“Tap Dance is life, it’s expression, and it’s my therapy. It’s not just a job, but a way of life. I walk in tap dance and talk in rhythm.”
- Maurice Chestnut
Maurice Chestnut is someone that truly embodies the messages they stand for. Initially when you watch him dance, you’re amazed and curious about how so many rhythms can come out of feet that move with ease.When Maurice performs, he has this subtle ease that draws you in. He might appear to be in his own world, but he is fully aware of his audience. There is knowledge and knowing in his happy feet.
Maurice grew up in Newark, New Jersey and began tap dancing at the young age of five years old. Even at his young age, his mother recognized his love for music and wanted to push him towards opportunities that the bad neighborhood he grew up in would take him from. He went from banging on pots and pans in the kitchen to playing drums, violin, and piano at Newark Community of The Arts. Regardless of being gifted at a young age, Maurice’s real love and focus on tap dance came later in his ninth grade year. “I wasn’t a fan of [tap dance] until I saw what I could do with it and how I could reach people with it. It was in ninth grade when I started dancing in a dance company professionally – it was just a different thing.” He started dancing in a company called New Jersey Tap Ensemble under the direction of Deborah Mitchell. Maurice often credits her as one of his biggest mentors; while also recognizing how each of his mentors led him to his next.
It was at one of these performances that Savion Glover witnessed Maurice’s talent and asked him to audition for one of his shows. That show was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, which was nominated and won in multiple categories at the Tony awards in 1996. This opportunity was a turning point for Maurice in how he viewed the trajectory of his professional career. At just eighteen years old, he didn’t fully know that this was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life– until he saw Savion Glover up close and personal. Someone at the top of their game being able to travel and make money doing what they love – that the struggling artist story wasn’t the only way.
Maurice has a hunger for honing his craft and is committed to being a life-long student. “There is so much to learn and so much to do. I’m learning every day.” Maurice recognizes how influential the teachers in his life were and he has a heart to be just as influential for the next generation of dancers. Growing up in a rougher neighborhood, he was often considered nerdy for his musical talent and abilities — tap dance had been seen as this “corny” thing where he was growing up. Maurice is aware of the nuanced barriers that come up when trying to get youth into the arts. His belief and practice of going up against these barriers is education. He knew that the best way that he could reach the youth was by going straight to the schools – even doing presentations to as young as elementary schoolers.
“When I went into schools I let them know that this was morse code… when they took the drums from slaves, they needed to communicate. It’s never been a “sell out” type of talent or performance– it’s always been communication. Education is important because people can be willingly ignorant about tap dance.”
Maurice has such respect for the art form of tap dancing and his creative expression is limitless. No stage is too big or too small for him. If you look up “Maurice Chestnut Tap Dancer”, you will find stage showcases but even more performances of him out in the community. During COVID, Maurice began creating more shortened performance videos on location in partnership with a friend who was a great videographer. They had a goal to engage the community and didn’t want “to be in a dance studio all the time but to show people that we do this in life and really bring people together.” While he credits his influences in tap dance – legends like Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, The Nicholas Brothers, Ralph Brown etc; he also credits life as being the thing that inspires him the most in creating new art. Relationships, the weather, or even a student in one of his classes can inspire an idea that transforms into a beautiful song… a captivating dance.
With life being at the center of his creative process; there is an understanding and humble acceptance that it’s not only the good things that inspire us… but also the deep hurts that need to come to light – dance expression being the therapy we need for our minds, bodies, and souls. When Maurice’s niece was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2014, he wanted to do something in dedication for her… to honor her. “I did a dedication show for her and from that show I just met all these kids that loved art. So I created this company called Dance Therapy. It’s a youth dance ensemble; we use tap dance as the primary focus but we invite break dancers, actors, poets, and we have plays. But tap dance is the main genre that we push.” Maurice recognizes how impactful dance expression and education was in his own childhood and through Dance Therapy, he is now able to offer a safe space for the youth to have an outlet. “I feel that it’s our duty as elders, or as tap dancers, to mold the next generation. Because if we don’t, we could lose this art form. We want this art form to be seen on all levels.”
Maurice is a living legend in the making while also being accessible to those looking to come up under his wing. He’s personable, inclusive, engaging, humble, and talented. When you meet him, you’re left with a sense of knowing that this is someone who is creating his own chapter in tap history. He has a mission, a purpose, a talent, a heart for people, and an intention with the community. When he shows up, make sure you’re there too and
“May The Rhythm Be With You.”