Heather Cornell is literally and metaphorically a mover and a shaker in the world of dance. She has been an ensemble founder and a sought-after solo artist. She is a choreographer, director and producer. She has learned from and performed with giants of the tap dance genre.
In a career that has spanned four decades, Cornell has left an indelible mark on dance stages all over the world. And now, because of it, she has landed in two educational places:
In the New York City Library Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and at Hope College.
New to the Hope dance faculty this year as an assistant professor of dance instruction, Cornell is a world-renowned tap dancer and educator. (Go ahead, Google her and marvel at the volume of videos in which she’s teaching or performing.)
First arriving in New York in the early 1980s as a modern dancer from Ontario, Canada, Cornell gravitated to tap dance quite quickly. She worked with tap greats like Buster Brown, Cookie Cook, Chuck Green, Eddie Brown and Steve Condos and was mentored by the jazz great, Ray Brown. She eventually co-founded Manhattan Tap, a leading American tap ensemble which would go on to garner international acclaim. For close to 20 years, Cornell served as the group’s choreographer, director, and, of course, dancer, before striking out on her own for a successful solo career for another 20 years.
When the NYC Public Library for the Performing Arts sent out a survey in 2017 to ask those in the dance world, “Who has made a big impact in the international world of tap?”, it was Cornell whose name got mentioned most. Nine other living tap dancers joined her on a list that the library would use to expand its digital oral history offerings on tap dance. In a dance field that is large but underrepresented in library settings, it was Cornell who rose to the top of the list for whom to talk to first.
“This is a huge honor for Heather, as it was the Library who approached her for this recording,” said Matt Farmer, associate professor and chairperson of the dance department.
For the oral history series curated by dance oral history archivist Cassie Mey, Cornell sat down with mentee Anthony Morigerato, an acclaimed artist in his own right, as her interviewer. For 30 hours, they conducted preliminary interviews, run-ups to the final recordings when the two sat down for their final eight hours in the Lincoln Center Library recording studio in 2018.
“Because tap (history) has such an oral history — it’s encapsulated in very few books that are not that comprehensive — this was a really important project,” Cornell says of the oral history series. “There was a small group of us who were considered the women of the Tap Dance Renaissance. That’s because we had companies in the 1980s and 1990s and sort of helped to revive the art form on the concert stage.”
She talks about all that history, and more, in the nine tracks available now through the NYC Public Library catalog.
“Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”
Cornell calls herself a physical percussionist — someone whose rhythmic, precise foot movement adds to or creates the musicality of a piece — and she dances using different textures of sound, like wood, leather and sand. And always, she dances only to live music, never music that is “canned.”
“That was a commitment (dancing to live music) that I made to myself early on,” she says. “And what I love about Hope is that that’s not a liability for me here, whereas at other institutions it’s been difficult because there hasn’t been such an integration and an openness between the disciplines.”
“For me, that’s my dream: to be at an institution where there are no boundaries between the departments,” she continues. “Everything that I do in my life and in my career has been collaborative. That’s the most important element of what I do. From my experience here at Hope, just in the first six weeks, I feel like that’s one of the things that’s really nurtured here. And it’s great.”
Now that she has traded frequent-flyer-mile accumulation to teach and create in Holland, Michigan, Cornell feels she has found a fine artistic home away from New York City. At Hope, she plans to give back to young artists as her tap mentors once gave fully to her.
“The fact that Hope considers tap dancing as a very serious art form is huge for me,” she says. “The fact that there’s an openness in this environment that I haven’t experienced in other post-secondary environments is huge for me. And the fact that there’s a willingness here to allow for people to nurture who they are and get bigger in the process is also huge. Honestly, I love this age, or this moment in a young artist’s life when they are wanting to open up who they are as human beings. It’s just something special to be around.”