I received my Gregory Hines stamps a few weeks ago, but LOOK what came through the door this week! This year, the US Postal Service issued a new set of stamps honouring the American art form of tap dance – featuring five of tap’s hottest performers today: Max Pollak, Michela Marino Lerman, Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia and Ayodele Casel.
The stamps were designed by Ethel Kessler and the dancers were photographed by Matthew Murphy, and it’s important to note that the US postal regulations prohibit the honouring of a living person on a stamp, in case you were wondering why the dancers’ names are missing. Instead, the dancers are honouring the art form as representatives.
The first-day-of-issue ceremony took place in Times Square, New York City during Tap City, the New York City Tap Festival in July, and was attended by Max, Dormeshia, Ayodele and Michela, plus Tap City and ATDF’s Tony Waag.
As with my Gregory Hines set, I’ll be putting these into a frame to display in my garage dance space, as part of my tap dance memorabilia – but first we’re getting the garage roof replaced because it’s leaking. I’ll share some pics next month!
The stamps come in sheets of 20 and are available from the USPS or if you’re outside the US, try Gift Sampler on ebay.
Ordinarily I’m not a stamp collector, but I was really excited to receive THESE in the post!In 2019 the United States Postal Service celebrated the life and work of the award winning tap dancer and entertainer, Gregory Hines by making him the 42nd honouree in their Black Heritage USA Forever stamp series, with a ceremony at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in Manhattan, NYC.
The event was attended by his brother Maurice Hines, his daughter Daria, his protégé Savion Glover, Tony Waag of ATDF, Chloe and Maud Arnold of the Syncopated Ladies and Jason Samuels Smith. The photograph used for the stamp was taken by Jack Mitchell in 1988 and the stamp was designed by art director Derry Noyes.
I’m planning to frame my little stamp collection with the following Gregory Hines quote:
I don’t remember not dancing. When I realised I was alive and these were my parents, and I could walk and talk, I could dance.
I’ll share some pics once they’re on display in my garage dance studio.
The stamps and artwork are available to purchase at the USPS Shop
– if you’re outside of the US, like me, check out Gift Sampler on ebay.
A few weekends ago my SO and I went to see ‘Swinging at the Cotton Club’ at Watford’s outdoor summer event space, Stage in the Park.We opted to take our own deck chairs, rather than sit on blankets or sit in the area with chairs provided – cheaper tickets!
The park was also hosting the annual Jiveswing Festival that day, so we went along a bit earlier to make sure we caught some of that beforehand. We only got there to catch the end of the festival, but looking at their social media feed, it looks as though it had been a fantastic day.
Stage in the Park advertised lots of food options, so we didn’t eat beforehand. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t anything there, besides some sausage rolls. There was a Caribbean food van that was setting up, but wouldn’t be ready to serve until the interval…no burgers, no Mexican food as promised! And the people running the event didn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that none of the other food vans had materialised either. We ended up walking back across the park to the Jiveswing Festival to grab a burger from a van that was just starting to pack away and head home. Once we were in our seats, the HEAVENS OPENED and it continued to rain for most of the show. It got to the point where some of the dancers were slipping on the stage, which was mopped during the interval… ANYWAY, onto the actual show:
In celebration of the hottest joint in 1920s-30s Harlem, Swinging at the Cotton Club was a variety show of song, Lindy Hop, vintage jazz dance and tap dance, against the live music of Duke Ellington, played by Harry Strutters Hot Rhythm Orchestra. The dancers were from the Lindy Hop Dance Company (which included Jreena Green, who was one of the special guests on BOP Jazz’s ‘Let’s Talk Jazz‘ series last year), and the featured tap dancer was Worthing-based artist Lee Payne, who is part of Tap Dance Research Network UK – I had no idea there would be tap dance in the show because it wasn’t mentioned in the blurb, so that was a pleasant surprise!
Lee did a GREAT job with his exciting tap routines, including one dedicated to Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and he even pulled out a sand dance later in the show, which was awesome. Vocalist Marlene Hill breezed through classic songs such as ‘Is You is or is You Ain’t My Baby’ (with compere Megs Etherington) and ‘Stormy Weather’, which was particularly apt in the relentless downpour. The Lindy Hoppers did some flashy routines, which were really fun to watch, framed perfectly by the shimmering lights of the background staging and the various costume changes. They also showcased a bit of tap, and I particularly enjoyed their soft shoe routine – I love the fact that tap doesn’t always have to be fast and furious.
