminiscent of a fantasy number in a movie musical from the 40s or 50s but with an ease and integrity that reeled you in without relying on cheesy and overly theatrical tropes from that era. Moments that brought this to light were in the eye contact between musicians and dancers, beats of stillness, and the way Hickey and his dancers allowed their bodies to fall in natural ways as their feet flew. In contrast to moments where strong and articulated upper body movements stood out. Hickey described his pieces as offerings to the youth as we navigate our passions in ever-present instability.

Next, Soles of Duende took the stage and blew our minds with an explosive and important performance. Backed by a percussionist Okai Musik, trumpeter Ryan Stanbury and guitarist AJ Jagannath, tapper Amanda Castro, flamenco bailadora Arielle Rosales and kathak dancer Brinda Guha are the ultimate examples that all forms of percussive dance and dancers connect through their intersecting art forms and their strong adherences to culture. Through unparalleled vocal and physical energy, these three percussive masters owned their genres while taking the time to “find the pocket” where their forms connected.

And, as a last interlude, Brinae Ali stayed true to her message of paying homage, doing so quite beautifully and clearly to her mentor, and tap legend Mable Lee. As we all chanted Miss Mable Lee’s name, Ali interpreted Lee’s recorded words playing in surround sound through her own extremely unique variety of tap movement. In painful ecstasy, Ali followed the sound of Lee’s voice offstage in genuine search as we remained with the simmering feeling of legacy’s power.

Max Pollak (left), dancers & orchestra

Max Pollak and his ensemble, accompanied by an orchestra, closed the night with three pieces that showed off his signature style “RumbaTap”, alongside his talent as a musician. In the first and second pieces, the dancers used every part of their body possible to produce polyrhythms. Pollak not only did his own clave, but made the instrument’s signature popping sound with his own two hands. Closing the night with a message well received by all, Pollak and ensemble sang and danced to an original song “dedicated to immigrants around the world ” titled “Ser Humano”. Just like Pollak’s song, Percussive Dance at Little Island proved that rhythm is a communal force prompting us to act in whatever way calls us most; at a venue like this one that feeling is even stronger.


Little Island, New York City, a new public park in Hudson River Park by W. 13th Street, began performances for the second annual 2022 Music & Dance festival on Wednesday, July 20. The sound and movement focused festival will run July 20-31, 2022. The majority of festival programming is free and tickets for select events in The Amph are on-sale now at littleisland.org and tdf.org.

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