On the evening of the thirty-ninth annual Grammy Awards that was broadcast on national television on February 27, 1997, Colin Dunn and Savion Glover faced off in the fiercest tap dance challenge of their lives. Colin Dunn, the star of Riverdance—The Musical, was challenging Savion Glover, the choreographer and star of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, to a battle of the feet that was staged to showcase and celebrate the two hottest musicals on Broadway. But there was nothing festive about the challenge dance for these two stars. Not only was their reputation as dancers at stake but also the supremacy of the percussive dance forms that each show represented—Irish step dancing and African American jazz tap dancing.
Dunn went on first. Standing tall and straight, his back to the audience and hands placed neatly at the waist of his slim black pants, he spun around quickly on his introduction, and with the stamp of his high-heeled shoe drew himself up onto the balls of the feet and clicked out neat sets of triplets and cross-backs in place. The camera zoomed in on the dazzling speed and precision of Dunn’s footwork, zoomed out on the handsome symmetry of his form, and quickly panned right to reveal the hulking presence of Glover—who stood crouched over, peering at Dunn’s feet. Without an introduction, Glover slapped out a succession of flat-footed stomps that turned his black baggy pants, big baggy shirt, and mop of deadlocks into a stuttering spitfire of beats. Hunkering down into a deep knee bend, he repeated the slamming rhythms with the heels, toes, and insteps of his hard-soled tap shoes. Dunn heard the challenge. Taking his hands off his hips and turning around to face Glover, he delivered a pair of swooping scissor-kicks that sliced the air within inches of Glover face; and continued to shuffle with an air of calm, the fluid monotone of his cross-back steps bringing the volume of noise down to a whisper. Glover interrupted Dunn’s meditation on the “ssssh” with short and jagged hee-haw steps that mocked Dunn’s beautiful line and forced the conversation back to the sound, not look.
They traded steps, spitting out shards of rhythmic phrases and daring each other to pick up and one-up. Dunn’s crisp heel-clicks were taken up by Glover with heel-and-toe clicks, which were turned by Dunn into airy flutters, which Glover then repeated from a crouched position. When they tired of trading politely, they proceeded to tap over each other’s lines, interrupting each other wittily with biting sounds that made the audience scream, applaud, and stamp its feet. When Dunn broke his focus just for a moment to politely acknowledge the applause with a smile, Glover seized the moment and found his edge by perching on the tip of one toe and delivering a flick-kick with the dangling other that brushed within inches of Dunn’s face. All movement came to a halt. And for one long moment, the dancers just stood there, flat-footed, glaring at each other. Though the clapping melted their stares, they slapped hands and turned away from each other and walked off the stage without smiling and never looking back.
An American Genre
This performance is a sublime example of the tap dance challenge, the general term for any competition, contest, breakdown, or showdown in which dancers compete before an audience of spectators or judges. Motivated by a dare, focused by strict attention to one’s opponent, and developed through the stealing and trading of steps, the tap challenge is the dynamic and rhythmically expressive “engine” that drives tap dancing—our oldest of American vernacular dance forms. What is fascinating about the tap challenge that took place between Colin Dunn and Savion Glover at the 1997 Grammy Awards is that Glover’s style of tap dance, which he calls “hitting”—an unusually percussive combination of jazz and hip-hop dance rhythms that utilizes all parts of the foot to drum the floor—is radically different from Dunn’s style of stepping, a highly musical and sleekly modern translation of traditional Irish step dancing. Yet both of these dance forms trace their origins and evolution to a percussive dance tradition that developed in America several hundred years ago.
Tap dance is an indigenous American dance genre that evolved over a period of some three hundred years. Initially a fusion of British and West African musical and step-dance traditions in America, tap emerged in the southern United States in the 1700s. The Irish jig (a musical and dance form) and West African gioube (sacred and secular stepping dances) mutated into the American jig and juba. These in turn became juxtaposed and fused into a form of dancing called “jigging” which, in the 1800s, was taken up by white and black minstrel-show dancers who developed tap into a popular nineteenth-century stage entertainment. Early styles of tapping utilized hard-soled shoes, clogs, or hobnailed boots. It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that metal plates (or taps) appeared on shoes of dancers on the Broadway musical stage. It was around that time that jazz tap dance developed as a musical form parallel to jazz music, sharing rhythmic motifs, polyrhythm, multiple meters, elements of swing, and structured improvisation. In the late twentieth century, tap dance evolved into a concertized performance on the musical and concert hall stage. Its absorption of Latin American and Afro- Caribbean rhythms in the forties has furthered its rhythmic complexity. In the eighties and nineties, tap’s absorption of hip-hop rhythms has attracted a fierce and multi-ethnic new breed of male and female dancers who continue to challenge and evolve the dance form, making tap the most cutting-edge dance expression in America today.
Unlike ballet with its codification of formal technique, tap dance developed from people listening to and watching each other dance in the street, dance hall, or social club where steps were shared, stolen and reinvented. “Technique” is transmitted visually, aurally, and corporeally, in a rhythmic exchange between dancers and musicians. Mimicry is necessary for the mastery of form. The dynamic and synergistic process of copying the other to invent something new is most important to tap’s development and has perpetuated its key features, such as the tap challenge. Fiercely competitive, the tap challenge sets the stage for a “performed” battle that engages dancers in a dialog of rhythm, motion, and witty repartee, while inviting the audience to respond with a whisper of kudos or roar of stomps. The oral and written histories of tap dance are replete with challenge dances, from jigging competitions on the plantation that were staged by white masters for their slaves, and challenge dances in the walk-around finale of the minstrel show, to showdowns in the street, displays of one-upsmanship in the social club, and juried buck-and wing-contests on the vaudeville stage. There are contemporary examples of the tap challenge as well, such as black fraternity step-dance competitions which are fierce as gang wars, and Irish step dance competitions, in which dancers focus more civilly on displaying technical virtuosity. But no matter the contest, all challenge dances necessitate the ability to look, listen, copy, creatively modify, and further perfect whatever has come before. As they said at the Hoofer’s Club in Harlem in the 1930s, where tap dancers gathered to practice their steps and compete: “Thou Shalt Not Copy Anyone’s Steps— Exactly!”
1600s and 1700s: Jig and Gioube
Opportunities for whites and blacks to watch each other dance may have begun as early as the 1500’s when enslaved Africans shipped to the West Indies, during the infamous “middle passage” across the Atlantic Ocean, were brought up on deck after meals and forced to “exercise”—to dance for an hour or two to the accompaniment of bag-pipes, harps, and fiddles (Emery 1988: 6-9). In the absence of traditional drums, slaves danced to the music of upturned buckets and tubs. The rattle and restriction of chains may have been the first subtle changes in African dance as it evolved toward becoming an African-American style of dance. Sailors who witnessed these events were among the first of white observers who later would serve as social arbiters, onlookers, and participants at plantation slave dances urban slave balls. Upon arriving in North America and the West Indies, Africans too were exposed to such European court dances like the quadrille and cotillion, which they adopted by keeping the figures and patterns, but retaining their African rhythms (Szwed 1988).
In the 1650s, during the Thirteen War between England and Spain (1641-54) and under the command of Oliver Cromwell, an estimated 40,000 Celtic Irish solders were shipped to Spain, France, Poland, and Italy. After deporting the men, Cromwell succeeded in deporting the widows, deserted wives, and destitute families of soldiers left behind. Thereafter, thousands of Irish men, women and children were hijacked, deported, exiled, low-interest loaned or sold into the new English tobacco islands of the Caribbean. Within a few years, substantial proportions of mostly Atlantic Coast Africans were thrown on the so-called coffin ships and transported to the Caribbean. In an environment that was dominated by the English sugar plantation owner, Irish indentured servants and West African slaves worked and slaved together. “For an entire century, these two people are left out in the fields to hybridize and miscegenize and grow something entirely new,” writes Irish historian Leni Sloan. “Ibo men playing bodhrans and fiddles and Kerrymen learning to play jubi drums, set dances becoming syncopated to African rhythms, Saturday night ceili dances turning into full-blown voodoo rituals” (Sloan 1982:52). The cultural exchange between first-generation enslaved Africans and indentured Irishmen would continue through the late 1600s on plantations, and in urban centers during the transition from white indentured servitude to African slave labor.
It is believed that on the island of Montserrat in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, the Africans’ first European language was Gaelic Irish, and that retentions and reinterpretations of Irish forms were most pronounced in music, song, and dance (Messenger 1975: 298). And in Joseph Williams’s book, Whence the Black Irish of Jamaica, the sheer number of Irish surnames belonging to former African slaves—Collins, Kennedy, McCormick, O’Hare—supports the contention that enslaved and indentured blacks and whites lived and danced together. They also rebelled together. The 1741 St. Patrick’s Day Rebellion in New York was led by John Cory, an Irish dancing master, and Caesar, a Free African, who together burned down the symbols of the British rule, the Governor’s mansion and main armory. Corey and Caesar died together in the brutal suppression that followed.
Jigging and Juba
As Africans were transplanted to America, African religious circle dance rituals, which had been of central importance to their life and culture, were adapted and transformed (Stuckey 1987). The African American Juba, for example, derived from the African djouba or gioube, moved in a counterclockwise circle and was distinguished by the rhythmic shuffling of feet, clapping hands, and “patting” the body, as if it were a large drum. With the passage of he Slave Laws in the 1740s prohibiting the beating of drums for the fear of slave uprisings, there developed creative substitutes for drumming, such as bone- clapping, jawboning, hand-clapping, and percussive footwork. There were also retentions by the indentured Irish, as well as parallel retentions between the Irish and enslaved Africans, of certain music, dance and storytelling traditions. Both peoples took pride in skills like dancing while balancing a glass of beer or water on their heads, and stepping to intricate rhythmic patterns while singing or lilting these same rhythms. Some contend that the cakewalk, a strutting and prancing dance originated by plantation slaves to imitate and satirize the manners of their white masters, borrows from the Irish tradition of dancing competitively for a cake. And that Africans may have transformed the Irish custom of jumping the broomstick into their own unofficial wedding ceremony at a time when slaves were denied Christian rites.
The oral traditions and expressive cultures of the West Africans and Irish that converged and collided in America can best be heard. The flowing 6/8 meter of the Irish Jig that was played on the fiddle or fife (a small flute), can be distinguished from the polyrhythm of West African drumming, with its propulsive or swinging quality. The fusion of these in America produced black and fiddlers who “ragged” or syncopated jig tunes. Similarly, the African-American style of dance that angled and relaxed the torso, centered movement in the hips, and favored flat-footed gliding, dragging, and shuffling steps, melded with the Irish-American style of dance that stiffened the torso, minimalized hip motion, and emphasized dexterous footwork that favored bounding, hopping, and shuffling (Kealiinohomoku 1976).
By 1800, “jigging” became the general term for this new American percussive hybrid that was recognized as a “black” style of dancing in which the body was bent at the waist and movement was restricted from the waist down; jumping, springing, and winging air steps made it possible for the air-born dancer, upon taking off or landing, to produce a rapid and rhythmic shuffling in the feet. Jigging competitions featuring buck-and-wing dances, shuffling ring dances, and breakdowns abounded on the slave plantations where dancing was encouraged and often enforced. As James W. Smith, an ex-slave born in Texas around 1850, remembers: “Master . . . had a little platform built for the jigging contests. Colored folk comes from all around to see who could jig the best. . .on our place was the jigginist fellow ever was. Everyone round tries to git somebody to best him. He could. . . make his feet go like triphammers and sound like the snaredrum. He could whirl round and such, all the movement from his hips down” (Stearns 1968, 37). Any dance in the so-called Negro style was called a breakdown, and it was always a favorite with the white riverboat men. Ohio flatboatmen indulged in the Virginia breakdown. And in Life on the Mississippi (1883) Mark Twain wrote that “keelboatmen got out an old fiddle and one played and another patted juba and the rest turned themselves loose on a regular old-fashioned keelboat breakdown.”
Clog and Hornpipe
The Lancashire Clog was another percussive form that contributed to the mix during this period. Danced in wooden-sole shoes, the Clog came to America from the Lancashire region of England in the 1840s and in the next forty years had rapidly evolved into such new styles as the Hornpipe, Pedestal, Trick, Statue, and Waltz Clog. The Clog also melded with forms of jigging to produce a variety of percussive styles ranging from ballroom dances with articulate footwork and formal figures to fast-stomping competitive solos that were performed by men on the frontier. None of these percussive forms, however, had syncopated rhythm; in other words, they all lacked swinging rhythms that would later come in such percussive forms as the Buck and Wing and Essence dances that would lead to the Soft Shoe.