The audience was quite small, but very encouraging to the artists and most of us stuck it out in the rain until the end, and actually, the sun did come out in the second act. Many people got up to dance and I got out of my seat to join in with the Shim Sham at the end 🙂
Verdict: It was a great show and I loved the music and dance and atmosphere. I just think I’d rather watch it indoors next time!
Over the last year or so of online talks and events, I’ve learned about so many different legendary tap dance artists, and written about a few of them too. This time, I thought I would write about one of the pioneering women of the artform – Jeni LeGon:
Born: 14th August 1916 in Chicago, Illinois as Jennie Ligon.
Died: 7 December 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Known For: Being one of the first black women to develop a successful solo dance career, for dancing in trousers (unusual for women at the time) and for being the only black woman to dance on screen with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who was regularly paired with Shirley Temple.
Training: She developed her art on the streets of Chicago’s South Side and went on to win a tap dance contest in Savannah, Georgia. At 13 years old, she got her first musical theatre job, dancing as a soubrette. She went professional by age 14 when she started performing with Count Basie. Later, in 1943 she took lessons in African dance from the amazing Katherine Dunham, dancer, anthropologist and creator of the Dunham Technique.
Early Career: In 1931 she started performing across the Southern US states with the Whitman Sisters’ all female chorus (the Whitman Sisters were four African American sisters whose successful touring company challenged racial stereotypes, ran for over 40 years and was the best paid act on the TOBA circuit). Later, Jeni formed the LeGon & Lane tap duo with her half-sister Willa Mae Lane in 1933. She danced in speciality acts in the Detroit nightclubs and then went on to dance in Los Angeles.
Hollywood & Beyond: Jeni was discovered in 1935 by manager Earl Dancer and she signed an extended contract with MGM Studios. Her first film casting was Broadway Melody of 1936, starring Eleanor Powell, but the contract was cancelled soon after because the studio “didn’t want to have two [female solo] dancers”, which basically meant they didn’t want her to outshine Powell. In the end, LeGon worked as a dance consultant and dance director for MGM, who didn’t know how to market a solo black female dancer. She said “I didn’t fit in at that time as one of the kids next door”. As was the case in those days, many of the Hollywood roles she did get cast her as some type of servant or maid. It was only when she starred in all-black films with people such as Cab Calloway, such as Hi De Ho (1947), that she said she got the chance “to be the heroine, to get kissed”. Her first actual screen role was in Hooray for Love (1935) where she danced with Bill Robinson. The film also starred Fats Waller, who she went on to work with for much of her career.
In 1936 she got some work in the UK, appearing on the West End stage in C.B Cochran’s revue, Follow the Sun and in the film Dishonour Bright (1936).
Movie Credits:Hooray for Love (1935),Dishonour Bright (1936), Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937),This Was Paris (1937), Start Cheering (1938), Fools for Scandal (1938), Double Deal (1939), I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (1940), Birth Of The Blues (1941), Bahama Passage (1941), Sundown (1941), Arabian Nights (1941), While Thousands Cheered (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), Hi De Ho (1947), Easter Parade (1948), I Shot Jesse James (1949), Somebody Loves Me (1952), Bright Road (1953), Documentary – Jeni LeGon: Living in a Great Big Way (1999), Bones (2001).
Later Life: Jeni quit Hollywood in the 1950s, studied percussion, and continued to work in dance and music, including teaching and running drama workshops. She relocated to Vancouver in Canada, a place she found much more welcoming than the US.
I decided I wanted to be in show business. I used to sneak out of school and go see Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and all the wonderful bands they had at that time
I’ve had a dance school all my life
I danced like a boy
Hollywood was a black and white world
[MGM] were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn’t good enough to eat in their dining room
Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame
National Congress of Black Women
Doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance, Oklahoma City University (2002)
International Tap Dance Hall of Fame, American Tap Dance Foundation (2002)
Jeni LeGon is the subject of obsession for one of the protagonists in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, that I am yet to read!
