Telepathic Motion: Michael Mwenso and Michela Lerman on the movement of performance
Mwenso and the Shakes take the stage. Like a parade, they file on, squeezing every member on stage. They find their places. Vocalists get situated behind their microphones. The drummer sits behind the drum set and the pianist shifts to find a comfortable spot on the bench. The bassist and guitarist ready their strings.
And Michela Lerman steps onto a panel of wood.
When the music starts, so does she—tapping, arms following the momentum of each spin and turn she makes. Microphones, aimed at her tap board, pick up the sound as it melds with the beat of drums, saxophones, and voices, as she becomes an instrument of visual and rhythmic fusion.
It’s rare that a tap dancer is part of a band, but Mwenso and the Shakes aren’t afraid to be different. The improvisational jazz style that influences Mwenso and the Shakes’ sound came naturally to Michela, who met bandleader Michael Mwenso in New York City’s jazz scene. He had no hesitation about Michela being a part of the Shakes.
“He’s a lover of theatre,” Michela said, “so it was natural to incorporate [tap] in an authentic jazz setting but still [grab] aspects from that classical musical theatre era.”
While there have been occasions that the Shakes have planned moves on stage, the majority of their dancing is unplanned, including Michela’s tap. She shifts between tap dancing as an instrument—adding rhythmic flavor to their arrangements—and as a tap dancer—like a solo, showcasing her ability on the board. She watches Michael for the signal to switch between the two.
“It’s telepathic between us at this point,” she said.
But, while on tour, they don’t always find people who share their connection.
“[The hardest part is] trying to convince [sound] people that the sound of what I’m doing is actually important in the whole thing and [that] I’m not just up there dancing,” Michela said. “It’s actually an audible thing that needs to be heard—just like a percussionist, a drum, or something like that.”
Dance plays a critical role in the performance experience that Mwenso and the Shakes strive toward. From adding unique rhythmic elements through the inclusion of tap dance, the visual of band members swaying, moving, and grooving is not only an expression of enjoyment but a signal for their audience.
“I think it’s very powerful when people see us naturally dance on stage because it lets people see that you can dance with the music,” Mwenso said, “and that’s a very important part [—] the synergy between us on stage […] and how we dance with each other.”
Movement is a core pillar of Mwenso and the Shakes’ winning formula. They lean into every note, rock with every beat, and shake their way across the stage and into the hearts of their audiences to make each performance feel united and inviting. They realize that performance isn’t only about how well you can play the music.
“Movement is the other 50 percent, you know?” Mwenso said. “It’s to show the people that this is real and this can happen.”
Mwenso and the Shakes will be performing at this year’s North Carolina Folk Festival from Sept. 6–8.