Tap & Tea with Lisa La Touche

Last Thursday afternoon I had my online rhythm tap class with the aim of doing it in my garage which is all set up as a dance studio. The college is now hosting classes on Microsoft Teams, which is proving to be a challenge! On the previous week I was the only student who didn’t have a blank screen and was able to actually see our teacher’s demonstrations… and then this time, right at the start, Teams crashed out on my laptop and it refused to reconnect to the Internet, so I had to run in from the garage and grab a different device to join them again. I basically missed most of exercises before we tackled the routine – how frustrating! But at least I got back in before the end. I think I’ll stick with using the tablet for Teams stuff from now on. I just need to think about where I’m going to do these classes!

At 4pm I joined Theatre Tap London’s Tap & Tea session, with this week’s special guest, all the way from Calgary, Canada, Lisa La Touche! Lisa was a cast member of Shuffle Along (choreographed by Savion Glover), Stomp, and Sophisticated Ladies, among other amazing shows. She has won the Fred Astaire Award, the ACCA Actor’s Equity award, and was a member of Jason Samuels Smith’s ACGI tap company. Her mentor is Barbara Duffy, a founding member of American Tap Dance Orchestra. Exciting stuff!

Lisa started by showing us the mountain view from her home in Calgary, before talking about how she got started tapping recreationally at 5 years old. It was only at 8 years old when she was put into a good class with a great teacher where she learnt the Al Gilbert syllabus and moved onto a competition dance studio for more performance opportunities, which she assured us is much more intense these days (Abby Lee Miller, anyone?!).

Like Stephen Mear from week 4, Lisa also had to catch up on ballet, jazz and modern when she moved to a new dance school, particularly as a relatively late starter (bit like myself LOL). She went to watch all of her teacher’s shows, which included guests such as Buster Brown and Heather Cornell. Her teacher took classes from these guys, which then influenced her teaching of Lisa’s classes, moving away from a fixed curriculum.

She then started attending all the Tap festivals, like Tap City. She moved to Toronto to get nearer to New York, then moved to NYC in 2008 on the advice of Josh Hilberman. Once she did that, the rest is history! She took classes with some of the the big names in tap (Buster Brown, Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Barbara Duffy), and said she got her “butt kicked every week”.

Lisa was in the show Imagine Tap with a load of people who are huge in the Tap scene now – Michelle Dorrance, Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Ayodele Casel, Bril Barrett, Jason Janas, etc.

She talked about her work with Gregory Hines’ amazing protégé Savion Glover, and his methods of teaching and choreographing. This led into a discussion of the musicality of the greats, where people didn’t do ‘counts’ but just scatted it out. I have to admit I’m not a counter and find it easier to remember rhythms.

Lisa suggested that we take a jazz track (maybe something by Oscar Peterson), find a few bars that you like and repeat the beats verbally (bah-dee-bah-dah-bah-dah!) and then try it again, making the sounds with your shoes. Even if it’s just a cramp roll or a paddle. (I’m definitely going to try this!)

Lisa La Touche was so down to earth and interesting to listen to. She was my favourite so far, and they’ve all been pretty amazing!

Some La Touchisms:

Go and explore

Trust what inspires you

Tap Dance is a way of being

That was the last of our 6 week tap history series, but we have a social/Q&A on Zoom this Thursday, and then they are running another 6 week tap history series, with some different artist contributors starting the following week! I may sign up again…

Tap & Tea with Andrew Black

Last Thursday afternoon we were joined for our penultimate Tap & Tea session by New York tap dancer and choreographer, Andrew Black, who specialises in theatre tap styles of the 1920s-1940s. He’s known for White Christmas, Tap Dogs, Singing in the Rain, 42nd Street, and many more amazing shows. He currently teaches at Taps on Broadway, and confessed that he had to audition FIVE TIMES for 42nd Street. This session was a jam-packed tap history lesson!

He recommended several books that are well worth getting hold of. (It was cool – he had several huge hardback dance books piled up in the background). I have 3 of these books, and I’ve included the link to the review I wrote of the Rusty Frank book in 2017, in case you didn’t read it at the time:

Andrew is big into the MGM movie musicals and naturally, he recommended we watch them all, as well as newer stuff, such as Gregory Hines’ movies Tap, The Cotton Club and Bojangles. 