I can’t believe it’s July already! My SO and I recently had a week’s holiday in Torbay, aka the English Riviera, which basically consists of the seaside towns of Torquay (as in Fawlty Towers), Paignton and the beautiful fishing harbour of Brixham. We had such a great time, and we were really spoiled with the lovely weather (because everyone back home had rain a lot of that week). The week ended up having an Agatha Christie theme because we visited her holiday home Greenway, by the stunning River Dart, we saw an Agatha Christie exhibition at Torquay Museum and some of the set and costumes from ITV’s Poirot (one of my favourite shows ever – although only series 1-8. Not so bothered after it changed production and we lost the comedic relationships between Poirot and Inspector Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon), we saw her comedy-thriller play Spider’s Web at Paignton Theatre one evening, and while visiting her hometown of Torquay, we also found the site of her childhood home, which is sadly no more. What a week!
After thinking about it for quite a while, today I closed my soap business that I’ve been running for about 10 years. Although I had been thinking about doing it for a while, Brexit ended up being the catalyst as I had to jump through a number of hoops to submit all my product details to the new government cosmetics portal, and I just knew I was over it already. Although I feel a little sad about it, I also feel like a BIG WEIGHT has been lifted off my shoulders. About 5 years after starting my craft business I got into tap dancing which requires time and dedication, plus I didn’t have much time for writing for fun anymore, so it feels good to have that extra time back! I have a small-scale wholesale customer who I will continue to make for once a month, but I’m just done with all the other stuff.
American Tap Dance Foundation’s TAP CITY festival starts on Monday!!! I’m really excited to be able to join in while it’s taking place online. I mean, who’s getting on a flight from London to New York at the moment?? I’ve printed off the schedule, highlighted all the intermediate classes, and added in the class times in GMT (big thanks to my SO for reminding me about that!). I will actually be working Monday and Tuesday (still working from home, so I can join in from 5pm) and then I am on holiday the rest of the week so I can take part live, but my registration actually includes 30 days access to the recordings. Result!
On another note, I am currently working on a mini-bio about a female tap dance legend to share with you shortly. I did start doing research while I was in Devon, but I was too distracted by the sea views!
I hope you’ve had a good week? Yesterday I had my last tap class of the half-term. The next block of 6 begins the week after next, but I’m wondering whether to take a break until September (shocking, I know!) and try to work my way through some of the video content I still haven’t looked at from the various festivals, workshops, classes, one-off events, etc that I purchased last year. I find it hard to fit in when I have exercises and choreography to practise for my weekly class. I’m unavailable about 2 or 3 weeks of the next block, if I sign up for the usual Wednesday or Thursday class, so if I do enrol, it’ll be on the Tuesday night class. I may…I may not.
I continue to explore writing as a career, and so last night I attended an online masterclass from The Guardian newspaper entitled: ‘Kickstart Your Freelance Writing Career: A Journalism Workshop’, with journalist Coco Khan. I did actually write for a couple of student magazines when I was at university all those years ago – I was a writer for a publication called Student Pages, where I did a travel piece and another piece where I interviewed friends about their courses and career aspirations. Alongside that, I also did music reviews for another publication (can’t remember what they were called now), where they sent me free CD singles and I wrote what I thought of them! Unfortunately, both magazines closed down in my final year, and what I should have done when I finished university was get in somewhere else while I had a current portfolio of work. But you know, life gets in the way, you get an unrelated job and forget about it for several years. (Also, when I was at secondary school I had a theatre review published after my Classics teacher submitted it to a magazine – I have to say they changed it so much, it didn’t sound like me at all!)
Anyway, back to last night’s Guardian Masterclass. There were 60 of us on Zoom meeting, and Coco talked about finding and developing your own voice, how to break into journalism, pitching your story to (extremely busy) editors, delivering great journalism, building relationships with editors, building resilience and handling rejection. It was a two and a half hour class, but we were late starting due to internet issues, and by the time we came to the 5 minute break, nearly 2 hours in, I had a thumping headache, and had to exit before we got onto having a go at writing a pitch and the promised ‘mammoth’ Q&A at the end. Questions were asked and answered at various points throughout, which was helpful, and they will be sending through the presentation slides. I got SO much out of the session, and it made the idea of pitching a story, opinion piece or personal essay to a magazine, newspaper or website a lot less intimidating – if no-one replies, or they don’t go for your story, don’t take it personally! They’re busy and they get hundreds of pitches in their inbox every day. We’ll see what happens!