The Minstrel Show
Though African-Americans and European-Americans borrowed and copied from each other in developing a solo vernacular style of dancing, there was a stronger draw of African-American folk material by white performers. By the 1750’s, “Ethiopian delineators,” many of them English and Irish actors, arrived in America. John Durang’s 1789 “Hornpipe,” a clog dance that mixed ballet steps with African-American shuffle-and-wings, was performed in blackface make-up (Moore 1976). By 1810, the singing-dancing “Negro Boy” was established as a dancehall character by blackface impersonators who performed jigs and clogs to popular songs. In 1829, the Irishman Thomas Dartmouth Rice created “Jump Jim Crow,” a black version of the Irish jig that appropriated a Negro work song and dance, and became a phenomenal success. After Rice, Irishmen George Churty and Dan Emmett organized the Virginia Minstrels, a troupe of blackface performers, thus consolidating Irish American and Afro-American song and dance styles on the minstrel stage (Winter 1978). By 1840, the minstrel show, a blackface act of songs, fast-talking repartee in Negro dialects and shuffle-and-wing tap dancing became the most popular form of entertainment in America. From the minstrel show, the tap act inherited the walk-around finale, with dances that included competitive sections in a performance that combined songs, jokes, and specialty dances.
It is largely because of William Henry Lane (c.1825-52) that tap dancing in the minstrel period was able to retain its African-American integrity. Born a free man, Lane grew up in the Five Points district of lower Manhattan, whose thoroughfares were lined with brothels and saloons that were largely occupied by free blacks and indigent Irish immigrants. Learning to dance from an “Uncle” Jim Lowe, an African-American jig and reel dancer of exceptional skill, Lane was unsurpassed in grace and technique and was popular for imitating the steps of famous minstrel dancers of the day, and then execute his own specialty steps which no one could copy. In 1844, after beating the reining Irish-American minstrel John Diamond (1823-1857) in a series of challenge dances, Lane was hailed “King of All Dancers” and proclaimed “Master Juba.” He was the first African American dancer to tour with the all-white minstrel troupe, Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders, and to perform without blackface makeup for the Queen of England (Winter 1948). Lane is considered the single most influential performer in nineteenth century dance. His grafting of African rhythms and a loose body styling onto the exacting techniques of jig and clog forged a new rhythmic blend of percussive dance that was considered the earliest form of American tap dance.
When black performers finally gained access to the minstrel stage after the Civil War, the tap vocabulary was infused with a variety of new steps, rhythms, and choreographic structures from African-American social dance forms. Tap dances like “The Essence of Old Virginia,” originally a rapid and pigeon-toed dance performed on the minstrel stage, was slowed down and popularized in the 1870s by the African-American minstrel Billy Kersands. The Essence would later be refined by the Irish-American minstrel George Primrose into a graceful Soft Shoe, or Song-and-Dance, to become the most elegant style of tap dancing on the musical stage.
The Reconstruction era was also the time when technical perfection in tap dance was valued and awarded, and when the obsession with precision, lightness and speed—which had long been valued in traditional Irish Jig dancing—became the ruling standard of judgment in publicly contested challenge dances. The New York Clipper (April 11, 1868) reported that in one such challenge, “Charles M. Clarke, a professional jig dancer . . . had a contest on the evening of the 3rd in Metropolitan Hall . . . for a silver cup valued as $12. Clarke did a straight jig with eighty-two steps and won the cup. Edwards broke down after doing sixty-five steps.” In the 1880s, big touring shows such as Sam T. Jack’s Creole Company and South Before the War brought new styles of black vernacular stepping to audiences across America. While black vaudeville troupes like Black Patti’s Troubadours featured cakewalk and buck-and-wing specialists in lavish stage productions, traveling medicine shows, carnivals and Jig Top circuses featured chorus lines and comics dancing an early style of jazz-infused tap that combined shuffles, wings, drags and slides with flat-footed buck and eccentric dancing.
Turn of the Century
At the turn of the twentieth century, when the syncopated and duple-metered rhythms of ragtime were introduced on the musical stage, tap dance underwent its most significant transformation. The music of Ragtime that was created from a new and unprecedented borrowing and blending of European melodic and harmonic complexities and African-derived syncopation evolved the earliest form of jazz. So too, tap dance, in its absorption of early ragtime and jazz rhythms, evolved into jazz tap dance. The all-black Broadway musical, Clorindy, or the Origins of the Cakewalk (1898) presents a sterling example of this turn-of the-century jazz and tap fusion. Will Marion Cook’s music for Clorindy was marked by the distinctly syncopated rhythm of ragtime, while Paul Laurence Dunbar’s lyrics were performed in a syncopated Negro dialect (“Dam de lan’, let the white folks rule it!/ I’se a-looking fo’ mah pullet”) and Ernest Hogan’s choreography featured offbeat cocks of the head, shuffling pigeon-wings, and sliding buzzard lopes. In Dahomey (1902), another turn-of-the-century black musical, saw Bert Williams playing the role of the low-shuffling Fool, and his partner George Walker in the role of the high-strutting Dandy. Wearing blackface makeup and shoes that extended his already-large feet, Williams shuffled along in a hopeless way, interspersing grotesque and offbeat slides between choruses, while Walker as the “spic-and-span Negro” turned his cocky strut into a high-stepping cakewalk that he varied dozens of times. In “Cakewalk Jig,” Williams and Walker danced buck-and-wings, bantam twists, and rubber-legging cakewalks to a “ragged” up jig, thus introducing a black vernacular dance style to Broadway that was an eccentric blend of the shuffle, strut-turned cakewalk, and grind, or mooche.
At the turn of the century, it was imperative for tap dancers to compete in buck-and-wing and cakewalk contests in order to earn the status of professional and gain entry onto the Broadway musical stage. Arriving in New York in 1900, Bill Robinson challenged Harry Swinton, the Irish- American dancing star of In Old Kentucky, to a buck-and-wing contest, and won. With a gold medal and the valuable publicity that was bestowed upon winning, Robinson was targeted as the new man to challenge. While Robinson fused ragtime syncopation with a light-footed and vertical style of jigging that favored the elegant soft-shoe of the famed Irish-American dancer George Primrose, “King” Rastus Brown was known for a flat-footed style called Buck dancing. Among the oldest styles of percussive stepping dating back to the plantation days, Buck dancing worked the whole foot close to the ground with shuffling, slipping, and sliding step, with movement mostly from the hips down. Brown developed the Buck style into a paddle-and-roll style which was perfected in his famous “Buck Dancer’s Lament,” which consisted of six bars of the time step plus a two-bar, improvised stop-time break.
Women in Tap
The conceptualization of tap dance as an Afro-Irish fusion, fueled by the competitive interplay of the challenge in a battle for virtuosity and authority, puts into focus issues of race and ethnicity; and inevitably takes on the painful history of race, racism, and race relations in America. In addition, there are issues of class, in which tap was considered a popular entertainment and placed in the category of “low-art,” and therefore not worthy of being presented on the concert stage. Moreover, the strange absence of women in early accounts of jigging competitions forces a consideration of gender in the evolution of tap dance which, for most of the twentieth century, was considered “a man’s game.” That has become a kind of mythologized truth, given the plethora of tap histories that have blindsided women. By inference or direct statement, women were told they were “weak”; they lacked the physical strength needed to perform the rhythm-driven piston steps, multiple-wing steps, and flash and acrobatic steps that symbolized the (male) tap virtuoso’s finish to a routine. Women were “nurturers,” not competitors,” and therefore did not engage in the tap challenge. A woman’s role was not as a soloist but as a member of the chorus line.
Racial and ethnic lines were distinctly drawn in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, but not so strictly drawn, geographically and culturally, between Irish and African Americans living in some neighborhoods. Of the 60,666 blacks in the city in 1900, the majority was concentrated in Manhattan, with most squeezed into two neighborhoods—the so-called Tenderloin district, which generally covered the West Twenties, and San Juan Hill which spanned from Sixtieth to Sixty-fourth Streets, from Tenth to Eleventh Avenues. New York also had a population of 275,000 Irish-born residents (not counting their American-born offspring which, together with Irish immigrants, accounted for 26% of the population) living in Brooklyn, which in 1900 was considered the largest Irish settlement in the world.
The social entertainments announced in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in that period reveal dozens of buck-and-wing performances by semi-professional male and mostly Irish dancers. There are also a surprising number of notices in the Brooklyn Eagle announcing buck-and-wing performances by female dancers: Miss Florence Brockway, “singer and buck and wing dancer” at the Knights of Columbus Hall near Douglas Street in Brooklyn (4/23/1902); Agnes Falkner, “buck and wing dancing in an elaborately-produced show in Asbury Park, New Jersey (4/17/1902); Mame Gerue, “a very graceful dancer, both in imitation of the Spanish fandango and on the sand as a buck and wing stepper” at the Orpheum Theatre in Brooklyn (12/3/1901); Miss Belle Lewis in “her famous buck and wing specialty” at a “merry party assembled on the premises of Mr. and Mrs. William E. Houtain at 282 Putnam Avenue, Brooklyn (11/30/1901); Belle Gold, who “showed considerable cleverness in buck and wing dances” in a vaudeville bill at the Floating Roof Garden at the Manhattan Beach Theater (7/16/1901); the Newell sisters, “buck and wing dancers” at the Unique vaudeville house (2/25/1902); and the Esher sisters, “buck and wing dancers” appearing at the Orpheum in Brooklyn in a show headlining the opera singer Pauline Hall (5/21/1901). Nellie De Veau received several announcements, one at Paula’s Musee, formerly known as Haverly’s Musee as a “buck and wing dancer” (11/12/1901); another as a “buck and wing and skirt dancer” at the Jefferson Club of the Sixteenth Assembly District in Brooklyn, headquarters of the Democrats under the leadership of James S. Regan. (2/14/1900).
With only the surnames, addresses (Miss, Mrs.), venues, occasions for dance, performances, and generic titling as buck-and-wing dancers, it is difficult to discern the style of buck and wing that each of these women danced, let alone their race or ethnicity, which such stage names as “Mame” and “Belle” disguise. Many of the occasions for female buck-and-wing dancers were clearly for social and political functions in small vaudeville houses that usually featured solo acts and some duos. Most certainly those performances continued from a strong tradition of female blackface Irish jig and clog dancing that had begun in nineteenth-century minstrel and variety stage shows.
Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree
Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree was born on Nassau Street in New York City in 1847, and raised in California during the Gold Rush, where she learned ballet, fandangos, and the Highland fling. Since in the 1850s half of California’s population was Irish, her teachers made sure she excelled at the jig. As a dancer touring mining camps, she was introduced to an African-American dancer who taught her breakdowns, soft-shoes, and buck- and-wing dances. Crabtree’s fame spread throughout the country, as she was as a performer of jigs and reels, with acrobatic flourishes. Her only competitors were the three Worrell sisters, Irene, Sophie, and Jennie, who performed in clog-dancing shoes. When it was later discovered that Jennie Worrell’s clogs had trick heels (heels that were hollowed out with tin-lined boxes placed inside and holding two bullets), that made it sound like she was dancing faster than she really was, Crabtree had no peers when it came to jig and clog. “She can dance a regular breakdown in true burnt cork style and gives an Irish Jig as well as we have ever seen it done,” wrote the New York Clipper in 1864 (Rourke 1928). In her later years she became a popular actress and the toast of Broadway. While she retired from the stage in 1891 at the age of forty-four, her renown as a female jig and breakdown dancer lasted into the early decades of the twentieth century.
Ada Overton Walker
Ada Overton Walker was born on Valentines Day in 1880 in New York’s Greenwich Village. As a child she received dance instruction from a Mrs. Thorp in midtown Manhattan. Around 1897, after graduating from Thorp’s dance school, she toured briefly with Black Patti’s Troubadours. A girlfriend invited her to model for an advertisement with Bert Williams and George Walker, who had just scored a hit in their vaudeville debut at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. She agreed to model for the ad and subsequently joined the men to dance in the cakewalk finale. After joining John W. Isham’s Octoroon, a critic for the Indianapolis Freeman declared, “I had just observed the greatest girl dancer.” With Grace Halliday she formed the sister dance act of Overton and Halliday. They performed as the pair of Honolulu Belles in the Williams and Walkers’ The Policy Players (1899), and from there, Overton began to develop as a soloist with more substantial roles. In the musical comedy The Sons of Ham (1900) she sang and danced “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and “Leading Lady”; and in its second edition, “Society” and “Sparkling Ruby” which brought her jubilant acclaim. James Weldon Johnson wrote that she “had a low-pitched voice with a natural sob to it, which she knew how to use with telling effect in putting over a song” (Johnson 1933). Tom Fletcher remembered her as a singer who did ragtime songs and ballads equally well; and as a dancer “who could do almost anything, and no matter whether it was buck-and-wing, cakewalk, or even some form of grotesque dancing . . . she lent the performance a neat gracefulness of movement unsurpassed by anyone” (Fletcher 1954).
On June 22, 1899, after the closing of A Lucky Coon, the ragtime musical described by Ann Charters as “a hodge-podge of everything in the ‘coon’ line from buck-dancing and ragtime melodies to selections from the grand opera,” Overton married George Walker; their partnership would transform and elevate the cakewalk from a core African-American folk dance into a black modernist expression, a high art worthy of being performed before royalty, for the white elite, and on the concert stage.
