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UALR magazine

Fall/Winter 2007 • Vol. 3 No. 2

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Joel Ruminer: Gotta Dance!

By Joan I. Duffy

In high-wader pants, penny loafers, and carrying a cardboard suitcase, a fresh-faced Gene Kelly with a porkpie hat plants his feet on the 1951 MGM sound stage and belts out for the world to hear: “Gotta dance! Gotta dance, gotta dance.”
It’s a scene in the classic movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” but it could be the in-a-nutshell story of Joel Ruminer’s life.

The tap dancer extraordinaire who taught thousands of central Arkansas children, teens, and adults tap, jazz, and now hip-hop, is still hoofing it at a new Joel’s House of Dance studio on Rodney Parham Road.

He has been dancing since he was 3 years old. He taught tap workshops in New York with Kelly and still keeps in touch with the dancing legend’s family.

In 1985 when David Letterman pressed dancer Gregory Hines for his opinion of the best tap dancer ever, Hines said it was “a dance teacher you’ve probably never heard of — Joel Ruminer.”
“Oh, I think he was trying to get out of picking between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire,” Ruminer said in a recent interview in his studio.

Ruminer met Hines while traveling with a dance caravan to Chicago, New York, and other cities teaching and performing for three days in each town. Hines saw the show and approached Ruminer about some lessons.

“At one of the performances that Gregory saw, I had a costume that had lots of little LED lights sewn in the lining,” Ruminer said. “In the finale, the house lights went out and I did what I called my Eleanor Powell step. I was known for being a fast tapper. I never considered myself Gregory’s teacher, but every time I was in New York, he always took a few lessons.”

Ruminer was a teenager when Powell, the tapping legend of Busby Berkley musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, made a comeback in 1960 with a nightclub act she perfected on the road before taking it to big cities. The parents of one of Ruminer’s dance students invited him to take in the show at Hot Springs’ Vapors Club.

“I was just in awe,” Ruminer said of the performance. “Every time she started to do something, I would start applauding. She did this incredible tap-turn, as she was dancing.

Her feet would always move so fast, you wouldn’t see them leave the floor. But all of a sudden she stopped the orchestra, put her hands on her hips, went to the edge of the stage … and said to me, ‘Young man, you must be a dancer!’”

Powell brought Ruminer on stage for an impromptu demonstration. Later, Powell said she had a little self-doubt about the tour, and Ruminer’s applause at the right moments boosted her confidence. The friendship and mutual admiration continued until she died in 1985.

The biggest tap dancing legends of three generations considered Ruminer a star. So why hasn’t his name been in lights on Broadway?

“I never liked to perform,” he confessed. He enjoyed performing at Little Rock recitals for his students and was famous for costumes that could impress New York or Las Vegas. But he had no interest in life on 42nd Street.

Broadway’s loss is Little Rock’s gain.
A car wreck and subsequent ankle surgeries slowed him down; he now sits to demonstrate a shuffle-ball-change. But he still teaches, including great-grandchildren of his first pupils.

In February, Ruminer’s students will be in a gala performance at UALR to celebrate his nearly 50 years of dancing and teaching and endow a Department of Theatre Arts and Dance scholarship. Call 501.569.3460 for information.

Additional Resources

KATV Channel 7: Arkansas Arts: Joel Ruminer