Great news – my SO and I both had our first Covid vaccinations last weekend! We had the Pfizer Biontech jab as they’re no longer offering under 40s the Astra Zeneca, due to the risk of blood clots. I was glad about that because I had a DVT when I was 20. I’m a little scared of needles, and felt quite worked up just before I had it done, but honestly, I didn’t even know the nurse had done it until I saw her drop the needle into the disposal bucket. I was given a green sticker to wear on my hand to indicate my nervousness, and the nurse was great and just chatted away to me about my plans for the weekend, so I was distracted 🙂 I’ve never, ever had a bad experience with needles, but for some reason I get super nervous and start freaking out. They asked me if I was likely to faint and needed a bit of time, but I said “nope, I’ll be fine, I just get a bit worked up” (i.e. just get it over with!). I posted about how I hate needles and how easy and painless it was on social media because I have a cousin who is flat out refusing to get the vaccination because she is a proper needlephobe.
In other news…I recently attended a series of three online workshops on musicality for tap dancers. Hosted by my teacher’s tap company, we were joined by guests Jess Murray (The Tap Project/London Tap Jam/Tap Dance Research Network UK), Gustavo ‘Tato’ Sassone (The Luthier Dance School Barcelona), and Max Pollak (Rumba Tap). These guys are all amazing in their own right and I came away having learnt SO MUCH:
Jess got us to explore improvisation, looking at beats, units of time, accents and space, and we looked at which steps we can fit into different rhythms (such as cramp rolls into swung eighths), which will really help with future improvisation.
Drummer and percussionist Tato took us through the very basics of music theory, which was so helpful to me because I had forgotten a lot and my understanding was vague up until that point. We didn’t do any tap, but we spent the session clapping out the rhythms, which was helpful for concentrating on that, rather than what you’re doing with your feet.
Drummer and percussive dancer Max showed us the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Clave. Stepping, clapping and singing, all at the same time – argh! But he broke it all down in such a way that you found yourself able to do it…if only for a while! These things take practise. My teacher had actually let me know about an opportunity to do online classes with him on a Friday evening, but I don’t want to take any more on right now!
I actually had clarinet lessons for a couple of years when I was at secondary school (and I hated them!), and although I could play okay and can still read music (although I needed a refresher), I was better at playing by ear than by music score. Revisiting music as a tap dance student has been interesting; our teacher will use musical terms like ‘sixteenth notes’ and ‘triplets’, and it literally means nothing to me, despite attempting to learn what they are. I’ve gradually realised over the years that I don’t really retain numbers and amounts in the way that I retain words.
I’ve attended 2 online musicality workshops with Sarah Reich over the last year and these recent sessions have gone over it all again, with things like bars and note values, and I write myself loads of notes, but I don’t seem to be able to retain the information in my head! Some students want to know how many steps we’re doing, or how many counts something is, where as I learn from retaining the ‘bah-dah-bee-bah-dah’, which isn’t a bad thing at all, because you want to move from counting into feeling the rhythm. After all, the masters did it by feel. But, I still want to be able to understand what I’m doing musically. Our teacher is very good at recognising that we all learn differently, because she’ll explain it both ways. My solution for now, has been to create index cards with the note values and explanations and stick them on the wall of my garage tap studio! 🙂
Anyone else struggle with music theory? Let me know in the comments 🙂
A few months ago I attended an online talk by Annette Walker of Tap Dance Research Network UK, where she was sharing some of her research on the forgotten African American choreographer ‘Buddy Bradley: Choreographing British Film and Theatre’.
He was a pioneer here in the UK, but most people haven’t even heard of him!
Who: Clarence ‘Buddy’ Bradley Epps
Born: Pennsylvania, USA in 1905 and was an orphan by his teens.
Died: 1975 in New York
Family: Married Dorothy, known as ‘Dee’.
Training: Largely self-taught in Tap dance, Charleston and the other jazz dances, influenced by the environment of the Harlem renaissance of New York City.
Known as: The UK’s answer to Busby Berkeley
Career: Being black in the US at that time, he was not credited for much of his early choreography of several Broadway shows. This changed when he was invited to work in the UK on the musical Ever Green in 1933 and decided to settle here. (This is a common theme when you look at the African American performers, like Josephine Baker and Will Gaines, who also found success and credit for their work once they moved to Europe).
Notable Students: Fred and Adele Astaire, Ruby Keeler, Eleanor Powell. Buddy was the go-to person in London for tap training, and he taught lots of the UK’s big names, including Jack Buchanan, Jessie Matthews, Lionel Blair and the late Bruce Forsythe, John Mills and Roy Castle. He had his own dance studio at 25a New Compton Street and later Denman Street in Soho, London, called the Buddy Bradley School of Stage Dancing. By 1950 the school had over 500 students!