Williams and Walker’s Dahomey (1903) was one of the first black musicals to realize the cakewalk’s transformation. In it, Aida (she changed the spelling of her name from Ada to Aida, the name of the Haitian lwa of fertility) played Rosetta Lightfoot with a featured solo, “I Want to Be a Real Lady,” and the “Cakewalk Finale,” partnered by her husband. “The line, the grace, the assured ecstasy of these dancers, who bent over backward until their heads almost touched the floor, a feat demanding an incredible amount of strength, their enthusiastic prancing, almost in slow motion, have never been equaled in this particular revel, let alone surpassed,” wrote Carl Van Vechten (Van Vechten 1974). Dahomey was brought to London, where it was presented at a command performance before King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace. British high society followed the Royal Family with a gushing enthusiasm for cakewalking. The company returned to New York with a new version of the musical called In Dahomey, which opened at the Grand Opera (1904).
In Williams and Walker’s next show, Abyssinia (1906), Overton Walker was both a performer and the show’s choreographer. She was next featured in and staged the musical numbers for Bandanna Land (1908). One evening while onstage, George Walker, playing the role of Bud Jenkins, became ill. His symptoms were later diagnosed as syphilis. In 1909 he left the show, and his role was rewritten for Overton Walker, who donned his flashy clothes and sang his numbers, including his major song, “Bon Bon Buddie.” With her husband’s condition slowly deteriorating, and faced with where her future lay, she chose not to renew her contract with Williams and Walker and instead joined the cast of Bob Cole and J. Rosamonde Johnson’s The Red Moon (1909) in which she was featured in two musical numbers: “Pheobe Brown” and “Pickaninny Days,” dancing buck-and-wing with the chorus. She next opened at New York’s American Theater with a vaudeville act featuring a new dance, the “Kara Kara,” or dance l’Afrique. In 1910, she joined the Smart Set, a black theatrical company, and starred in His Honor the Barber (1911).
By July 1911, six months after her husband George Walker died, Overton Walker formed a new vaudeville act comprising one male and eight female dancers; she sang “Shine” as a male, impersonating her late husband, and performed the new dance craze, “The Barbary Coast,” in close embrace with her new young male partner. From 1912 until her death in 1914 she choreographed for two black female dance groups, “The Happy Girls” and “Porto Rico Girls,” whose dancers included Lottie Gee and Elida Webb.
In 1912 she danced “Salome” in a spectacular vaudeville performance at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in New York. She also rejoined Bert Williams for the annual Frog’s Frolic, appearing onstage with Bill Robinson and minstrel showman Sam Lucas. In 1914 she switched from African-style dance to ballroom dance in her vaudeville act. With her new partner, Lackaye Grant, Aida presented several ballroom dances whose roots, she made clear were in the black vernacular: “Maxixe,” “Southern Drag,” “Jiggeree,” and “Tango.” She participated in the tango fad by giving a “Tango Picnic” (July 1914) at New York’s Manhattan Casino where she and Grant performed their ballroom dance act with the “Southern Drag,” receiving the most applause from the black audience. “Tango Picnic” was Overton Walker’s last pubic appearance. She died October 11, 1914 from kidney disease.
Mourned as the foremost African-American female stage artist, Overton Walker’s interest in both African and African-American indigenous material, and her translation of these onto the modern stage, anticipated the choreographic work of modern dance pioneers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Both in her solo work for women and in the unison and precision choreographies for the female chorus, she claimed a female presence on the stage. She also gave presence to black rhythm dancing, thus opening primetime, public professional space for tap performance. By negotiating the narrow white definitions of appropriate black performance with her own version of black specialization and innovation, Overton Walker established a black cultural integrity onstage, setting the model for which African-American musical artists could gain acceptance on the professional concert stage.
1920s and 1930s: Broadway Jazz
In the teens of the twentieth century, Americans went “dance mad” with the foxtrot, a syncopated ragtime dance that bounced couples along the floor with hops, kicks, and capers. Dozens of black- based “animal” dances, such as the Turkey Trot, Monkey Glide, Chicken Scratch, Bunny Hug, and Bull Frog Hop, were danced to ragtime rhythms. While dance bands in downtown New York Clubs were “jassing up” (adding speed and syncopation) such dances as the Grisly Bear and Kangaroo Dip for their white clientele, uptown Harlem audiences were rocking to Darktown Follies. J. Leubrie Hill’s all-black musical revue of 1913 expressed an inexorable rhythm by its dancers who “stepped about, and clapped their hands, and grew mad with their bodies” (Van Vechten 1974). The show introduced the “Texas Tommy,” prototype of the Lindy Hop, as well as new styles of tap dancing. One was Eddie Rector’s smooth style of “stage dancing, in which every move made a beautiful picture. Another was the acrobatic and high-flying style of Toots Davis, whose “Over the Top” and “Through the Trenches” were named for wartime combat maneuvers. The dance finale, “At the Ball,” was a spiraling, stomping circle dance whose rhythms, wrote Carl Van Vechten, “dominated me so completely that for days afterwards, I subconsciously adapted whatever I was doing to its demands.” Florenz Ziegfeld bought the entire show for his Follies of 1914, thus helping to transplant black vernacular dance and jazz rhythms onto the Broadway stage.
By the Jazz Age twenties, both black and white dancers had discovered the rhythmic power of jazz. In this decade in which jazz music became a popular nighttime entertainment, jazz tap dance—which was distinguished by its intricate rhythmic motifs, polyrhythm, multiple meters, and elements of—emerged as the most rhythmically complex form of jazz dancing. Setting itself apart from all earlier forms of tap dance, jazz tap dance matched its speed to that of jazz music, and often doubled it. Here was an extremely rapid yet subtle form of drum dancing that demanded the dancer’s center to be lifted, the weight balanced between the balls and heels of both feet. While the dancer’s alignment was upright and vertical, there was a marked angularity in the line of the body that allowed for the swift downward drive of weight.
It is generally believed that Shuffle Along (1921), the all-black musical with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle, introduced the most exciting form of jazz tap dancing ever been seen on the Broadway stage. Blake’s musical score provided a foot-stomping orgy of giddy rhythms that spanned traditional and early jazz styles. While the jazz dancing in Shuffle Along was never specifically referred to as “tap dance,” the styles of percussive stepping certainly belonging to jazz tap dance were often described and singled out as the most exciting aspects of the dancing. In “Jimtown’s Fisticuffs,” the boxing match performed by Flournoy Miller and Aubry Lyles, as two would-be mayors, saw these rivals swinging and knocking each other down, jumping over each other’s backs, and finishing each round with buck-and-wing and time steps. The title song, “Shuffle Along,” a song-and-dance number featuring the Jimtown Pedestrians, had the Traffic Cop played by Charlie Davis performing a high-speed buck-and-wing dance that staggered the audience. Elsewhere in the musical, Tommy Woods did a slow-motion acrobatic dance that began with time-step variations that included flips landing on the beat of the music; and Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, a well-known tap dancer, performed an eccentric soft shoe with rubber-legging legomania. The most obvious reference to tap dance in Shuffle Along is the “shuffle” of the title, a rapid and rhythmic brushing step that is the most basic step in tap dancing. The step also refers to the minstrel stereotype of the old and shuffling plantation slave who, accused of being lazy and venal, drags and scrapes his feet along he ground. While the book in Shuffle Along purveyed the old caricature of the black- shuffing Fool, the musical part of the show embodied a new image of the black dancer as a rhythmically propulsive source of energy. Tap dance was thus resurrected from its nineteenth-century minstrel origins to a modern twentieth-century art form. After Shuffle Along, musical comedy on Broadway in the twenties took on a new rhythmic life as chorus girls began learning to dance to new rhythms.
While Broadway chorus lines in the twenties performed simple steps in square rhythms and complicated formations by such choreographers as Ned Wayburn, the most elite of white Broadway stars worked with the African-American choreographer Clarence “Buddy” Bradley. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Bradley moved to New York in the twenties, where he learned to tap dance at the Hoofer’s Club and performed as a chorus dancer at Connie’s Inn. After re- choreographing the Greenwich Village Follies in 1928, he worked at the Billy Pierce Dance Studio off-Broadway, where he created dance routines for such white Broadway stars as Gilda Grey, Jack Donahue, Ruby Keeler, Adele Astaire, Ann Pennington. On Broadway in the twenties musical comedy dancing, with simple walking steps, were reserved for ingenues, and considered the lowest common denominator in show dancing. Uptown, African-American tap dancers were inventing intricate steps with complex rhythms. Bradley’s formula for creating dance routines for white dancers was to simplify rhythms in the feet, while sculpting the body with shapes from black vernacular dances. Even though he simplified rhythms, he never sacrificed the syncopated accents of jazz, and he used the accents of jazz improvisations to shape new rhythmic patterns in the body (Hill 1992).
Bill Robinson and John Bubbles
The rhythmic revolution that began with Shuffle Along (1921) continued on Broadway with Strut Miss Lizzie (1922), Liza (1922), and Runnin’ Wild (1923), in which a new tap-dancing version of the Charleston was performed, while the chorus beat out the time with hand-clapping and foot- patting (the beating out of complex rhythms had never before been seen on a New York stage). It was not until Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928 that jazz tap dancing began to be distinguished as the most rhythmically complex “cream” of jazz dancing. Blackbirds starred Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a veteran performer in vaudeville and the most beloved dancer in the black community who as the age of fifty was “discovered” by Broadway audiences and pronounced “King of Tap Dancers.”
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1878, Robinson had earned nickels and dimes by dancing and scat- singing in the street. He had begun his career performing as a member of a “pickaninny” chorus, and by the twenties became the headliner on both the Keith and the Orpheum circuits; and New York’s prestigious Palace Theatre. In Blackbirds, Robinson performed his famous “Stair Dance,” which he introduced in vaudeville about 1918. Dancing up and down a flight of stairs in his split- soled clog shoes (the wooden half-sole, attached from the toe to the ball of the foot, was left loose), each step was tuned to a different pitch and used a different rhythm. As he danced to clean four- and eight-bar phrases followed by a two-bar break, Robinson’s taps were delicate, articulate, and intelligible. Whether interweaving buck or time steps with whimsical skating steps or little crossover steps danced on the balls of the feet, the dancing was upright and rhythmically swinging. The light and exacting footwork is said to have brought tap dance “up on its toes” from an earlier, earthier, more flat-footed shuffling style. Langston Hughes, describing these tap rhythms as “human percussion,” believed that no dancer had ever developed the art of tap dancing to a more delicate perfection than Robinson, who could create “little running trills of rippling softness or terrific syncopated rolls of mounting sound, rollicking little nuances of tap-tap-toe, or staccato runs like a series of gun-shots.” Reviewing Blackbirds of 1928, Mary Austin observed in The Nation that the postures of Robinson’s lithe body, and the motions of his slender cane punctuated his rhythmic patter and restored for his audience “a primal freshness of rhythmic coordination” that was fundamental of art.” Broadway had not only discovered Robinson, but had become newly enamored of a strikingly modern rhythm dance that interpreted Negro folk rhythms, transforming them into a sleekly modern black expression. “A Bojangles performance is excellent vaudeville,” wrote Alain Locke, “But listen with closed eyes, and it becomes an almost symphonic composition of sounds. What the eye sees is the tawdry American convention; what the ear hears is the priceless African heritage.”
The 1920’s also saw the rise of John Sublett Bubbles, who is credited with inventing “rhythm tap,” a fuller and more dimensional rhythmic concept that utilized the dropping of the heels as accents. Born in Louisville in 1902, Bubbles at the age of ten teamed with the six-year old Ford Lee “Buck” Washington in an act billed as “Buck and Bubbles.” Bubbles sang and danced and Buck played accompaniments, standing at the piano. After winning a series of amateur night shows, they began touring in musical engagements. At the age of eighteen Bubbles’ voice began to change and instead of giving up show business he focused on dancing. After smarting from the embarrassment of being laughed out of the Hoofer’s Club as a novice, Bubbles developed his technique and returned to the Club to win everyone over with a new style of tapping laced with Over-the-Tops and triple back slides. By 1922, Buck and Bubbles reached the pinnacle in vaudeville circuit known as T.O.B.A., their singing-dancing-comedy act headlined the white vaudeville circuit from coast to coast. Buck” stop-time piano, which was played in the laziest manner imaginable, contrasted with Bubble’s witty explosion of taps in counterpoint. They appeared in Broadway Frolics of 1922, Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1930, and sensationalized The Ziegfield Follies of 1931. Bubbles’ rhythm tapping revolutionized dancing. Before him, dancers tapped up on their toes, capitalized on flash steps, and danced to neat two-to-a-bar phrases. Bubbles loaded the bar, dropped his heels, and hit unusual accents and syncopations, opening up the door of modern jazz percussion.
