April 29, 2022

Los Angeles Times staff writer Howard Blume returned to the stage last weekend. It wasn’t for another investigative reporting accolade, but rather for a tap dance show he choreographed and pieced together. Blume, who comes from talented parents, has had a lifelong love for tap dance. And like other journalists, he’s managed to maintain his journalism career and carve out time for his passion. He covers education for the Times, teaches through Tap Dance with Howard and also choreographs dances.

Blume celebrated the opening weekend of “Hotel Tapifornia” with his performance group, the Tapitalists, last Saturday and Sunday. It’s their first show since the pandemic began. It continues this weekend through Sunday. Before his opening weekend, we spoke with Blume about his love for tap dance, journalism and how both coexist in his life.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

First, I’d like to congratulate you on your upcoming show, “Hotel Tapifornia.” How do you feel?

I feel pretty good. I’m at the stage of the show where I ask myself, “Why do I do this?” Because it practically kills me with everything that I’m putting together in the show. I hope people enjoy it. It’s a fun show and probably has more of a plot than some of our other shows, although it varies. Every show is completely different from the previous show — different music, different choreography, different approach — so that people who come to our shows more than once will get a very different experience each time.

The name of the show feels so familiar. Are you a fan of the Eagles, the band?

Yes. I wouldn’t say they’re my absolute favorite, but there are a couple of songs that I really like. One of the interesting things about the show is that we present an eclectic mix of music for choreography. In this show, we actually have a live jazz pianist to spice things up a bit, but most of the choreography is an eclectic mix of music that includes Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, who was a well known big bandleader, the Eagles, and also John Williams, the classical music and soundtrack composer. So that’s an interesting mix of music.

In these shows, we let people hear a variety of music, and also see how tap can be set to that music. The core of our tap is rhythm tap, which may or may not make sense to some of your readers but it’s similar in its heritage to jazz music and it owes a major debt to Black artists in the early and mid-part of the 20th century.

You’re an award-winning education reporter for the Los Angeles Times. How did you manage to put together a tap dance show around your job? I’m a former newspaper reporter and I know how grueling that job is.

I’ve learned over the years to be very efficient, and I don’t clean my house very often.

Oh, no. I understand. Is this your first show since the pandemic began?

It is. I have a side business — a dance school that specializes in tap dancing. In order to keep my time-consuming job at the paper going — and it is very time-consuming, as you alluded to — I’ve kind of automated the signup system for my classes as much as possible. People sign up online, and I just try to limit myself as much as possible to teaching and choreographing.

It takes some time to put a show together. Even if there had been a pandemic, I might not have produced a show any sooner than I’m producing. … We’ve actually been in masks since we moved indoors. I have a vaccine requirement for the tappers. For the show, I’m requiring all the patrons who show up to wear masks. And if they don’t have one, we will happily provide one. It’s just an odd time to put on a show.

In recent years, we’ve had topical references, sometimes satirical, to current events. That is somewhat true in this show. People who see it will recognize, in a gently satirical way, some nods at current events.

So like COVID humor, if that’s such a thing?

Well, not so much COVID humor. In this show, we poke some fun at people who oppose things they don’t understand, who oppose science and who present with anger to the world. For example, these extremists talk tough generally by making harsh, guttural noises, and parade around with signs such as “Ban Critical Space Theory,” “Annoy all immigrants,” and, “I’m angry. I don’t know why.” You can use your imagination to figure out what we’re poking fun at there.

I read that, in your show, a weary traveler stumbles on a dance oasis in the remote California desert, an area patrolled by a police force that has never detected this mysterious resort, where it seems everyone has a past. There’s a question of whether Hotel Tapifornia is real, or good, or bad. What was the inspiration behind this? 

This is going to sound very nonserious, but to be honest, me and my friends and relatives are always making puns with the word “tap” in them. I have a long list of potential show titles that involve a pun using the word “tap.” Even though that’s a game we play, once I settle on something, I have to turn it into a serious (show), in the sense of quality. Something that makes sense and holds together in a narrative way.

“Hotel Tapifornia” came up on the list, and I just decided I like that name. Once I had the name and idea for the show, I used some of the dances that I’ve been working on over a two-year period, and then I put the plot together. The plot will drive the creation of some of the additional dances.

That’s incredible that this kind of originated from a pun. Do you have any favorite tap puns? 

You caught me at 8:13 in the morning, when my brain is not quite as sharp as it should be. I thought about doing a show about various aspects of romance called “Love Taps.” That was one.

Can I just say, that is very punny.

Thank you. Thank you. I’ll pull up out my list and send you a couple.

I want to take it way back. What’s your earliest memory of tap dancing?

I grew up in a dance school operated by my mother, and so I don’t remember not tapping. Apparently, according to a report, I started when I was 4, and then I quit for a year. So that means my 5-year-old year was without tap.

Oh no [laughs]. 

That was a rough year all around for me. I’m lucky I ever made it out of kindergarten. On a side note, my only strength in kindergarten was that I was the best napper in class. But I had trouble tying my shoes. I still have a little trouble tying my shoes. It was a rough year.

Kindergarten’s tough.

But at 6, I resumed tap. My rebellion was actually tap because my mother was a ballerina and a ballet teacher, and she probably would have much preferred for me to pursue ballet. But I rebelled by being more interested in tap instead.

Your mother, Charlotte Blume, was a ballerina, and I read that she taught for decades from her studio in North Carolina. What can you tell me about her influence on your dance journey?

She made sure that I had good training when she saw that I had an interest in tap. She had a tap teacher, but she did not stop with her. … She made sure that I got to New York and Los Angeles to study advanced tap with people who are no longer around.

