A surprising stage for dance: The subway platform
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A surprising stage for dance: The subway platform
The tap dancer Ja’Bowen performs at the Delancey Street/Essex Street subway station in New York, March 19, 2023. The dancer brings his art underground, where kids learn steps, commuters dance along and his energizing performances are bursts of joy. (Angelo Silvio Vasta/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- You can tell when Ja’Bowen is feeling a song. The grounded power of his feet — whether tapping delicate, whispery notes or hitting rhythmic patterns with ferocity and speed — enlivens an unassuming place: a subway platform.

But beyond his sleek and supple feet, there is simply his presence. With rigor, elegance and humor, he takes the craft of tap seriously while disarming the crowds that pass through his impromptu theater.

Stumbling on Ja’Bowen is like uncovering a New York City art secret. The lucidity of his body and the music that it produces are steadying forces in an unpredictable space. For months now, this Chicago transplant has been bringing quality tap to the uptown F platform at Delancey Street/Essex Street.

What he creates with taps and a wooden board — his portable stage — is a reciprocal experience. His dances are containers for waves of energy that pass between him and a crowd. He is a dance artist who makes people smile. Of all ages. In the subway.

“I get real hyped, and then the audience gets real hyped, and then I lay back a little bit and the audience gets a little quiet,” he said. “It’s like a tennis match going back and forth.”

His improvs often start slowly. “If I’m being honest,” he said, “sometimes people aren’t paying attention or could care less that I’m down there.”

When a dancer, or really any performer, needs too much love, I tend to look the other way. Ja’Bowen is different. He can seem lost in his own world, dancing for himself until he feels the people around him drawing closer, looking — taking a break from social media to watch a live performance. That’s when he sends his energy out to the crowd.

Ja’Bowen knows audiences love it when he dances fast, but his preference is to sit back in the pocket, to swing. His internal focus — the way he listens and reacts in this unprotected space of strangers — is a vulnerable display of deep body-mind awareness. And while his musical sensitivity starts at his feet, it doesn’t end there. He dances with his entire self. He likes to play with the levels and emotions in music.

Ja’Bowen hails from a tap family in Chicago, where his older brother and a friend started the collective company M.A.D.D. Rhythms in part to give Ja’Bowen, then a teenager, something to do. Ja’Bowen joined the percussive-forward group with no formal training. Once he became proficient enough, he started performing in the streets.

“That’s what really developed my talent more than anything else,” Ja’Bowen said. “You build the skill in rehearsals, but performing is a different thing.”

If a train is a minute or so away and he’s done with his number, he’ll pick up his mic and invite kids on the platform — they watch him in awe — to learn a step. “I’m inviting the kids up, and I’m wishing everybody a good day and that’s intentional,” he said. “You know, more than tap dancing, I’m working to bring some good energy to the city, to the moment where I am.”

That idea is proven again and again. “Hey, tap dancer!” a woman cried out from the opposite side of the platform one day. She wanted to know where to find him on Instagram.

Where does his inspiration come from? Ja’Bowen, also an actor and musician, draws a lot from Jimmy Slyde for the way he used tap as a way to connect with an audience, as well as Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines. “It’s not just their footwork but their presentation,” he said, “the way they talk to an audience when they’re onstage, the way they stand still.”

Tap, he added, is like music. “The notes that you’re not playing also have just as much importance as the notes you do play.”

In the subway, there is no fourth wall to break. Commuters talk to Ja’Bowen about their day. They ask for directions. They tell him how much his performance moved them. Men have cried. “I think it’s because I’m being so open and vulnerable with the way that I’m presenting my art,” he said. “Little interactions really mean a lot because I feel like those are the things that make you know your art is really art. It’s touching people.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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