While most white professional dancers learned tap dance in the studio in the twenties and thirties, black dancers usually developed on their own, on the street, or in the dance hall where dancing was hotly contested as a basketball game. And it was at the Hoofers Club in Harlem—an old pool hall that was next to and down the stairs from the Lafayette Theater, where rookie and veteran tap dancers assembled to share with, steal from, and challenge each other. Dancers who frequented the Hoofers Club and perfected their technique included Bill Robinson, John Bubbles, Honi Coles, Eddie Rector, Dewey Washington, Raymond Winfield, Roland Holder, Harold Mablin, “Slappy” Wallace, Warren Berry, and Baby Laurence.
The rhythmic brilliance, athleticism, and open sexuality of Cora LaRedd’s dancing made her, not only the most noted female soloist at the Cotton Club in the 1920s and 1930s, but also the most extraordinary jazz tap dancer in those decades. Recognized as a brilliant Harlem singer and dancer when she became the lead performer for arranger and bandleader Charlie Dixon (of the Fletcher Henderson band), La Redd received her first Broadway notices in the musical comedy Say When (1928), in which she was singled out as “a sepia-tinted Zora O’Neal who combined limber-legged dancing with wah-wah singing.” Broadway saw much of LaRedd in the late 1920s. The “all-colored musical novelty,” Messin’ Around (1929) with music by James P. Johnson, lyrics by Perry Bradford, and dances by Eddie Rector, featured LaRedd in “Tapcopation,” “Put Your Mind Right On It,” and a Waltz Clog specialty with Charles Johnson. In the all-black musical comedy Change Your Luck (1930), with music and lyrics by J.C. Johnson and dances by Laurence Deas and Speedy Smith, LaRedd excelled in “Can’t Be Bothered Now,” “My Regular Man,” and “Percolatin.” Audiences were dazzled by LaRedd at the Cotton Club, where she was regularly featured as the leading song-and-dance diva. In the Fall 1930 Cotton Club revue “Brown Sugar (Sweet But Unrefined),” LaRedd was a featured soloist on the bill with Wells, Mordecai and Taylor in “Hittin’ the Bottle.”
The best example of LaRedd’s dancing may be seen in the twelve-minute black-and-white musical short That’s the Spirit (1933), regarded as one of the greatest all-black jazz shorts ever made. In it, LaRedd sings and dances. Small and compact, the dark-skinned dancer shows a fiery vitality. Wearing a white satin blouse with full-blown sleeves and black shorts which throw attention to her strong, gleaming legs and feet, she dances at shimmering speed; her low-heeled Mary-Jane shoes frame those fast feet; her triple-time steps and treble-roll steps, which resemble Bill Robinson’s steps and style, were never made more up-tempo and swinging.
1930s and 1940s: Tap on Film
In the thirties and forties, jazz tap dancing continued to develop in direct relationship to jazz music. Swing-style jazz of the thirties emphasized rhythmic dynamics with relatively equal weight given to the four beats of the bar (hence the tern “four-beat jazz), solo improvisation, and a forward propulsion imparted to each note by an instrumentalist through the manipulation of attack, timbre, vibrato, and intonation. Tap dancers were often featured performing in front of swing bands in dance halls like Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. The swinging four/four bounce of bands like Count Basie and Duke Ellington proved ideal for hoofers, while intimate nightclubs such as the Cotton Club featured excellent tap and specialty dancers and tap chorus lines like the Cotton Club Boys.
It was also in the thirties and forties that tap dance was immortalized in such Hollywood film musicals as Dixiana (1930), starring Bill Robinson; Forty-Second Street (1933), starring Ruby Keeler; The Little Colonel (1935), starring Robinson and Shirley Temple; Swing Time (1936), starring Fred Astaire; Atlantic City (1944), featuring Buck and Bubbles; Lady Be Good, featuring the Berry Brothers, Stormy Weather (1943), featuring Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers; and The Time, the Place and the Girl (1946), featuring the Condos Brothers. For the most part, because of continued segregation and different budgets, black dancers were denied access to the white film industry. As a result, a distinction in tap styles began to develop. In general, black dance artists such as John Bubbles continued the tradition of rhythm tap on stage and screen, with its flights of percussive improvisation; while white artists like Gene Kelly evolved a balletic, Broadway style of tap dancing in film and Broadway musicals in which jazz rhythms were less important than the integration of dance into the narrative structure of the musical. As tap became the favored form of American theatrical dance, new styles emerged: The Eccentric style was exemplified by the attention-getting routines of Jigsaw Jackson, who circled and tapped while keeping his face screwed to the floor; Clarence “Dancing” Dotson, who tapped and scratched in swinging counterpoint; and Alberta Whitman, who executed high-kicking legomania as a male impersonator. The Russian style, pioneered by Ida Forsyne in the teens by performing Russian kazotsky kicks, was made popular by Dewey Weinglass and Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson. The Acrobatic style exemplified by Willie Covan and the Four Covans, Three Little Words and the Four Step Brothers, who specialized in flips, somersaults, cartwheels, and splits. The Flash Act dancing of the Berry Brothers was brought to a peak by combining tap with high-stylized acrobatics and precision-timed stunts. Black Comedy Dance teams such as Slap and Happy, Stump and Stumpy, Chuck and Chuckles, and Cook and Brown infused tap dancing with jokes, knockabout acrobatics, grassroots characterizations and rambunctious translations of vernacular dance in a physically robust style.
Eleanor Torrey Powell was born in 1913 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and raised by her maternal grandparents while her mother, Blanche Torrey, worked as a chambermaid, waitress and bank teller. At age seven she studied ballet and acrobatics with Ralph McKernan. In the summer of 1925, during a family visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey, she was turning cartwheels on the beach when discovered by the entrepreneur Gus Edwards, who offered her a job working three nights a week, earning a salary of $7 dollars per show in a dinner club at the Ambassador Grill. In the summer of 1927, Powell returned to Atlantic City to work at the Silver Slipper and at Martins, high-priced supper clubs. She headed to New York in the fall of 1929 where she worked for three months at Ben Bernie’s nightclub. She also danced at private parties, where she met and appeared on the same bill as Bill Robinson; with him, she devised a dance routine in which they challenged each other. Powell and Robinson performed at various private society parties organized by the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and others, for which they were paid $500 a night. Robinson became her lifelong friend, and later taught her his famous stair dance.
Continuing to audition for Broadway shows, Powell decided to take tap dance lessons and enrolled in Jack Donahue’s school, where she studied with Donahue and Johnny Boyle; ten tap lessons were all she needed to launch her career on Broadway. She debuted in Follow Thru (1929), thanks to Donahue’s class routine for “Button Up Your Overcoat,” which she used for her audition. She made her screen debut in the Paramount Picture musical comedy Queen High (1930), and returned to Broadway with Fine and Dandy (1930), in which she perform three numbers: “I’ll Hit a New High,” “Jig Hop,” and “Waltz Ballet.” Then came the Florenz Ziegfeld-produced musical Hot-Cha! (1932), with Powell dancing “There’s Nothing the Matter with Me.” She performed in George White’s Music Hall (1933) with two rhythm tap numbers, the New York Times calling her “an excellent tap dancer, who stands out markedly.”
In the early thirties, with the Depression at its worst and most Broadway producers were cutting costs, Powell was cast by Louis B. Mayer for a small role in Broadway Melody of 1936—that of struggling dancer come to the big city to become a star. Her routine combined elements of ballet and acrobatic dancing, doing pivot turns and arabesques, and letting male dancers toss her in the air. She worked her rhythms close to the ground, tapping with slurring speed. The New York Times wrote that she had “the most eloquent feet in show business” and likened her to Fred Astaire; with Time claiming that the film confirmed her status as “the world’s greatest female tap dancer.” She was immediately offered a long-term contract at MGM, which she began with Born to Dance (1936), a lavish musical, with songs by Cole Porter. She was treated to an MGM beauty makeover, complete with ultraviolet light freckle-removing treatment, capped teeth, and a curly, more feminine hairstyle. MGM made no secret of the fact that her voice was dubbed. At MGM, however, Powell had full control of her choreography and was given a studio in which to rehearse; she also dubbed her own tap steps.
Powell was paired with Fred Astaire for his first post-Ginger Rogers film, Broadway Melody of 1940. It featured Astaire and George Murphy as a dance team, who compete for a role in a Broadway show, and Powell as their leading lady and romantic interest. In “Begin the Beguine,” the dazzling finale, Astaire met his match—not in the romantic-partnership he sought with Rogers, but in the vivacious and energizing rhythmic sense.
After Broadway Melody of 1940, there was talk of re-teaming Powell and Astaire in a film version of the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, but Astaire was less than enthusiastic about the project, causing it to be shelved. Powell began on the stage as an independent, and remained so for the rest of her career. In the spectacular finale of the “Fascinating Rhythm” number in Lady Be Good (1941), she reinstated her independence as a star soloist. Dressed in top hat and tails, she danced with a legion of men who frame and flip her into dizzying aerial forward rolls into the camera’s eye.
Born in Chicago in 1916, the youngest of five children, Jeni LeGon’s musical talents developed on the streets of the city’s South Side, in neighborhood tramp bands. As a child, she won a tap-dancing contest during a visit to Savannah, Georgia. At the age of thirteen she landed her first job in musical theatre, dancing as a soubrette—in pants, however, not pretty skirts—in front of the chorus line. By age sixteen she was dancing in a chorus backed by the renowned Count Basie Orchestra. Soon after, she toured the TOBA circuit with the famous Whitman Sisters, dancing in an all-female chorus that, she said, “had all the colors that our race is known for. All the pretty shading—from the darkest, to the palest of the pale. . . a rainbow of beautiful girls.” After dancing specialty acts in Detroit nightclubs, she headed for Los Angeles with a children’s unit, stopping the show with her flips, double spins, and knee drops. It was there that RKO discovered her talent and cast her to appear with Bill Robinson and Fats Waller in the 1935 film Hooray for Love. Dubbed by the press as the “Chocolate Princess,” MGM was impressed enough with her dancing to sign her to a long-term contract, paying the teenager $1250 a week.
For her first film on contract with MGM, LeGon was assigned to work on Broadway Melody of 1936, the first of MGM’s Melody musicals, which was to star the tap-dancing Eleanor Powell. Given the music, LeGon began rehearsals, and at a cast dinner party to promote the show, performed before Powell. The next morning, LeGon was informed that MGM executives had decided that since Powell was already cast as the star soloist, two female tap dancers were not needed for the production. The studio assigned LeGon to the London stage production of At Home Abroad, where she performed the dances of Eleanor Powell and the songs of Ethel Waters, both of whom appeared in the Broadway stage production in 1935.
On the London stage LeGon performed in C.B. Cochran’s At Home Abroad, hailed as “one of the brightest spirits,” the new Florence Mills, “the sepia Cinderella girl who set London agog with her clever dancing.” Back in the United States and Hollywood, however, LeGon faced the cruelest indignity of being cast to play every kind of servant imaginable. One of the cruelest, having to play the role of Ann Miller’s maid Effie in Easter Parade (1948), starring Miller and Fred Astaire who “as stars,” never spoke to her on the set.
In a conscious and misleading redirection of LeGon’s contract, MGM put her behind the scenes, working as dance consultant and dance director, having her stage such numbers such as “Sping,” for Lena Horne, in her first movie Panama Hattie (MGM 1942). The only time that LeGon was acknowledged as an actress was in such all-black films as Double Deal (1939), Take My Life (1942), and Hi-Di-Ho (1944) with black jazzman Cab Calloway. In these films, she got the chance “to be the heroin, to get kissed.”
Bill Robinson, after working with LeGon in Hooray For Love, did not choose to work with her again in the new Twentieth Century-Fox movie Cafe Metropole (1937) where he chose Geneva Sawyer, a white dancer on the Fox lot who was tap teacher to Shirley Temple; and who agreed in the film to perform in blackface make-up. “The white girl will blacken her face to dance as Bojangles’ partner in the production,” wrote the Amsterdam News, “and speculation is rife regarding Robinson’s failure to choose a colored girl for the favored spot since there are so many capable dancers eager to share the favored spot.” The reference, of course, was to Jeni Legon, who was deemed the most gifted black female dancer of her generation.
Ann Miller, the raven-haired, long-legged, sexy dancer with the machine-gun taps, was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas, in 1923. Her father was a criminal lawyer, and her mother, Clara Birdwell, a Cherokee. At age three, when the Colliers moved to Houston, Texas, she was enrolled her in dancing school, partly to build up her legs, which had been affected by rickets. Ballet was not her forte, and after seeing Bill Robinson in a personal appearance in Houston at the age of eight, she set her sights on tap dance. Robinson gave her a first tap lesson, and she soon was performing in clubs and local theaters. At age nine, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in the Fanchon and Marco dance school. Calling herself Annie and adopting the stage name of Ann Miller, she performed dance routines at meetings of local civic organizations, earning $5 a night, plus tips. After watching Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1936 she turned her attention to sharpening her tap dance skills. Appearances in vaudeville theaters led to nightclub bookings and a sixteen-week engagement at the Bal Tabarin in San Francisco, where she was spotted by an RKO talent scout. He arranged a movie audition, which led to her first film, a non-speaking part in New Faces of 1937. With her vibrant personality, great legs, and dazzling style of tap dancing, RKO awarded her a seven-year contract when she was only thirteen (she claimed to be eighteen); and would later insure her legs for one million dollars.
