How one dance instructor is preserving the meaning and history of tap
What is the meaning of HOME?
Kayla Kissel speaks with Josh Nixon about his passion for the art of tap dance and how he tries to keep the artform alive and preserve its African roots and history.
Josh Nixon’s home isn’t a house or even a town, but rather a pair of metal-plated shoes. He found his passion through teaching tap dance and strives to preserve its rich history and cultural identity, which began from a place of oppression.
To Josh Nixon, everything in life has a rhythm, from the traffic on the street to a local barista steaming milk.
Nixon, who is 26 and lives in Davenport, said that he wakes up every morning following his own beat. It’s his philosophy.
“Rhythm is the language of life,” Nixon said. “I think, honestly, we could be at a much more peaceful place in our world if everybody just got a little rhythm in their life.”
It was his love for dance, rhythm and music that led Nixon to what he considers to be his one true home. It’s not a house or even a town. It’s his well-loved pair of metal-plated tap dance shoes.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, and the beautiful thing is that tap dance is always there,” he said. “So, if you’re mad at the dance, you can walk away from your shoes for a little bit and come back, knowing that it’s still going to be there where you left it.”
When he was 3, Nixon watched a production of Singing in the Rain, and soon after, his parents enrolled him in lessons.
“All I wanted to do was get up and dance with everyone,” he said. “We were sitting on the edge of an aisle as the actors would come down, I would try and climb up onto the platforms.”
He was very determined but faced criticism along the way. In high school, Nixon came face-to-face with a teacher who did not believe in his dream of tapping professionally.
“He looked right at me, and he said, ‘You’ll never make it. You won’t do it. The world doesn’t need dancers … Performers are a luxury,’” Nixon said. “I used that kind of as, like, the first real fire or ignition for me to push and do what I needed to do to accomplish my dream.”
Fresh out of high school, Nixon started teaching dance with a mission to keep the art and the history of tap alive, and pass on his knowledge to the next generation of dancers. As a white male, he said that he strives to honor various influences of tap, including roots in both Irish and African cultures.
“I think it’s hard to move forward as an artist and as a person who’s trying to carry on the traditions of the culture of tap dance if you don’t know the history,” Nixon said. “One of the best ways that I can do that is continuing to inform any student that I teach about the Black roots.”
Nixon taught his first master class at age 18 in Washington, D.C., and after moving to Florida, he held another master class at Raskin Dance Studio.
Since then, Nixon said that he’s worked professionally around the world. He’s performed in Europe, on several cruise ships, and with Chloe Arnold, an Emmy-nominated dancer and founder of the Syncopated Ladies in Los Angeles.
“People who say that tap is a dying art, they have just been looking in the wrong places,” he said.
He’s contributed to tap’s revival. In 2023, he organized and launched the first-ever Central Florida Tap Festival hosted at Raskin Dance Studio, which dozens of people attended.
What Nixon focuses on now is his approach as a teacher. In the last eight years, he’s taught at over 10 dance studios.
Kevin Marmol, a 24-year-old dance teacher based in Virginia, said that Nixon was his inspiration.
“As Josh’s student, I observed him for many years and his determination and perseverance has motivated me to be the best tap dancer I can be,” Marmol said. “Because of him I became a tap teacher myself.”
Nixon said that, besides the technicality and musicality of the dance, he also teaches the history.
During the Triangle Trade from the 1500s to the 1700s, Europeans took African people from their homelands and brought them to colonies for labor.
The enslaved preserved their cultural identity from home, often through the musicality of song or through percussion-based instruments. In fear that the enslaved were trying to organize, plantation owners banned drums. This is how body percussion was born.
“Tap dance came from a place of oppression. It came from a place of need. It came from a place of needing to keep culture alive,” Nixon said.
He said that he knows he is only able to tap because of the people who came before him. It allows him to continue tapping to the rhythm of life.
“I think that when people start to find their own rhythm and what that means in their own lives, respectively, they can get guided towards home and whatever aspect that means for them.”
Kayla Kissel is a junior at the University of Central Florida. Her passion is broadcast journalism and she hopes to one day work on longform documentaries. In the spring of 2024, she will intern as a reporter at 89.7 WUSF, Tampa’s NPR station. Previously, she was a Florida Road Trip production intern at WUCF, Orlando’s PBS station. Kayla is from Ft. Lauderdale and loves to relax with her cats.