Q&A: Sean and John Scott
Some of the most furious footwork in Las Vegas takes place nightly underneath the big tent in front of Caesars Palace. Tap-dancing twins Sean and John Scott astonish at Absinthe with a breathtaking sequence that draws on jazz, hip-hop and interacting with audiences that likely had no idea they’d witness the cutting edge of the performing art when they bought tickets. Matt Kelemen sat with the Scott brothers before a Wednesday night show to discuss their past, present and possible future as Vegas entertainers.
How long have you been here now?
John Scott: In the show? We’ve been in Absinthe for about …
Sean Scott: Five years now?JS: Before then we were in a show called Vegas the Show and before then we were in V—the Ultimate Variety Show.
SS: We also did Vegas Nocturne at the time. That lasted for six or seven months, something like that.
So, you were already hooked up with the Absinthe guys?
JS: Spiegelworld, yeah.
SS: We’ve been here altogether for about eight, nine years.
What brought you to Vegas? Why did you move here from L.A.?
SS: We got a call from the Nicholas Sisters. The Nicholas Sisters are the Nicholas Brothers’ granddaughters. They gave us a call saying that they were looking for a Nicholas Brothers-type duo of tap dancers. So we came, we auditioned, they loved us immediately and we were there from then on out. The first year, we did Vegas the Show, and then when it came to renegotiation he had another show. He had several shows going on at the time. I’m sure (David Saxe) still does, but he asked us to be in the Ultimate Variety show as well. So we did two Vegas the Shows, and then we did the Ultimate Variety Show two times, so we did four shows a day.
JS: Six days a week.
Had you guys thought much about coming here before?
SS: We were 18, and we actually came out here. We did a show called The Main Event at The Venetian. It was Jeff Kutash, the same guy who did Splash. That was our first time working in Vegas.
Had you thought of coming to Vegas in your formative years?
SS: No, we were so comfortable in Los Angeles that …
JS: We never thought about coming to Vegas and actually making a career. L.A. is a hub for entertainment, period, as far as TV, and that was more of our main goal, doing more TV. It’s just cheaper for them out there, and that’s our life. We met a lot of celebrities, a lot of networking out there, so Vegas came from left field.
Did you have a connection with the Nicholas Sisters beforehand?
SS: Yeah, our tap teacher Alfred Desio (1932-2007). He was more like a father figure to us, because our father wasn’t in our life. He knew the Nicholas Brothers. They did (1943 film musical) Stormy Weather. They were real prolific and were in great films.
JS: Back in the 1930s and ’40s, yeah. They were dope, real inspirational.
SS: We got a chance to meet them through our teacher. We performed with them when we were younger, then we got to perform with them onstage at some type of world event. We had a relationship, then we got to perform with the granddaughters as well.
JS: They’re around our age, so we grew up together.
SS: And they tap danced. It was a small community in L.A. so you knew other tap dancers.
So, you both started dancing when you were 6 years old. Did you go to an academy the whole time?
JS: Yeah. We went to the Colburn School of Performing Arts. We started at 6 years old and left around 18 when our teacher Alfred Desio passed.
SS: He passed years after we turned 18.
Did you experience any stigma in school?
JS: We didn’t tell too many people that we tap danced, and we didn’t tell them that we street performed too. We used to street perform at the Santa Monica Promenade and Venice Beach, and the pier. We didn’t want people to think we were working outside on the street because it’s a stigma. Just tap dancing … we just thought it would be corny in their eyes.
There’s not a lot of tap dancing in culture nowadays. There was (’80s Broadway musical) The Tap Dance Kid, then it all went to Ireland, I guess.
JS: (laughs) Folk dancing, yeah. Being where we’re from, in the ’hood in L.A., we turned tap dancing into more of a … to appeal to things that we liked back then, to hip-hop and R&B and stuff that we grew up around, to make it cool as well.
SS: We started tapping to it and people started loving it.
Anybody who sees Absinthe sees the blend of hip-hop and old school, Nicholas Brothers-era music segues into a hip-hop beat.
JS: Oh really, do you see that? Thank you for that compliment.
There’s a video of you on YouTube performing a Nicholas Brothers number as well.
SS: The staircase routine (from Stormy Weather)?
JS: Yeah, that’s when we were younger. We’re way better than that now.
SS: I was working with a sprained rib.
That would explain why you didn’t leapfrog over each other like they did. Would you try now?
SS: Yeah, I would love to.
What was that for?
SS: That was for NBC’s Dancing with the Stars. It was called “Dancing through the Years: Macy’s Anniversary.”
Was that before or after you danced with Usher on DWTS?
JS: That was before, and then we did something else with Usher. We spent a month in his hometown in the studio with him, and he did (2007 CBS special) Movies Rock, and he had to do …
SS: A homage, like Chris Brown did a homage to "Jailhouse Rock," and Usher did “Singing in the Rain,” Gene Kelly. He needed me and my brother to choreograph it, so we were on the set with him, got to teach him to tap a little bit.
JS: And it was cool because even when we were in the studio with him, me and Sean were busy, too, so we were like “We can’t be here that long,” which made me feel even cooler. “I know you’re busy but I’m just as busy.” (laughs)
I know you worked with the likes of Madonna, Gregory Hines and Stevie Wonder, but what did you do with Beyonce?
SS: Our friend Frank Gaston, who’s kind of like a big brother to us, he’s a popular, famous choreographer.
JS: Creative director.
