By Peter Castro
Updated June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

THE NEWARK, N.J., HOUSING project where Savion Glover grew up was an easy place to go wrong. Instead, young Savion went to tap school. “If I didn’t have the dance to express myself,” he says, “I would probably be stealing your car or selling drugs right now. I got friends who do that, but tap saved me.”

Now, Glover, 22, is out to save tap. His sold-out Broadway show, Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk—a raucous chronicle of tap dancing in black America featuring thunderous hoofing from Glover and a trio of co-dancers—delivers, to standing ovations, an oxymoron: hip tap. With help from George C. Wolfe, who co-created and directs ‘da Noise, Glover has imbued a fading art with contemporary hip-hop rhythms and a completely new level of percussive intensity. This month, Glover won his first Tony Award for Choreography, and The New York Times hailed him as “today’s answer to Fred Astaire, with the same prodigious inventiveness and nimble elegance.”

Tap veteran Gregory Hines, who costarred with Glover in the 1992 Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, goes the Times one better. Or two better. Or, heck, six or seven better. “When I get together with some of the older tap dancers, we talk about two things: women and Savion,” says Hines. “Savion is the best tap dancer that ever lived. He was doing things as a dancer at 10 that I couldn’t do until I was 25. He has steps, speed, clarity and an invention that no one else ever had. He’s redefined the art form.”

Glover’s early attempts at self-expression were anything but refined. As a 4-year-old, “Savion used to go into the kitchen and set up the biggest pots and pans as his drums and with big spoons beat on every one of them,” says his brother Carlton, 26, a business student at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

His mother, Yvette Glover, a secretary turned jazz singer, reared her three sons—Abron, 24, works in the rap-music industry—as a single parent. Their father, whom Glover refuses to name, left the household after the couple divorced. (Glover, who recently broke up with singer Tiffany Caldwell, also declines to discuss his private life, though one offstage incident surfaced last week when he was sentenced to 50 hours of community service after pleading guilty to impaired driving and possession of marijuana.) Trying to channel her son’s obsession with rhythms, Yvette enrolled Savion in tap classes at New York City’s Broadway Dance Center when he was 7. “I remember my first day,” says Glover. “My mom couldn’t afford dance shoes, so she put me in these old cowboy boots with a hard bottom so I could get some sound out. I used them for seven months. When I finally got real tap shoes, I was nervous. I kept moving my feet, thinking, ‘Oh, so this is how it’s supposed to sound.’ ”

At age 12, the precocious student landed on Broadway in the title role of The Tap Dance Kid. “The limo would pick him up in Newark and take him to Broadway,” says Yvette, who now shares a house Savion bought in Montclair, N.J. “Even the neighborhood drug addicts were so proud of Savion.”

In 1988, Glover costarred with Sammy Davis Jr. and Hines in the movie Tap. The following year he returned to Broadway in Black and Blue and became the youngest performer ever to earn a Tony nomination. He was a regular on Sesame Street between 1991 and 1995. During that stint he landed his third Broadway gig, in Jelly’s Last Jam.

But it is Glover’s latest performance that has given his career wings. Or, as he puts it, “My show mode is that the dressing room is like going into the cockpit. Going down the stairs is like going on the runway, and once we begin performing, it’s flight time. I’m just floatin’ on that stage.”

And does he believe the accolades being heaped on him now? Glover shuts his eyes, considering. “I don’t think I’m a genius,” he says. “Not yet.”