She could be a very difficult person, but she had a lot of integrity and believed in high standards. She was very committed to her local community. She is legendary in that region in North Carolina because she actually brought high-quality dance to the region. … She was like a big city talent in a small city.

Both my parents, in their own way, were very active in the civil rights movement. My mother refused to segregate her classes when she opened her dance school in the late 1950s. As a result, for close to two years, she had only Black students because the white students were boycotting her studio. But it broke down because everybody realized that they wanted to learn how to dance and there was only one studio in town that was offering this caliber of lessons.

What about your father, Dave Blume? I read about his life as a jazz musician and composer. Did that have an influence on your interest in the arts as well?

It did. Because if you think about it, tap dancing is a combination of the dance arts, but it’s also very musical and jazz-oriented. His musicality, his range of musical tastes, and his own musical ability were influential as well. Both my parents were very talented. They were not suited to remain together, and they both went on to better marriages eventually. But they were both extremely talented. My father was a fine jazz musician. I did one show a few years ago that was based on his jazz compositions and his arrangements that I did not discover until after he died.

Thanks so much for sharing that. I saw that you began teaching tap at age 14, at your mother’s dance studio. What was it like to teach so young? 

The teacher at the time — who was a wonderful lady and a great tapper — was getting older and struggling with certain aspects. I would be constantly helping her, which she appreciated, and she gradually turned the job over to me. It just felt normal because that was my life. If you grew up in a dance studio, you dance and then you teach. It didn’t feel strange at all. Teaching and choreographing have always been my focus.

I’ve performed a fair amount, but I just didn’t pursue a career in performing because that seemed a little sketchy to me. I preferred the solidity of a job in journalism. Little did I know what journalism would become. But at the time, it seemed that journalism was a career that offered more stability and I could still continue to teach and do it on my own terms.

I want to talk a little bit just about these past two years as a journalist. As a newspaper reporter, you’re on the daily grind. And being that we’re still in a pandemic, can you describe how these past two years have been for you as a journalist covering education?

It has been a challenging two years in that the education news and the pandemic news, in general, has never stopped. It felt a little that way during the Trump administration, where it seemed the news never stopped and there’s always something of momentous importance to write about. Of course, post-pandemic, it seems a little that way with the invasion of Ukraine and other things, but the pandemic was certainly a challenging time for education reporters.

The one thing I actually appreciated about this period was that I did not have to go into the office. I missed seeing my colleagues and interacting with them, because journalists are a very witty group of people and fun to be around, but I did not miss the commute. The truth is, the time that I used to spend driving, I spent working instead — so it was a very efficient year …

I think teachers and students have had it harder in a way, because there’s just been so much stress on teachers. They did not ask to do a job in which they had to work online all the time and not have direct interaction with people, which was the case for a while. They did not ask for a job in which they might have to put their life on the line, based on what we knew at the time. And students have been so harmed in their intellectual and social development, and that’s been difficult for families, too. Reporting stories has sometimes been a challenge because you meet people and you couldn’t go into their houses to talk with them, or take their picture. You would have to meet outside, you couldn’t see their faces behind the mask. So it’s been challenging, and most everybody has been working too hard. Not just me. I’m not a special case in any way, but it has been difficult.

And did you keep on dancing over these past two years? I imagine you did.

I did. It helps to have a dance studio [laughs] because I can go there and practice or work out and choreography all night, if I want to.

How do you juggle your journalism, work and dancing? How do you do it generally?

Generally, I tell my editor what my schedule is and she tries her darndest not to interrupt me during the relatively few hours a week that I’m teaching classes. She tries, and when she does interrupt me, I know that it’s something important. And my students understand that I have this other job. Once they are aware of this, they accept these brief interruptions and they keep themselves occupied just fine. I do most of my teaching on weekends, so if they need me to work in extra shifts at the paper, I asked them to schedule me for Saturday night or Sunday night because I teach during the days on Saturday and Sunday. And they’re willing to do that.

Are there any parallels between reporting and tap dancing? I know that might be a strange question.

There are, in a way. Both involve a fair amount of stamina and there’s an intellectual component to both, which I like, and a creative component to both. They complement each other fairly well, as long as they don’t kill you. The journalism work exercises one part of my brain, and tap and the physicality of tap exercise another part of the brain. It also gives me an opportunity to be an employee. I’m perfectly good being an employee. And an opportunity to be in charge of my own thing, which also has its benefits.

How has tapping informed your journalism? Or has journalism informed your tapping?

I think it goes both ways. I think being a tap teacher, and having been one for decades, gives me an understanding of what teaching is about — including dealing with students of different ability levels, motivations and backgrounds, and trying to make the class work for all of them, which is what teachers try to do every day. I think that has helped a lot. In terms of journalism helping tap, it just gives me a more sophisticated way of approaching the world as an artist. There are some artists who are very talented in their craft, but not that well-informed about the world, or about issues in the world. You don’t have to be, but if you are, it can lend an element of depth to the way that you approach your art.

Do you find you approach either one differently because of your familiarity with the other?

It also helps to be able to write about tap. On my website, I put some explanations about tap, I put some articles I’ve written about tap and tappers. My research and journalism skills have helped me become something of a historian about tap. There are some really talented people who’ve written books about tap, including a journalist in New York who’s written what I consider the best history to date — his name is Brian Seibert. When I used to have a radio show, I actually interviewed him for the radio show because I thought his work was so high quality. But I think part of what I’m doing in tap is keeping a tradition and history alive. It’s been important to me to study that tradition and to use my skills as a journalist, both to research that tradition and to write about that tradition.

Are you a journalist with a unique beat? Or did you work on a project or story that you think we should know about? We’d love to chat with you. Please email Amaris Castillo at acastillo@poynter.org and we may feature you on Poynter.org.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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