Gerson Lanza uses dance as a form of expression, inspiring others to follow suit
Single-handedly responsible for breathing new life into the Wake Forest tap dancing community, junior Gerson Lanza is a student worth knowing. Coming to campus from Harlem, N.Y., by way of Honduras, Lanza is a History and Spanish major with a passion for tapping. Though many students may not even know of its existence, there is a Tap Club at the university led by Lanza, its president. He says the tap community here is not as vibrant as he would like, but he is seizing the opportunity to bring attention to the art form and leave his mark on campus.
Photos by Amanda Calderon / Old Gold & Black
When did you start tap dancing?
I started in 8th grade. But then my friend and I at the end of sophomore year [of high school] got a pair of tap shoes, and we started tap dancing and making choreography.
Then, we were taking it out to the streets and street performing.
That’s how I advanced and became more familiar, and got to meet a lot of people because of tap dancing.
What was your experience street performing in New York City like?
My friend Joshua [Johnson] had already been out to do it, so he said all right, this is what we’re going to do and then he set it off. We choreographed a step that was four minutes long, and then we would take it out.
I think we called it a tap express, and we would say, “Hey, my name is Gerson and this is my partner Josh.
Today we’re going to do something called the ‘tap express’ and if you like it, at the end of the show please clap your hands.”
And we’d do the entire choreography and say, “If you’d like to make any donations please feel free,” and then we’d go around with the little hats or book bags and collect the money.
How much money would you make?
The most money I ever made was about $250 in about an hour and a half.
Where did you set up?
We wouldn’t be standing there on 42nd Street with our wooden boards; we would be on the train tap dancing, so we were always on the move. We were on [the subway] and then the PATH trains, which is the train that connects New Jersey and New York City. The entire train was our stage.
Do you have any formal training?
A lot is self-taught but then I would take classes with other people.
My mentor stopped teaching at my school, but he still had his own studio.
My friend and I would pass by on Saturday and see if he could give us a little lesson, but it wasn’t consistent.
So my friend and I pretty much choreographed outside on this stage in New York City in the park. That’s how we got better.
I understand you studied at the Harlem School of the Arts. How did you get accepted?
One day Josh said, “I know this school over here called Harlem School of the Arts,” and then we were like let’s go check it out, so we went in. We didn’t ask any questions, we just went and looked at the studios.
We saw one that was open, so we put on our tap shoes and started shredding wood.
Then the dance director came down and saw us dancing. She said, “Whoa you guys are really talented.
Can you show me your step?” We pulled out the choreography we had together, and we showed her and she told us, “I want you guys to come here for free.” We’re talking about $700 worth of tuition for the Harlem School of the Arts, so we got in there for our entire senior year.
Did anyone in your family ever tap dance?
If I speak to my dad about what tap dancing is, his knowledge about it is really low because the tap dancing scene in Latin America is really, really low. Not a lot of people know about tap dancing, but we’re spreading out. Tap dancing as an art form is spreading out to Brazil, Honduras where I’m from, and Nicaragua. So tap dancing is trying to improve and expand its horizons.
Have you ever taken any dance classes here at Wake?
I’ve taken the tap class and it was different and I learned, but it’s something that I think could’ve been more [than it was].
How would you make it different?
As a teacher in a studio, I see people hide behind other people’s steps. If you’re going to do a pull back (a tap step), then give me a pull back. It’s hard but it just takes practice.
People would be hiding behind those steps, and then the teacher would just let them slide. If you’re not there, I don’t think you should pass the class.
If you’re not there a couple a times, you should pass, but after a while, a whole semester, what’s the point if you’re not learning and are staying behind other people’s steps?
You need to be getting the steps by the end of the semester.
What’s the tap community like at Wake?
Being as passionate as I am about tap dancing, it’s not where I would like it to be. There are about six people who are really like “I like tap dancing and I feel like I can say things through tap dancing,” and they are part of the tap dancing club. At the same time, when I give them something to reach for, they sort of keep themselves back. They’re just comfortable where they are, so I personally don’t like that.
In tap dancing, if you feel comfortable at any point, you’re not going to improve at all. The tap dancing community here is weak, but that’s the reason why I’m here and that’s the reason why I’m the president of the Tap Club. I can make it more present on campus and other people can be aware of it.
What role does tap dancing play in your life?
For me personally, it’s just being able to express myself and to create music with my feet. As tap dancers, we are musicians, we are percussionists. You not only look at what we do, but you also hear it at the same time, and there’s not a lot of dance that you can get that experience from. For me, it’s just expressing myself through an art form and making music.