Miller was a remarkable, self-propelled young talent. At age fourteen, she played Ginger Rogers’s dancing partner in the film Stage Door (1937). A year later, she was borrowed by Columbia Pictures to appear as Essie Carmichael, the fudge-making ballet-dancing daughter, in the Academy Award-winning You Can’t Take It With You (1938), directed by Frank Capra. Back at RKO, she played Hilda in the Marx Brothers’ Room Service (1938). In 1939, she made a smashing Broadway debut in George White’s Scandals, creating a sensation dancing “The Mexiconga.” She then signed a new seven year contract with Columbia and was starred in a succession of wartime B-rated musicals, such as True to the Army (1944), where her solo routines were the highpoint. Her personal rat-a-tat, mile-a-minute, tap style warranted that she choreograph all her own solo routines.
Her notoriety as “Queen of the B’s” came from her musical adaptability in working with a number of Big Band, Swing and Latin orchestras. They included Rudy Vallee and Edwardo Durant in Time Out for Rhythm (1941); Freddie Martin and Orchestra in What’s Buzzin’ Cousin? (1943); the orchestras of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Alvin Rey, Charlie Barnet, Glen Gray, and Teddy Powell in Jam Session (1944); the Kay Kaiser Orchestra in Carolina Blues (1944); and in the musical Reveille With Beverly, accompanied by the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bob Crosby, and Freddie Stack, with singing by Frank Sinatra and the Mills Brothers.
In 1948 Miller left Columbia and was signed by MGM to star in Easter Parade (1948), playing the role of Nadine Hale—the former dancing partner and one who loves Don Hewes, played by Fred Astaire, who loves Judy Garland, who loves Peter Lawford, who loves Judy Garland. She danced with a dreamlike grace with Astaire in “It Only Happens When I Dance with You,” despite the 5′ 7″ dancer needing to wear ballet slippers. But it was as a soloist in one scene—in the film, starring Nadine Hale in the “Ziegfeld Follies of 1912” number—she sang “Shaking the Blues Away,” delivering the snazziest song-and-dance in 1940s musical film.
Miller’s lexicon of tap steps was similar to Eleanor Powell’s hip-strutting, head-to-the-floor back-bending, multiple-turning mercuric moves, but Miller preferred a vigorous approach to those steps that was athletic and speedy. She claimed to be able to dance at 500 taps per minute, which no one disputed. Remembered in the popular imagination as an athletic, long-legged tap dancer with lacquered raven hair and Nefertiti eye makeup, in the tap world she is renowned for her dazzling and gutsy style of dancing, one that was as brassy and good-hearted as the showgirl roles she played in her films. Blending glamour and razzmatazz with speedy precision, Miller came as close to hoofing in high-heels as any female dancer in the Golden Age of movie musicals.
The Class Act
The style of Class Act dancing perfected the art of tap dancing. From the first decades of the century, the elegant-mannered song and dance teams of “Johnson and Cole” and “Greenlee and Drayton,” traveled across the stage to make a beautiful picture of each motion. Soloists included Maxie McCree, Aaron Palmer and Jack Wiggins. Eddie Rector’s “stage dancing” dovetailed one step into another in a seamless flow of sound and movement. “Pete, Peaches and Duke” brought unison work to a peak. By the 1940s, it was the dance team of Coles and Atkins, by combining high-speed rhythm tapping with the elegant Soft Shoe dancing that brought class act dancing to a peak.
Charles “Honi” Coles (1911-1992) learned to tap dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time step “cutting” contests. He made his debut at the Lafayette Theatre in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, he retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique, and returned in 1934, confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music. Performing at the Harlem Opera House and Apollo Theatre, he was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business. And at the Hoofer’s Club, he was hailed as one of the most graceful dancers ever seen. After performing with the Lucky Seven Trio (they tapped on large cubes that looked like dice), he toured with the big swing bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, melding high-speed tapping with an elegant yet close-to-the-floor style where the legs and the feet did most of the work. In 1940, as a soloist with Cab Calloway’s orchestra, Coles met Charles “Cholly” Atkins, a jazz tap dancer who would later choreograph for the best rhythm-and-blues singing groups of the 1960s. Atkins was an expert wing dancers, while Coles’ specialty was precision. They combined their talents by forming the class act of Coles & Atkins. Wearing handsomely tailored suits, they duo opened with a fast- paced song-and-tap number, then moved into a precision swing dance and soft-shoe, finishing with a tap challenge in which each showcased his specialty. Their classic soft-shoe, danced to “Taking a Chance on Love” played at an extremely slow tempo, was a tossing off of smooth slides and gliding turns in crystal-cut precision. The team of Coles & Atkins epitomized the class-act dancer.
No dancer or dance team fit neatly into any one category. The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000) created an exuberant style of American theatrical dance melding jazz rhythm with tap, acrobatics, ballet and black vernacular dance. Though they were most often remembered for the daredevil splits, slides and flips in their routines, their rhythmic brilliance, musicality, eloquent footwork and full-bodied expressiveness was unsurpassed. From a young age, at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia where his parents conducted a pit orchestra band, Fayard was introduced to the best tap acts in black vaudeville. He then proceeded to teach young Harold basic tap steps. The “Nicholas Kids” made their New York debut at the Lafayette Theater in 1931, and one year later opened at the uptown Cotton Club. Dancing with the orchestras of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, they evolved a classy and swinging style of musical performance in which comic quips and eccentric dance combined with precision-timed moves and virtuosic rhythm tapping. Alternating between the stage and screen throughout their career, they made their first film, the Vitaphone short Pie, Pie, Blackbird, with Eubie Blake in 1932, and their first Hollywood movie, Kid Millions, for Samuel Goldwyn in 1934. On Broadway, in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms (1937), they worked with choreographer George Balanchine, and starred in the London West End production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1936, in which they worked with choreographer Buddy Bradley. At the Apollo, Harlem Opera House, Palace, and Paramount theaters, the brothers danced with the big bands of Jimmy Lunceford, Chick Webb, Count Basie, and Glen Miller. In Hollywood, on contract with 20th Century-Fox, they tapped on suitcases in The Great American Broadcast (1941), jumped off walls into back flips and splits in Orchestra Wives (1942), and jumped over each other down a flight of stairs, landing into a split on each step, in Stormy Weather (1943), these dazzling feats always delivered with a smooth effortlessness. The musicality of their performance and an insistent exploration of rhythm within an elegant form are the distinctive features of their style.
In the postwar forties, there was a radical transformation in American jazz dance, as the steady and danceable rhythms of swing gave way to the dissonant harmonies and frenzied rhythmic shifts of late 1940s-50s bebop. Jazz tap rhythms, previously reserved for the feet, were absorbed into the body, and a new style of “modern jazz” dance—less polyrhythmic and performed without metal taps—became popular in Hollywood and on Broadway. Dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, Condos Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, and especially Baby Laurence Jackson, were able to endure the radical musical shifts that bebop instigated with a high-speed, full-bodied, and improvisatory response to the music.
Born Laurence Donald Jackson in Baltimore, Maryland, Baby Laurence (1921-1974) was a boy soprano singing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers when the bandleader Don Redman discovered him and brought him on a tour of the Loew’s circuit. On his first trip to New York, he visited the Hoofer’s Club, saw the tap dancing of Honi Coles, Raymond Winfield, and Harold Mablin, and decided he wanted to be a tap dancer. Dickie Wells, who retired from the group Wells, Mordecai and Taylor, encouraged his dancing and nicknamed him “Baby.” He continued to frequent the Hoofer’s club, absorbing ideas and picking up steps from Eddie Rector, Pete Nugent, Toots Davis, Jack Wiggins, and Teddy Hale. By the 1940s, as a soloist, who became his chief dancing rival. Through the forties, he danced with the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman, and in the fifties made the transition by dancing in small Harlem nightclubs. Listening to such musicians as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach, Laurence duplicated in his feet what these musicians played, and thereby developed a way of improvising solo lines and variations as much like a hornman as a percussionist. More a drummer than a dancer, he did little with the top half of his torso, while his legs and feet were speed and thunder, a succession of explosions, machine-gun rattles, and jarring thumps. “In the consistency and fluidity of his beat, the bending melodic lines of his phrasing, and his overall instrumentalized conception, Baby is a jazz musician,” wrote Nat Hentoff in the liner notes for Baby Laurence/Dance Master, a 1959 recording of Laurence’s rhythmic virtuosity that demonstrates the inextricable tie between jazz music and dance.
1950s: Tap in Decline
By the 1950s, tap was in a sharp decline, due to a number of causes, among them the demise of vaudeville and the variety act; the devaluing of tap dance on film; the shift toward ballet and modern dance on the Broadway stage; the imposition of a federal tax on dance floor that closed ballrooms and eclipsed the big bands; and the advent of the jazz combo and the desire of musicians to play in a more intimate and concertized format. “Tap didn’t die,” says Howard “Sandman” Sims. “It was just neglected.” The neglect was so thorough that this indigenous American dance form was almost lost, except for television reruns of Hollywood musicals. Through the early sixties, performance venues for jazz tap dancers had reached their lowest ebb in America, and many dancers found themselves out of jobs. Charles “Honi” Coles, in what he called “the lull,” when there was no call for dancers, took a job as the production stage manager in the Apollo Theater. Other hoofers took jobs as bellhops, elevator men, bartenders, and carpenters. Television had come into almost every American home by this time but the regular weekly variety shows had become the more infrequent “television special.” Except for those specials, with an occasional performance by Ray Bolger or John Bubbles, little or no tap dance was to be seen.
1960s and 1970s: A Slow Awakening
The one event that revived tap dancing took place on July 6, 1963, when Marshall Stearns, at the Newport Jazz Festival, presented Honi Coles, Chuck Green, Charles “Cookie” Cook, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, Pete Nugent, Cholly Atkins, and Baby Laurence in a show entitled Old Time Hoofers. These “seven virtuoso tap dancers of the old-fashioned pounding school of hoofing who drew their strength from the floor reminded an enthusiastic audience at the Newport Jazz Festival of what this much neglected American ethnic art for of exciting rhythm has to offer,” wrote Leticia Jay in Dance Magazine. This old guard of black jazz tap dancers from the thirties and forties began to come back strong, eager to show that the tradition of rhythm dancing had not lost its fire. The Bell Telephone Hour’s “The Song and Dance Man,” broadcast on NBC-TV (January 16, 1966), presented a mini-musical history of tap dance in America and saw the Nicholas Brothers and Donald O’Connor demonstrating a tap challenge. The performance was less a challenge dance and more a brilliant demonstration of signature Nicholas jazz tap combinations, which O’Connor was able to absorb and perform as a third member of the team.
Beginning on April 7, 1969, Leticia Jay presented her Tap Happenings at the Bert Wheeler Theatre at the Hotel Dixie, on West 43rd Street, off Times Square in New York. And there, for several successive Monday evenings, such out-of-work and underemployed hoofers as Lon Chaney, Honi Coles, Harold Cromer, Bert Gibson, the Hillman Brothers, Raymond Kaalund, Baby Laurence, Ray Malone, Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, Tony White, Rhythm Red, Derby Wilson, and Chuck Green participated in “jam sessions” of traditional tap dancing. Tap Happenings later reopened as The Hoofers at the Mercury Theatre off-Broadway, where it played for two months and became the toast of the dance world. After the new production of The Hoofers and the 1970 Broadway revival of the 1925 musical, No, No Nanette (choreographed by the seventy-five-year old Busby Berkeley and starring the sixty-year-old Ruby Keeler), there developed a kind of nostalgic interest in tap dance and all New York dancers wanted to learn it, giving the veteran hoofers the chance to pass on what they knew to a new generation of dancers.
By the mid-1970s, young dancers, many of them white women, began to seek out elder tap masters to teach them. Tap dance, which had previously been ignored as art and dismissed as popular entertainment, now made one of the biggest shifts of its long history and moved to the concert stage. As tap historian Sally Sommers describes: “The African American aesthetic fit the postmodern dance taste: it was a minimalist art that fused musician and dancer; it celebrated pedestrian movement and improvisation; its art seemed casual and democratic; and tap could be performed in any venue, from the street to the stage.” Enthusiastic critical and public response placed tap firmly within the larger context of dance as art, fueling the flames of its renaissance.
The 1970s produced video documentaries Jazz Hoofer: The Legendary Baby Laurence, Great Feats of Feet, and No Maps on my Taps. One of the best moments in the decade was the last three days in 1979 was the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Steps in Time: A Tap Dance Festival, in which veteran tap dancers were joined by a few of their present-day heirs, took the stage to display their collective prowess. The four-hour program included an hour-long musical section by Dizzy Gillespie and his band, performances by members of the Copasetics, and the Nicholas Brothers, who closed the show with their own dazzling blend of ballet, jazz, and acrobatic dancing.
