Digital Dancing

By Michelle Walson '99 / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007

Tap by James Buckhouse '96, at the Whitney Museum and other locations in New York City, through July 27.


For the next three months, at several sites around New York City, including the Whitney Museum, you can download Tap, a computer-animation project by James Buckhouse, and teach a tiny pair of simulated dancers how to tap dance on your Palm Pilot. Commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts and included in this spring's esteemed, if controversial, Whitney Biennial, Tap is accessible from what Buckhouse calls "beaming stations" around New York - the Dia Center, the Union Square Barnes & Noble, the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, and the clothing store Jeffrey. You can also download it at or get it from someone else's personal digital assistant, or PDA.

When you launch Tap an elegant line drawing of a male or female figure stands fidgeting, awaiting instruction. By tapping the stylus on the screen (the physical pun is intentional), you become teacher and choreographer, directing your dancer to practice, improvise, or perform any combination of sixteen basic steps. Buckhouse created Tap in collaboration with the fashion writer Holly Brubach, who taught New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon how to tap-dance for the project. Buckhouse sketched those lessons and animated the resulting drawings with the help of Scott Snibbe '95.

Like real-life dancers, Tap's animated characters make mistakes, throw up their hands in frustration, and eventually master their moves. "You develop this delightful relationship with a virtual character," says Carol Stakenas, deputy director of Creative Time, one of Tap's sponsoring organizations. "As your dancer starts to improve, you feel like a proud parent. You want to share their excellence" - which you can do by beaming your original choreography onto another PDA or posting it in the archive on the Dia Center's Web site.

It's innovative. It's everywhere. But is it art? "I constantly get asked that question," says Christiane Paul, the Whitney's new-media curator, who also selected video projects by Seth Price '94 and Tony Cokes, an associate professor in Brown's modern culture and media department, for the biennial show. Their work, like Buckhouse's, typified the exhibition's heavy emphasis on computer and video art - an emphasis that drew fire from traditionally minded reviewers. "Artists have always used the technology of their time," argues Paul. "Art has always been a reflection of culture."

If so, Buckhouse's work may be a metaphor for the ways we navigate technology today: as we fumble through the possibilities created by our increasingly networked world, Tap's palm-size characters keep us company.

Michelle Walson is a production assistant on the PBS documentary series The Visionaries. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2002