‘Are you tap dancing around your problems?’ asks the Reverend Dr. David Sharp as he shuffles in a desultory circle. Hopping into the middle, he sets up a riff and shouts, ‘Jump to the center and work it out.’ Now dropping into the splits, he hollers, ‘Sometimes you might make a mistake,’ before rising smoothly to a standing position and exhorting the congregation to ‘pick themselves right back up again.’
If this sounds like more fun than anyone should legally be allowed in church, Sharp makes no apologies. Unlike conventional ministers who stand behind a pulpit when they preach, he sees nothing wrong with tapping out a message of hope and personal transformation on a portable dance floor out in front of the altar. “I’m trying to transform the church into accepting that there are many ways to present the message,” he says.
Sharp credits his parents for his spirituality, his love for the arts, and his desire to be of service to humanity. His dad was a jazz saxophonist and comedian, his mother a singer in the church choir. They met at Denver’s Manual High School, got married, and moved to Atlanta, where Sharp Sr. studied for the Presbyterian ministry. Young David grew up there in the heady days of the Civil Rights Movement. ‘My dad was pals with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young,’ he says.
He picked up tap dancing from his mother. ‘Tap was a way to create joy out of pain,’ he explains. ‘She’d go into the kitchen when she was down, and we’d watch her demeanor change as she tap danced on the kitchen floor. She’d close her eyes and hit the floor hard, working out her anger and frustration until she felt everything was gonna be ok. Then you could almost see the smile bubbling up from her feet. It was a happy sound. She taught us that you can use the arts not just for fun, but for healing and transformation as well.’
One night while watching Donnie and Marie on Johnny Carson, it dawned on him that when he grew up he wanted to be the next Sammy Davis Jr. ‘Singer, actor and dancer,’ he says. ‘I also wanted to use my talents to help people not to give up on life, but to prosper and be better.’
He enrolled at University of Southern California, and earned a BFA in Drama. While auditioning for TV, movies, and commercials, he quickly learned that racism was still very much alive and kicking in the Hollywood of 1973. ‘There were no leading roles for blacks in those days,’ he says. ‘My white friends would get eight to ten auditions. My black friends were getting one or two. Most of the work for blacks was in singing and dancing.’
Which was what he ended up doing: dancing at Disneyland, dancing in the Blues Brothers movie, dancing with a touring Christian rock festival. ‘Four months into that tour, we hit Topeka,’ he says, ‘and this girl came up and said she saw the Light in me.’ She was talking about the Light of Christ.
Something about that encounter led Sharp to question his choice of vocation. ‘Was I just there to entertain people, or was my role to help them?’ he wondered. ‘If my job was to help them, then I didn’t have a clue how to go about it.’
He quit the tour and enrolled at San Francisco Theological Seminary. ‘I was called to be a minister at twenty-six,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a preacher, but if I was, I knew I didn’t want to be a boring one.’ He began exploring ways to put his skills as an entertainer to work in the service of his ministry. That’s when he figured out that he could tap dance his sermons.
‘I’m 54 years old and still growing,’ he says. ‘I’m still a powerful instrument for alternative forms of ministry. Spirituality is not confined to set modes and patterns. I see tap dancing as a form of prayer, and I use it to teach people about life and to make peace with the uniqueness that they are.’
Sharp now lives in Boulder where he’s busy writing music and choreographing a show called Feathers on the Breath of God.
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