Modern Women of the Tap Resurgence
In the 1970s, women—many of them white, college-educated, modern dancers—sought out as teachers, and forged professional relationships with, black male hoofers of the rhythm tap tradition. Thus, they became the activators of the tap resurgence. Born in the late 1940s and the 1950s, these women had come out of the social and political consciousness of the 1960s Black Power Movement, the Anti-War Student Movement, and the Women’s Movement—all of which had emboldened them to speak out against racism and segregation, war and violence, and the oppression of blacks and women—and to speak for saving the Earth and the arts, for saving the best of human expression. Many of those women had come from the tradition of modern dance—which had roots in being an early twentieth-century feminist art form in that it challenged Western classical ballet’s standards of beauty and deportment to champion the athleticism and form of the female body, with its new-found freedom to move. No doubt, that attitude buttressed them to exercise their own freedom of choice, to even engage in an interracial exploration of rhythm dancing that seemed exciting and somewhat dangerous.
Born in 1937 in Swampscott, Massachusetts, of English, American Indian, Scottish, and Italian descent, Brenda Bufalino received her first lessons in tap dance in Professor O’Brien’s Normal School of Dancing in Lynn, Massachusetts. At age seven she became a member of The Strickland Sisters, her mother and aunt singing and she dancing Dutch medleys (in wooden shoes), Spanish medleys (in tap shoes), and Hawaiian. At age eleven she was enrolled in Alice Duffy’s School of Dance in Salem, Massachusetts, where she learned dances with jump ropes, top hats, canes, and suitcases, and solos on pedestals and on suitcases. In 1950, the day after her thirteenth birthday, she began a commute to Boston to study under the renowned dance teacher Stanley Brown, a black West Indian who had made a successful career in vaudeville and worked with John Sublett Bubbles. Brown became her first rhythm tap teacher. In 1955 at age eighteen, Bufalino moved to New York City to further her dance studies and found her way to Dance Craft, a new studio on 52nd Street that was directed by Charles Honi Coles and Pete Nugent. Coles was forty-three years old, but his speed and stylish arm and legwork was unsurpassed in rhythm tap dancing.
She also studied modern jazz dance with Jack Cole dancers Matt Mattox and Bob Hamilton; Afro-Cuban and modern-primitive dance with Sevilla Forte, Talley Beatty, and Walter Nix of Katherine Dunham’s company; and Calypso from the Afro-Cuban dancer Chino; and found jobs singing and dancing at The Calypso Room, African Room and Café Society in New York.
By 1960, these venues were closing; tap was declining in popularity. After marrying in 1959 and giving birth to two sons, she spent most of the 1960s writing plays and poetry. When Bufalino returned to tap dancing in the early 1970s, she was to integrate it into avant-garde performance art. At New York’s South Street Seaport in 1973, Bufalino “broadcast” the sound of her tap shoes into a synthesizer, being one of the first to experiment with modulating and reverberating the taps electronically. By 1974, established The Dancing Theater in La Grangeville, in upstate New York, where she taught a blend of Afro-Cuban, modern, and jazz dance. Around this time she reconnected with her teacher Honi Coles and began to bring some of the Copasetics to New Paltz for their earliest lecture-demonstrations—which she made sure to videotape. This culminated in the 1977 documentary Great Feats of Feet. Subtitled “A Portrait of the Jazz and Tap Dancer,” this two hour intimate portrait of these dancers was the first of its kind to memorialize the achievements of rhythm dancers who had performed in the golden age of tap during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1978, Bufalino presented Singing, Swinging, and Winging at the Pilgrim Theatre on the Bowery; this the first major showing of her tap choreography in New York included Performed three members of her Dancing Theatre Company, a jazz trio, and Charles Honi Coles as guest artist. Bufalino continued to work with Coles. In 1979 they collaborated on the creation of tap choreography for The Morton Gould Tap Concerto, performed with the Brooklyn Academy Philharmonic Orchestra. She would continue to forge deeply creative ties with Coles for the next fifteen years while continuing to build her own career as a tap soloist, performance artist, and choreographer.
Bufalino shot through the decade of the eighties like a comet, igniting dancers who flocked to her classes, conceiving new structures of choreography, and forming new tap companies while working as a jazz-tap soloist. She also turned her attention to re-envisioning the tap chorus as a tap-dancing orchestra—an ensemble dressed in black ties and tails, placed onstage like a symphony, only dancing, and founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO), which had its first major booking on July 4, 1986, at the Statue of Liberty Festival in Battery Park, New York City.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1948, Jane Goldberg was a twenty-five-year-old modern dancer and social activist, living in Boston and writing about dance, when she found her way to the studio of rhythm tap master Stanley Brown and realized that she could liberate the ground upon which she stood with her feet. In 1974, she moved to New York City and was soon taking private tap lessons from various members of the Copasetics, including Charles Honi Coles, Chuck Green, Howard Sandman Sims, Charles “Cookie” Cook, Bert Gibson, Leon Collins, and Leslie “Bubba” Gaines. She also wrote about tap dance, publishing her first interview with Paul Draper, “It’s All in the Feet” in Boston’s Patriot Ledger (24 April 1974).
Teaching the rhythm tap tradition also became part of Goldberg’s charge, as she knew that for the form to survive, it needed to be passed on by the masters. In 1977, she and Cook applied for and received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship in Choreography to produce a lecture-demonstration. It was an interracial and intergenerational mix of dancers that included, along with Cook and Goldberg, rhythm-tap veterans Jazz Richardson and Bert Gibson, as well as Andrea Levine, Goldberg’s student. It’s About Time (24-26 February 1978), began as an informal downtown event but turned out to be a packed-to-the-walls sold-out show attended by jazz critics, downtown dancers, musicians, visual and performance artists and garnered a preview listing and dance review in the New York Times, which had Jennifer Dunning urging the public to see the show: “Break down the doors if you have to.”
With the critical success of It’s About Time, they were next invited to perform at the American Dance Festival (1978) as part of its Archival Project. That show led that same year to perform at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival; it would be the first concert of tap dance there since Paul Draper’s in 1941. Dance Theatre Workshop next presented Goldberg and company at its American Theatre Laboratory in New York City, in Shoot Me While I’m Happy (1979) with Goldberg and Cook, Ernest Brown, Leroy Meyers, Phace Roberts, Honi Coles, Louis Simms, Bubba Gaines and Marion Coles. This production marked the formal founding of Goldberg’s Changing Times Tap Dance Company, dedicated to preserving, promoting, and creating new tap performances with a mix of dancers who were young and old, black and white, male and female.
In 1980, the Changing Times Dance company organized By Word of Foot, the first week-long tap festival billed as “a rare gathering of tap’s leading dancers to pass on their tradition.” Seventeen of America’s foremost innovators of jazz tap dancing gathered to talk about the tradition and teach their own evolved styles to dancers from throughout the country. While some of the shows produced by Goldberg were based loosely on campy plots, they were but a thin veil masking the still serious issues surrounding tap dance in the 1970s and 1980s. These included The Depression’s Back, and So Is Tap (1983); and The Tapping Talk Show (1984).
In the last two days of 1979, the crowning performance of the decade for tap occurred with Steps in Time: A Tap Dance Festival—anearly four-hour program which featured members of the Copasetics (Honi Coles, Leslie Gaines, Charles Cook, and Buster Brown), Leon Collins, Sandman Sims, the Nicholas Brothers, Chuck Green, and a brief appearance by Jane Goldberg. Barry Laine for the New York Times wrote that Goldberg’s “own style respects and preserves the past, yet she makes use of her whole body, curling her arms and swaying her torso. Given her modern dance background, tap with her was bound to be different from what it was.” Laine added, “While the hoofers are mostly older black males, today’s crop of new tappers seem to be mostly young, white women. Many are taking tap in new directions.”
Lynn Dally & Jazz Tap Ensemble
On the West Coast, there was another modern dancer taking tap dance into new directions. Born in 1941 in Columbus, Ohio, Lynn Dally’s father, Jimmy Rawlins, and mother, Hazel Capretta Rawlins, ran the local Rawlins Dance Studio. Rawlins was her first tap dance teacher: “I had a beautiful training as a kid because my father was a very good tap dancer. The sound quality of his tap dancing was excellent. And in our lessons, we got to close our eyes, listen to the taps, and try to recreate what we heard. We were always dealing with rhythm.”
In 1973, after graduating from Ohio State University as a modern dance major, performing abroad, teaching at Smith College in Massachusetts, and teaching modern dance and improvisation at Ohio State University, Dally moved to San Francisco and in 1974 formed her first all-woman company, Lynn Dally & Dancers. The company performed in New York City at the American Theatre Laboratory in August of 1979. When Dally returned to New York in December of that year to perform at the American Theater Lab, it was with a new company—the Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble, later the Jazz Tap Ensemble. The newly-organized West Coast collective of jazz percussionists were venturing into the fairly uncommon territory of a simultaneous exploration of jazz music and modern dance traditions in a new approach to tap dance. The musicians were Paul Arslanian, Tom Dannenberg, and Keith Terry; the dancers were Dally, Camden Richman, a modern and jazz tap dancer who had studied with Charles “Honi” Coles and Eddie Brown, and Fred Strickler, who had studied modern dance at Ohio State University and had formed his own modern dance company. The Ensemble established itself in the seemingly disparate worlds of modern dance and tap, Dally’s interests in improvisation and concepts of structure and form in dance composition joining with Strickler’s interests, not only in jazz but also in Mozart and other Western classical music.
In January 1979, the Ensemble presented Riffs, a concert of dance at the Pacific Motion Dance Studio in Venice, California. It was then that the core features and focus of their percussive collective was conceptualized—making pieces that had musical structures, unusual time signatures, or no music; tap dances that had no music; pieces that rejected the role of dancer and accompanist and instead featured dancer and musician in interplay and on equal footing; and compositions that tested boundaries of the form for the concert stage. In a concert in April 1979 at the University of California Berkeley, jazz critic Derk Richardson in Down Beat magazine wrote: “Tap dancing as jazz percussion, a tradition that had been carried from the heel-dropping rhythms of John Bubbles through the bebop of Baby Laurence, may not have been a new idea, but . . . the Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble demonstrated the vitality and the potential for growth of that nearly lost American art form.”
In its first four years of existence, JTE grew from small studio performances to sold-out houses in such far-flung places as Honolulu, Hawaii, and Paris, France, with enthusiastic responses to work. They toured the country, were awarded grants from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and in April of 1982 were invited to perform in a tribute to Honi Coles at the Smithsonian. In 1984, Richman and the group’s three jazz musicians, gave notice, due to the company’s intense touring schedule, leaving Dally and Strickler to reform the Ensemble (Linda Sohl-Donnell was hired to replace Richman, later Heather Cornell and Terry Brock); and Sam Weber replaced Stricker, who left the company in 1987, leaving Dally as JTE’s sole director and prime choreographer.
White “liberated” females were not the only dancers freshly attracted to black rhythm tap dancing in the 1970s. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1951, Dianne Walker studied tap from the age of seven with Mildred Kennedy (Bradic), who ran the esteemed Kennedy Dancing School in Boston, Massachusetts, but her tap renaissance came in 1978. She was a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two, living in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, and working as a staff psychologist at Boston City Hospital when she met, at a social affair, the black vaudeville tap dancer Willie Spencer. He sent her the very next day to the studio of Leon Collins, the master bebop dancer who inspired a new blend of jazz tap and classical music. She walked into the studio to see this little man sitting at his desk, adjusting his taps with a screwdriver. “Hi dumplin’,” said Collins. “I’ve been waiting for you. Willie called and told me you wanted to learn to tap dance.”
Collins began his teachings with Routine #1, progressing to Routines 2, 3, and 4, which altogether constituted the core of his teaching. Eager, talented and mature, Walker soon found herself teaching tap to Collins’ Saturday children’s class, thus becoming his protégé, and in 1982 a member of Collins & Company. For young blacks in Boston in the 1980s inculcated with the new rap and hip-hop, the inspiration of jazz tap was not there. Still, Walker managed to impress such young dancers as Derick Grant, who she cast in a promotional tour of the documentary film No Maps On My Taps; and Dormeshia Sumbry, who Walker took to the Tip Tap Festival in Rome, Italy. There they met “Tap Dance Kid” Savion Glover, who Walker took under her wing.
Though she pursued a career as a soloist, dancing Collins’ classic work, Flight of the Bumblebee, and performing in the Paris and Broadway productions of Black and Blue, teaching and mentoring remained Walker’s central passion. Through the body of Collins’ work, she has evolved her own more feminized, sensuous translation of that style that opens up the body to a more expansive rhythmic experience. Her teaching is based on “how to get more in the body” if you don’t hop; attention to detail; recognizing the little things; and her core mantra, “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
Walker would continue to become ubiquitous in the tap community, committed less to making “art” than to making social connections with the young generation of dancers ignited by the resurgence of (black) rhythm tap. She is considered as the transitional figure between the young generation of female dancers—Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, Idella Reed, Michelle Dorrance, Ali Bradley—and the “forgotten black mothers of tap,” such as Edith “Baby” Edwards, Jeni LeGon, Lois Miller, and Florence Covan. Walker is the holder and bequeather of the classical black rhythm tap canon, making sure it will flourish with absolute perfection.