SS: So he called us, and was like “You guys want to come and audition for Beyonce and Jay-Z?” Like, hell yeah! We were in L.A. at the time, so we came and drove out here. We danced to “Halo,” her song, and ripped it. He loved it, she loved it, so they went “OK, we’ll put you in the show tonight.” And then Frank was like “Hey, you want to throw a girl in there?” …So we choreographed some, and then we were onstage. Then she flew us out to a few different events, like in the Dominican Republic. There was a surprise party for Jay-Z, for his birthday, and there were a small amount of people but a lot of celebs. A-Rod was there. I didn’t really know who he was because I’m not into baseball. He was huge then, but I just wasn’t into baseball. I’m just standing there at the party and this guy starts talking to me like, “You guys are really good. What’s your name and how long have you been dancing?”
JS: A-Rod was talking to you? Really? I knew exactly who he was when I saw him that night.
So, you started attracting some high-profile people because of the dancing talent, but when you came to Vegas, the thing about what you do at Absinthe is the way you connect with the crowds. You might dance great, but without the way you connect with the crowds it wouldn’t work. Is that from dancing for the crowds at Santa Monica?
JS: We used to mostly freestyle, and then we had a routine that we would do. But through the freestyling, we would know what would support the audience and what wouldn’t. At the same time, with the audience being so intimate and so close to us, you gotta make eye contact. You’ve gotta acknowledge that they’re there. I’ve seen shows where you just see the performance and it’s a blank expression. You could be amazing but I don’t feel like I’m there with you. I don’t feel like you care about me enough, you know?
SS: It could be a million people out there, and once you make eye contact with a couple of people it soothes the performer too. It puts his nerves at ease as well. I wish I could work more with an audience. … I’d wish I could work more with them so they could actually know who we are.
JS: More time onstage.
SS: More time onstage. Most tap dancers are not talkers. They just tap dance. They talk with their feet. So, we want to be more like two Sammys (Davis Jr.), where we can engage with the audience. You can learn out personality and see us dance. As you get older instead of doing a bunch of flips and splits and stuff, you gotta work smarter, too.
The impression that myself and other people who watch you dance at Absinthe is “How do they put that much energy into it?” It must be exhausting by the time you’re done.
SS: Hell yes! We’ve been doing this for so long, like my body still isn’t used to it. I should be used to it! This should be easy.
JS: Every night I stretch for 10 minutes, and then we run at least a mile, which is 10 minutes, in a parking lot, and then we jump rope for 10 minutes. Whatever we do during the day, I want to be fresh onstage every night.
SS: Most of the time during the day, I do boxing at least two times a week. I do gymnastics as well and I work out a lot during the day. I can’t sit around, you know what I mean? Or be in a studio sometimes when we’re working on different little things for our videos on YouTube. We like to stay active and keep our mind going because you can just become comfortable: “Hey, I’ve got a job.” You can’t think like that.
Hip-hop seems to have made it possible for tap dancing to re-emerge. You can express with the percussion in a way you really couldn’t with funk and disco. Is that something you developed or did it come natural?
SS: We grew up dancing to jazz. Then I remember one time our mom said, “Why don’t you dance to this?” It was “Money, Power & Respect” by the Lox featuring Lil’ Kim. Hip-hop song, and we danced to it, tapping to it. Back then our improv wasn’t as good as it is now because we were a lot younger, but it sounds good and we’d rather dance to that than jazz. We tried that on the Santa Monica boardwalk, put a bucket down, put a slab of wood down. John started tapping, and then I remember …
JS: He didn’t want to do it.
SS: I didn’t want to do it because school was right down the way, Pacific Palisades, not too far from Santa Monica. I didn’t want one of friends to see us tapping for money, like we’re homeless, you know?
But you were making $800 to $1,000 a night.
SS: Right, but this was before. And then my mom was like “John, go ahead.” So John was like “OK.” He was like a momma’s boy, so he’s like OK and started tapping. Then the next thing I know girls started coming up. He started making money, so I’m sitting here thinking, “If I don’t dance, I’m not getting any of this money, or the honeys.” Then I danced with him, and before you know it, we started making money.
JS: He joined me and we made $200. That’s a lot for a kid.
SS: It was better than working at McDonald’s.
You have talked about wanting to do longer sequences, but what’s the end game? Or short term, what do you aspire to do as artists?
SS: I want a tap show
JS: Out here in Vegas.
SS: I want to start a tap show soon, sooner than later while we’ve still got some youth in us, and anyone who wants to show us love can be a part of it. I’m all for it.
JS: Absinthe has definitely catapulted us to a level that we never thought we’d go. They definitely show us a lot of love, and that’s something that we’ll be ever grateful for.
It feels like you have the featured spot.
SS: Yeah, yeah. They show us a lot of love, and I love them for it. We’re the type of people that could eventually go into business with them, or without them, but we use everything like a stepping stone, like everybody should. You should always want to elevate yourself.
JS: So basically just start our own tap show, but not all tap because too much ice cream and you’ll get tired of it. It would specialize in tap but there would be different things throughout the show.
SS: Funny skits, and we have a storyline. We talk about each other.
JS: And then we want to work on the Zap Taps. My teacher actually invented it. Every time you tap, it has an electronic sound or a piano sound or a drum sound or a voice.
SS: It’s so cool. It’s basically like an electronic keyboard.
Are you prepared to answer the call for an audition if Hollywood ever decides to produce a Nicholas Brothers biopic?
SS: Definitely. I’ve been prepared. We’ve been over-prepared.
Something you’ve thought about here and there.
JS: Just a little once in a while, yeah. (laughs).