Teaching style: Apparently he liked his dancers to move across the stage rather than hoof on the spot. He taught in routines, like Henry Le Tang (rather than the ‘watch me and pick it up’ style of some of the masters) and he was known to be a ‘task master’.
Some of his film & stage choreography credits: High Yellow (1932), Ever Green (1934), Radio Parade (1934), A Fire Has Been Arranged (1935), Anything Goes (1935), Brewster’s Millions (1935), Blackbirds (1936), This’ll Make You Whistle (1936), I Can Take It (1939), Full Swing (1942), Something in the Air (1943), It’s Time to Dance (1943), Sauce Piquant (1950)
People lose sight of the fact that all these modern dance creations…beginning with the Charleston…the Black Bottom, Pickin’ Cotton, Beguine, Rhumba and Carioca, all have African origin.
When I set out to conceive such a dance as the Caranga, I first ask “what is the background?”
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a lot written about him. He wasn’t even mentioned on British television until about thirty years after his death, when the actor John Mills tap danced across the stage on the popular evening talk show Parkinson, and he was asked who taught him to dance – Buddy Bradley!
Buddy is mentioned in the following books that I used as my sources for this post:
Bourne, Stephen, Black in the British Frame (2005)
Stearns, Marshall & Jean, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1994)
OKAY, my first ever pair of customised tap shoes arrived all the way from Madrid last week!They’re handmade by Arte FyL (who specialise in Flamenco shoes) and I ordered them from through Tap Dance UK back in January, after looking through all the available colour swatches and designs on the website. I also had a ‘digital shoe fitting’ one Friday morning on Zoom with Tap Dance UK, where they got me to draw around my feet and read out the measurements, so they could place the order. (They get a special discount with Arte FyL).
I went for the Astaire style Oxford shoe in dark blue leather with aubergine patent and laces. They weren’t cheap, but I put some Christmas money towards them, plus I’m not paying extortionate train fares while I’m working from home. (I noticed a slight imperfection on them when they arrived, so I actually got 10% back). I’m not going to wear them for a full class straight away because I feel they need breaking in a bit. What I will do is wear them to mess around in and for practise and just see how they go. They don’t have the ankle cushioning that my Jason Samuels Smiths have, so I may need to stick some cushioning in the back so I don’t end up with blisters!
Hey, how are you doing? Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve found it hard to find the motivation to write, despite having lots to write about and trying to make THIS year my ‘Year of Writing’ (last year didn’t really work out…). So here’s a brief run-down of what I’ve been up to:
Tap Dance Standards Workshops
I recently attended a trio of tap dance standards workshops on Zoom, hosted by Sole Rebel. I literally jumped at the chance to learn some classic repertoire! I told you about the first one, Leon Collins #53 in my last post, and the next two were Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s King For A Day, which I absolutely LOVE, taught by Old Kent Road’s Avalon and Buster Brown’s Laura (some of which I’d learnt at Tap Dance Festival UK in 2019), taught by Old Kent Road’s Ryan. Thankfully recordings of the class and of the full routines were provided, so I can continue to work on these in my own time. I’ve just signed up to the next trio of workshops, which will be focusing on improvisation, musicality, rhythm and body percussion, which will be challenging and amazing!
In February I signed up to a ‘Couch to 5K’ writing challenge called Wake Up Your Writing, where I received a timed writing prompt by email every day for a whole month. Unfortunately I got to day 5 and gave up…*sigh*…BUT, I still have the emails, so I am going to pick up where I left off: “Pick a character you know and love and make them do the thing you always wished they would”. I’m going to have a think now about which character I want to write about 🙂
BOP Jazz Workout
My SO and I are still working from home, and while it can be too easy to flop on the sofa in the evening, one thing I have been motivated to do is the BOP Jazz dance workout every day after work. I think part of it is the feeling of stretching and lengthening those stiff muscles after a day at the desk, and the other part is the wonderful chilled jazz music that accompanies the workout. It’s a manageable bit of cross-training. I also like the fact it’s more of a body conditioning and stretch class than a bouncy cardio workout, which I really have to be in the mood for! (BOP are the London-based Body of People Jazz Theatre Company, and the founders, Dollie Henry and Paul Jenkins have written a fantastic book called The Essential Guide to Jazz Dance, which is on My Must Reads list).