1980s: The Renaissance
In the eighties, there was a renaissance of interest in tap dancing that began to grow and spread. “It’s satisfying to know that tap didn’t die,” remarked James “Buster” Brown in George Nirenberg’s film No Maps on My Taps (1980), which documented the hoofers who helped keep tap alive through its lean years. Michael Blackwood’s documentary film Tapdancin’ (1980) followed the performances of veteran dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers who built their routines to irresistible climaxes meant to arouse high responses from the audience. 1981 saw the Broadway opening of Sophisticated Ladies, a musical homage to Duke Ellington that starred Gregory Hines. In1982 the new tap musical, Tappin’ Uptown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring Honi Coles. With the proliferation of tap festivals across the country and films such as White Nights (1985), The Cotton Club (1984), and Tap (1989), and the Broadway productions of The Tap Dance Kid (1983) and Black and Blue (1989), everyone proclaimed that tap was back. On television, the PBS production of Tap Dance in America, hosted by Gregory Hines, featuring tap masters and young virtuoso Savion Glover, bridged the gap between tap dance and mainstream entertainment.
Savion Glover, virtuoso rhythm tap dancer, choreographer, director, and actor who revitalized and re-rhythmatized tap dancing for the millennium generation, was born November 19, 1973 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Willie Mitchell, was a carpenter; and his mother, Yvette Glover, was a gospel and jazz singer who raised him. Since his Broadway debut at the age of nine as the title character in The Tap Dance Kid, Glover has been considered the artistic grandson of the most revered figures in jazz tap dance—Jimmy Slyde, James Buster Brown, Honi Coles, Arthur Duncan, Chuck Green, Harold Nicholas, Lon Chaney, Bunny Briggs—and heir to the generation of dancers led by Gregory Hines and his brother, Maurice. As a child, and then as a teenager, Glover took his place beside them in such Broadway productions as Black and Blue (1989) and Jelly’s Last Jam (1991), and in the 1988 film Tap!, in which he played opposite Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. On television, Glover appeared in the PBS Dance in America special, Tap Dance in America (1989) with Hines and Tommy Tune, and then became a regular on Sesame Street as the tap-dancing cowboy.
Trained as a drummer, Glover thinks of his tap shoe as a drum—the inside toe of the metal tap is the hi-hat, the outside toe of the tap is the snare, the inside ball of the foot is the top tom-tom, the outside rim of the is the cymbals, his left heel is the bass drum, and the right heel the floor tom-tom-tom. He regards himself as a hoofer who, unlike a classic tap dancer, uses the whole foot to elicit music, including the inside and outside, the arch and the ball, rather than just the heel and the toe. “We as hoofers are like musicians, more into rhythms,” says Glover. “It’s not about sensationalism. It’s no arms or anything like that. Everything is just natural.”
In 1991, when Glover took on his first tap choreography project commissioned by Jeremy Alliger’s Dance Umbrella in Boston, it was not to create a number to classical jazz tunes like “A Train,” “Cute,” or “Perdido.” Instead, he used a number from Quincy Jones’ “Back on the Block.,” from his Birdland album. “It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before,” said Glover about the work, “I had people playing basketball, leaping, running. It’s a mixture of things, but it’s mostly tap.” Utilizing seventeen dancers all under the age of sixteen, Glover found new sounds by recycling old steps, and letting younger people make up new rhythms, thereby paving a new direction in tap for the younger generation.
In 1986, La Mama presented Sole Sisters an all woman, multi-generational tap dance show directed by Constance Valis Hill that brought together high-heeled steppers and low-heeled hoofers, the veteran grande dames of tap and younger prima taperinas. The show, conceived by and starred Jane Goldberg, included veterans Josephine McNamara, Miriam Ali-Greaves, Marion Coles, Harriet Browne and Frances Nealy, and younger dancers Brenda Bufalino, Sarah Safford and Dorothy Wasserman. Soul Sisters was not the only production to open the door for the recognition of female jazz tap dancers. On the West Coast Lynn Dally, who founded the Jazz Tap Ensemble in 1979, combined her extensive experience in modern dance with jazz tap to organize a group of dancers that insisted on performing and interacting with a live jazz ensemble. On the East Coast, singer, jazz and tap dancer Brenda Bufalino, formerly a partner of Honi Coles, founded the American Tap Orchestra, and set about experimenting with how to layer and orchestrate rhythmic groups of dancers on the concert stage. Both Dally and Bufalino were hailed not only as leaders in the renaissance of jazz tap dance but also in concertizing jazz tap, and infusing it with upper-body shapes of jazz dance and new spatial forms from modern dance.
1990s: Contemporary Afro-Irish Traditions
The decade of the nineties saw the resurgence of percussive forms of dance forms that were an outgrowth of the tap dance’s Afro-Irish cultural and musical traditions.
Stepping is a percussive dance form in which African-American youngsters in military lines run through routines in rapid- fire movements, slapping their hands on their hips, stomach and legs, crossing and re-crossing their arms to the hip-hop beat and gospel music. Often they chant praises to the Lord as they step, imbuing their performance with an air of spirituality. Stepping dated back to the early twentieth century, when black veterans of World War I who enrolled in colleges wanted to express their blackness through a communal art form of their own. Inspired by their military training, they brought to their dances a highly rigorous, drill-like component and combined it with elements from other black vernacular dances. Today’s step dance or drill teams add hip-hop movements to their combinations. African-American stepping, like jazz tap, relies on improvisation, call and response, complex meters, propulsive rhythms, and percussive attack, stepping quickly took off in black fraternities, becoming an integral part of initiation, with students holding fierce contests to demonstrate their originality. Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze brought Stepping to a wider audience.
Though Stepping would certainly not be confused with the style of step dancing performed by the Trinity Dance Company, which sprang from a school that won step-dancing competitions in Dublin, it shares elements of clean rhythmic precision, speed, and the keen sense of competition. Though the company stages its challenges in an air of competition dancing it movement is considered progressive Irish dance, and liberties, such as the semaphoring of arms movements and dazzling knee-to-toe action—have been taken with the original form of Irish step dance.
Trinity Dance Company is not the only company to revive, transform and concertize the traditional Irish step dance forms. The most creative departure from tradition was achieved by dancer/choreographer Sean Curran. A postmodern dancer and choreographer with a background in step dancing, he was also was a principal dancer with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company. Curran’s dance works, such as Curran Event (2000) have co-opted related rhythmic forms, such as body percussion, to create patterns intricate enough to keep the eye alert and the pulse throbbing.
In the 1990s, two musicals were sterling representations of the evolution of the Afro and Irish music and dance traditions—Riverdance on Broadwayand Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. With Riverdance, which moved to Broadway in 1996, traditional Irish dancing was virtually transformed overnight, liberated, and seen around the world. Since the sixties, Ireland had enjoyed a renaissance of Irish traditional music brought to the world by the Chieftains U2, Van Morrison, Enya, and Sinead O’Connor. With Riverdance, dozens of talented Irish dancers but also dancers from Britain and America who were dazzling world champions and principal dancers who had been perfecting their craft from going to Irish dancing classes from virtual infancy, entering competitions and brought home medals and cups. The main Irish dance numbers in Riverdance were choreographed by Michael Flatley (who went on to create Lord of the Dance), who unabashed mixed traditional Irish step dance and the sensuous flow of flamenco rhythms. Still, the pure essentials of Irish dancing—the frankness of the frontal presentation, calm neutrality of the torso, arms, and pelvis, footwork as a keen as a flickering flame, the blithe verticality of the body—glorified a centuries old Irish dance tradition.
Also in 1996, Savion Glover had the opportunity to mine the riches of jazz tap and ground its history in the heart of African American identity when he choreographed and starred in Bring ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. Subtitled “A Tap/Rap Discourse on the Staying Power of the Beat,” the show conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, with lyrics by Reg E. Gaines, opened at the Public Theatre in New York and subsequently moved to Broadway to win Tony Award for best Choreography in a Musical. Noise/Funk, wrote New York Times critic Ben Brantley, was “not just the collective history of a race but the diverse and specific forms of expression that one tradition embraces.” Critics commented that Glover’s feet in the show spoke hip-hop, and that he was first young tapper in his generation to yet again reawaken the art form. The show brought the history of rhythm in America up-to-date, and in the process, making tap dance cool again.
In the 1990s, tap dance has continued to thrive and evolve as a unique American percussive expression. When tap dance artists were asked what was new in the technology, technique, translation, or theatre of tap in the nineties, their responses ranged from amplification, concertization, layered rhythms, verbal embellishment, instrumentation, exotic rhythms, political raps, modernist shapes, newly explored space. Incorporating new technologies for amplifying sounds and embellishing rhythms, new generations of tap artists in the nineties are not only continuing tap’s heritage but also forging new styles for the future.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, tap dance was regarded as a national treasure, a veritable American vernacular dance form. It was celebrated annually on National Tap Dance Day—May 25, on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday (1878-1949)—in big cities and small towns in every state. Tap festivals, from three days to two weeks in length, were held every month of the year, in more than twenty-five U.S. cities. There were also hundreds of tap classes, workshops, and festivals on all six inhabited continents. In Cuba in 2001, for example, Max Pollak established that country’s first tap festival and performed with an all-star ensemble, made up of Cuba’s finest jazz musicians led by Chucho Valdes.
Tap dancers as performance artists were also acknowledged in all forms of the media. Savion Glover received a lengthy review by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker for his show, Improvography, at New York’s Joyce Theatre (16 December 2000), with a full-page photograph taken by fashion and fine arts photographer Richard Avedon. Glover also appeared on the cover of Dance Magazine (May 2004), as did Jared Grimes (June 2007) and Michelle Dorrance (May 2008). Melinda Sullivan made the cover of Dance Spirit (May/June of 2003), as did Ayodele Casel (May/June 2006) and Jason Samuels Smith (May/June 2008); and Gregory Hines with Michela Marino Lerman made the cover of Dance Teacher (February 2002).
In advertising, the entire Edwards family—Omar, his wife Dormeshia, and their two children—became the poster-family for Capezio tap shoes; Jumaane Taylor wore Brenda Bufalino’s Tap Shoe for Leo’s Dancewear; and Jason Samuels Smith became the corporate spokesperson for Bloch dancewear, engaged in a team effort to develop a new tap shoe offering quality and affordable options for professional tap dancers.
Tap had its popular home base in the in-print and online publication of Dance Spirit, with feature articles on tap dancers, performances, and festivals, written by Melba Huber, whose writings comprise a mini-history of tap dance. Nadine George Graves’s The Whitman Sisters: Royalty of Negro Vaudeville (2000), Savion Glover and Bruce Weber’s Savion! My Life in Tap (2000), Constance Valis Hill’s Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000), Mark Knowles’ Tap Roots (2002), Brenda Bufalino’s Tapping the Source: Tap Dance Stories, Theories, and Practice (2004), and Jane Goldberg’s Shoot Me While I’m Happy (2008) broke with the genre of star-centered biography to contexualize their subjects within the bio-historiography. Thomas DeFrantz’s article, “Being Savion Glover: Translocation, Black Masculinity, and Hip Hop Tap Dance,” first published in Discourses in Dance (2002), heralded tap’s worthiness of critical cultural and theoretical discourses on race and gender. So too did the tap dancer and performer Ann Kilkelly, having written earlier groundbreaking articles in the feminist theory journal Women & Performance (“Brenda Bufalino’s Too Small Blues,” vol. 3, no. 2, 1987/88, pp. 67-77; “Ghost Notes, Rhythms, and Lamentations,” vol. 7, no.1, 1994, pp. 65-81). Kilkelly continued to theorize on the feminist implications of tap performance through lenses of race, gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and autobiography.
Veteran master hoofers hit the academic jackpot on February 22, 2002, when Oklahoma City University awarded nine Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance degrees to world-famous African-American “Doctors of Dance”: Charles “Cholly” Atkins, Bunny Briggs, James “Buster” Brown, Jeni LeGon, Henry LeTang, Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Jimmy Slyde, and Prince Spencer. Marion Coles received an honorary degree (honoris causa) from Queens College (CUNY) in 2002; and Harold Cromer from New Jersey’s Bloomfield College in 2008.New tap studios were opened, such as Dormeshia Sumbry and Omar Edwards’ Harlem Tap Studio, in the legendary Sugar Hill section of Harlem, as a serious home for tap. New tap companies were founded, such as the all-woman Barbara Duffy & Company (2000); Jason Samuels Smith’s Anybody Can Get It (A.C.G.I.); and Ayodele Casel and Sarah Savelli’s Tandem Act Productions (T.A.P., 2006), aimed at promoting female tap choreography.
Elka Samuels, big sister to Jason Samuels Smith and herself a tap dancer, founded Divine Rhythm Productions in 1999 to produce, represent, and exclusively manage tap dancers. In 2006, Savion Glover, on the occasion of his 25th year in dance theater, founded Savion Glover Productions, a self-producing and managing company that was inaugurated at a formal reception and dinner at New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center on National Tap Dance Day (May 25); there, Glover honored fifteen “responsibilitors” of tap dance—historians, producers, and practitioners—”for giving tirelessly to the spirit and legacy of tap dance.” They included Marshall Davis, Jr., Hannah Leah Dunn, Jane Goldberg, Megan Haungs, Al Heywood, Melba Huber, Delilah Jackson, Peter Ktenas, Sali-Ann Kriegsman, Deborah Mitchell, Cobi Narita, Frank Owens, Carl Schlesinger, Hank Smith, and Sally Sommer.
On television, Marvin, the Tap-Dancing Horse (PBS-TV) brought down the house in his big Broadway-style production number; Savion Glover and company performed on Dancing With the Stars (2007, CBS-TV); and for the short-lived Secret Talents of the Stars (2008, ABC-TV) Jason Samuels Smith choreographed a production number for rhythm-and-blues singer Mya Harrison (whose secret desire was to be a tap dancer), using fifteen hot young tap dancers. At Radio City Music Hall, the precision tap dancing of the Rockettes continued in show-stopping numbers—five shows a day, seven days a week. On Broadway, the chorus kids in choreographer Randy Skinner’s Broadway revival of 42nd Street (2001), the tap-dancing flappers in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), and the show-stopping soft-shoe dancers in Jerry Mitchell’s Hairspray (2002), certified, as did the City Center Encores! production of No, No, Nanette (2008), that “tap is the language of love.”
On film, the romantic hero in the Warner Brothers Academy Award-winning animated musical Happy Feet (2006), was an unstoppably cheerful penguin named Mumble, who could not sing but could dance, tap dance—and that he did brilliantly. Slapping his webbed feet on the icy Antarctic terrain, his body upright and flippers hanging rigidly out at his side (almost passing for an Irish step dancer), his feet made dazzling ornamental flourishes, Mumble the penguin was an exact spin-off of Savion Glover—because Glover was Mumble—by computer, he provided Mumble’s dancing moves. The film’s director, lead screenwriter, and producer, George Miller, explained how the entire film hinged on persuading Glover to don a motion-capture body suit to become the tapping feet of “our tap-dancing-fool-hero.”
Fusion, the union or blending together of unlikely elements to form a whole, might be the term that best describes the musical and cultural mix in tap dance that resulted from an explosion of global cultural consciousness in the first decade of the new century. Max Pollak combined taps with Afro-Cuban rhythms and body percussion for his company, Rhumba Tap; Tamango blended of tap and Afro-Brazilian rhythms for his company, Urban Tap; and Roxanne “Butterfly” Semadini melded tap with flamenco and rhythms from North Africa, not far from her ancestral roots, in her tap work, Dejallah Groove. While these fusion works derive from a relatively simple equation, more intricate multi-stranded weavings have made the term fusion in the millennium relatively obsolete.
Tapage’s Morango…Almost a Tango
What do we call the multiple cultural intertwinings of Tapage, the dance company of Olivia Rosenkrantz and Mari Fujibayashi? Born in Briey (Lorraine), France, of French-German descent, Rosenkrantz moved to New York City in 1988 and in 1991 joined Brenda Bufalino’s American Tap Dance Orchestra. Her five years of experience with Ka-Tap, a North Indian music and dance ensemble that blended jazz with tap, and in which she performed with the Indian tabla master Samir Chatterjee, nourished her choreographic interest in crossing rhythm tap with the music and dance styles of other cultures. Fujibayashi was born in Kyoto, Japan, and was the first dance artist to be awarded a grant from the Japanese government for artistic studies abroad. In New York, like Rosenkrantz, she danced with the American Tap Dance Orchestra and with Manhattan Tap. Tapage was founded to create a unique voice and choreographic approach to tap, incorporating dramatic intensity and rhythmic complexity with contemporary gesture, as demonstrated in the Morango…Almost a Tango, performed at the New York City Tap Festival’s All-Stars/Tap Internationals program in 2005.
Herbin Van Cayseele (Tamango) presented Bay Mo Dilo with his company Urban Tap at New York’s Joyce Theater in 2007. Born in rural Cayenne, French Guiana, and raised in Paris, where he studied tap dance at the American Center with Sarah Petronio, he moved to New York in 1988 and was soon participating in tap jams hosted by Jimmy Slyde at La Cave (a jazz club on 62nd Street and First Avenue). There, he changed his name to Tamango to reflect his African roots. Bayo Mo Dilo is a visualization of those ancestral roots, realized not through a fusion of elements but by an incorporation of separate elements that reference and cross-reference one another. The set was by “Naj” Jean de Boysson—huge projected videos of a moon seen through dark foliage, raindrops falling on a banana leaf, and similarly luscious tropical visions, along with street scenes. It created a Caribbean atmosphere, within which were musicians Eric Danquin and Daniel Soulos (from Guadeloupe), and “Bonga” Gaston Jean-Baptiste (from Haiti); Vado Diomande offered the acrobatic stilt dancing associated with West African ritual; actor/dancer Jean-Claude Bardu played the amiable fellow-about-town, limbs akimbo; and Haitian dancer Belinda Becker (as Oshun, the Yoruba spirit goddess, or orisha, performed the fluid spinal undulations, and swinging arms of the west African-styled mangiani. Tamango appeared, wearing a jingling belt over a pair of black pants so thickly fringed with shreds of fabric that they suggested the costumes of featured dancers in certain West African rituals. His bells resembled the percussive embellishments (gold and bronze ornaments, fetishes, jewelry) worn by some tribes in Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, the Bights of Benin, and Biafra—they created, as he danced, body music. Yet onstage in heavy-booted tap shoes (wired to amplify sound), his trail of flat-footed paddle-and-rolls sealed his pedigree in the old rhythm-tap tradition of African-American hoofers Ralph Brown, Lon Chaney, and Jimmy Slyde.
India Jazz Suite was the collaboration of the sixty-two-year-old foremost East Indian kathak guru Chitresh Das and the twenty-six year-old rhythm-tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. It was not the first to explore the affinities between tap dance and kathak ; Ka-Tap, directed, choreographed, and performed by kathak dancers Janaki Patrik and Anup Kumar Das, and tap dancers Neil Applebaum and Olivia Rosenkrantz, was performed at New York’s Symphony space in 1998. Nor did it seek to fuse East and West, but to instead present a conversation between the two forms that was interactive, in which each was circumspect about maintaining its uniqueness. What the audience got to watch was a thinning of boundaries between two generations. The two men met in 2004 at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina. Smith was drawn to Das’s charisma, intrigued by the intricate patterns the kathak artist could weave with bare feet and five pounds of bells on his ankles; Das, who had always dreamed of working with Gregory Hines, was intrigued by Smith’s intense American energy and improvisational skills. Their collaboration, in which each would perform with their own native musicians, showcasing each form conscientiously while highlighting its likeness to the other, was based on one shared quality: footwork. Across cultures came two sets of musicians as well: North Indian classical music was represented by the foursome of Ramesh Mishra (saranji), Abhijit Banerjee (tabla), Swapnamoy Banerjee (sarod), and Debashish Sarkar (vocals); American jazz was represented by musicians Channing Cook Holmes (drums) and Theo Hill (piano). In performance, Das’ barefooted ghungru-enhanced sounds matched those of Smith’s shoe-clad feet, tap for tap, rasp for rasp. What was conceived as a friendly dance conversation was sometimes pleasant banter and at other times fierce competition, in which each emerged as winner in his own way.
Women in Tap Conference
In 2008, at the historic Women in Tap Conference at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), four generations of female tap dancers celebrated their contributions to the historically male-dominated field. The central aim of the conference, organized by Lynn Dally, director of the Jazz Tap Ensemble and professor in the department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, was to unearth stories about and contributions of women in tap. There were keynote addresses, historical overviews, and panel discussions on challenging issues to women in tap. The corporeal proof of the conference was its Saturday night concert of, primarily, solos.
Miriam Nelson, the eighty-nine-year old tap dancer and Hollywood film and television choreographer provided a sweet souvenir of pre-jazz-tap song-and-dance showmanship to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” The much younger Terry Brock aimed for a perky profile to “Lady Be Good,” conjuring Eleanor Powell, an icon of the 1930s. Deborah Mitchell’s dance to “Sunny Side of the Street” was a moving, brilliantly rich, unpredictable, and disarmingly slinky tribute to her mentor, Leslie “Bubba” Gaines. Barbara Duffy turned to the past, dancing to “Soldier’s Hymn,” her quiet, unhurried meditation of a rumbling rumba. Then Heather Cornell forged a new direction in her solo career by playfully finding new sounds in her leather-soled shoes (sans metal taps) in interplay with pianist Doug Walter. Lynn Dally turned bluesy and bittersweet to “You Gotta Move,” and Linda Sohl broke out of jazz tap’s musical formulas with Espiritu, a collaboration with her husband Monte Ellison. Brenda Bufalino, in My Mind’s on Mingus, brought a conceptual rigor to the program, as well as genuine jazz music—recapturing her lifelong tango with her mentor and jazz counterpart, Charlie Mingus. Acia Grey’s Twos and Threes aimed for stark and intricate display dancing. The supremely gracious Dianne Walker skated over “Autumn Leaves” with suave delicacy, and then Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards brought passionate spontaneity to her solo—with deliberately rough-edged footwork at maximum velocity—a tap artist who belonged to the new century, whatever her debt to the past.
The evening was crowned—and the fate of future women in tap foretold—by Michelle Dorrance, Josette Wiggan, and Cloe Arnold, the youngest women in the corps, who tore the place apart with their unscheduled trio, the only group work on the program. Based on the challenge dance—the original forum for tap virtuosity—they traded and ornamented steps with joyous vehemence. Separately, Dorrance tapped without music, in darkness, and reminded the audience of the essentials in this percussive art form. Wiggan made a take-no-prisoners attack at maximum complexity, with a style of dancing informed by contemporary black culture. Arnold’s feisty tap adaptation to the Maya Angelou poem, Phenomenal Woman, woke the house and told the people: “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,” she recited. Changing from low-heeled to high-heeled shoes to hit the floor with sass and fury, she demonstrated where her powers lay—in “the span of my hips, the stride of my step. . .the swing in my waist, the joy in my feet. . . the click in my heels . . . I’m a woman. Phenomenal woman. That’s me.”
Embracing Tradition, Forging Change
Tap dancers take deepest into their hearts the revering of old souls; perhaps because, as a cultural form more than a dance practice, tap eternally binds dancers into a family that always looks back as it moves ahead. The elders are revered and respected, always respected. One could even argue that, like the African talking drums, every rhythm that is tapped on a stage sounds out praise for its elders. Their ghosts are ever present, implicit in every step. Formal and informal tributes to the elders are incorporated into every tap dance festival’s culminating evening of performance, in public honor of the rhythmic wit and poetry the masters have transmitted.
Most moving is when young dancers pay tribute to the masters. And so it was at the Tap City Youth Concert in 2008 at Symphony Space, when thirty-four members of the American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tap City Youth Ensemble, a multiracial, and multiethnic group of intermediate and advanced girls and boys aged ten to eighteen, in their tribute to Honi Coles and The Copasetics, performed a historic suite of dances of that legendary tap fraternity founded in 1949, in memory of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They began with “The Copasetics Song/Coles Stroll,” and continued with “The Mayor of Harlem,” Honi Coles’s lyrics about the great Bojangles; the “The New Low Down,” Robinson’s signature number in Blackbirds of 1928 as performed by Robinson and the Blackbird chorus; to end with the “Copasetics Chair Dance.” The suite comprised an initiation to the classic jazz-tapping style of 1930s and 1940s—but the words and steps were also a mantra of brotherhood and sisterhood that inscribed the tap dancing:
When you feel blue,
The best you can do
Is tell yourself to forget it,
sang the dancers as they clicked and scuffed their heels in strolling walking patterns that snaked around the stage.
Life’s a funny thing
It’s really great when you sing,
And everything will be copasetic…
The cheery refrain recalled the Copasetics’ happiest moments onstage; in the Preamble to their organization, they had pledged themselves “a social, friendly, benevolent club,” its members “to do all in our power to promote the fellowship and strengthen the character within our ranks.”
Never look down,
Chin up and don’t frown,
Don’t let life get pathetic.
Show a happy face to the whole human race,
And everything will be copasetic . . .
And everything will be . . .
“So long as we pledge to do all in our power to promote the fellowship and strengthen the character within our ranks…”
And everything will be,
“So long as it remains our every desire to create only impressions that will establish our group in all walks of life as decent and respectable . . .”
And everything will be . . .
So long as we have fingers to snap, hands to clap, feet to raise up the beat,
curtsy : https://www.loc.gov/