On the subject of MGM, we looked at Great Depression of 1929 and he told us to read up on ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, referring to the brief period between the first ‘talkies’ (1929) and the introduction of the strong Catholic moral code of censorship in 1934, known as The Motion Picture Production Code (aka The Hays Code). The code was introduced and enforced to clean up the movies after the release of several risqué movies and many off-screen Hollywood scandals. In those days, people went to the movie theatres for more than just a big movie release. They also went to see the news, public announcements and to watch cartoons etc, and therefore hugely influential. The code banned things like profanity, blasphemy, depictions of interracial relationships, white slavery, suggestions of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity…: “if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind”. (Note that Some Like it Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and  Tony Curtis ignored the code!) The Hays code lasted until 1966 when the film rating system came in. (Read more from BFI Screenonline)

There was much discussion about the historical segregation of black and white and the separation of Broadway tap and hoofer-style tap, ‘up-tap’ and ‘down-tap’ (‘up-tap’ being the more upright Irish style up-on-the-toes tap, and ‘down-tap’ being the more down in the ground style). 

Andrew, like everyone we’ve listened to so far, had so many positive things to say about Gregory Hines, who brought tap dance back to the stage, in shows such as Sophisticated Ladies. Mr Black was a very enthusiastic guest, and we actually ran out of time (after we over-ran), so he has been invited back when the sessions re-start in a few weeks with another line-up of amazing hoofers!

This Thursday, our last session of six, we will be joined by Lisa La Touche…

 

 

Tap & Tea with Stephen Mear CBE

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On Thursday I attended week 4 of Theatre Tap London’s ‘Tap & Tea’ tap history series. This time we were joined by two time Olivier Award winning choreographer Stephen Mear CBE! He has had a prolific career in musical theatre, and is known for his work on West End and Broadway shows including Mary Poppins, White Christmas, Funny Girl, Singing in the Rain, Sinatra, Sweet Charity and many more. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to dance.

Tap dance was the first type of dance he learned at his mother’s dance school, and he later trained in Matt Mattox style jazz dance (aka Freestyle Jazz) at London Studio Centre. I was interested to hear that he took 14 ballet classes a week to get his ballet up to scratch! He’s also probably the 4th or 5th British dancer I’ve heard say that they were the best tap dancer in their home town; then they went away to a college in London or took tap classes in New York and found themselves at the bottom of the class!

Stephen showed us and discussed clips of jazz isolations in Beat me Daddy 8 to the Bar from Bob Fosse’s ‘Big Deal’, the jazz-tap combination in The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing from ‘White Christmas’, and we also looked at a clip of his idol Ann Miller on stage in 1987 with her famous ‘Easter Parade’ number ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away‘ as part of variety show Happy Birthday Hollywood. 

There was much discussion of jazz dance, having been inspired by Matt Mattox, Jack Coles, Chet Walker, Bob Fosse, and Hermes Pan, who collaborated a lot with Fred Astaire. We found out loads about Stephen’s choreographic process, particularly as someone who is dyslexic. Someone asked during the Q&A how he notates his work, and it turns out he films everything (although assistants will write it all down in detail). He also uses dance college students to map everything out before taking it to teaching the cast.

Useful Advice from Stephen:

  • Auditions – leave your attitude outside! Choreographers all speak to each other as well, so be nice to everyone. Do the best you can, know who and what you are auditioning for. He said he looks for people who are passionate over those who are just technically brilliant.
  • Starting out as a choreographer? Try not to be too overzealous – i.e. “Just because you have a parasol in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to twirl it”. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down ideas.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this time as I’m not so into the West End stage type of tap dance, but Stephen was so interesting to listen to! I loved hearing about how it all works behind the scenes, the ups and downs, how he started out, who he worked with and who inspires him.

After this session, my passion for jazz dance was reignited and having googled Matt Mattox, I’ve ended up subscribing on YouTube to ‘Monday Mattox’ jazz (and tap) technique classes with Bob Boross (who trained under Mattox) – LOVE IT!

This coming Thursday, we’ll be joined by Broadway performer and choreographer Andrew Black.

Tap & Tea with Tony Waag

No, it’s not your eyes; I scratched out the other attendees at the top of the screen on this photo

Yesterday afternoon I attended Theatre Tap London’s second ‘Tap & Tea’ study session on Zoom, with 48 others, plus this week’s special guest speaker, Tony Waag of the American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF).

I was really excited about this one because I took a class with Tony at Tap Festival UK in Manchester in 2019, and he knows, knew and has worked with EVERYBODY who was anybody in the tap world, including the late Honi Coles and my favourite – Gregory Hines!

Tony co-founded ATDF (originally the American Tap Dance Orchestra) with Honi Coles and Brenda Bufalino in New York City back in 1986. Our study session covered the history of tap among Irish and African-American communities in NYC, Tony’s background in musical theatre, followed by tap dance, how he met and worked with Honi Coles and the Copasetics, his friend and colleague Brenda Bufalino, the wonderful Gregory Hines who created opportunities for many others…and then we finished with a very quick Q&A. We ended up over-running by nearly 10 minutes! It was really lovely to hear all the anecdotes of various artists and all the practical stuff, like difficulties with venues not understanding floors, microphone position and so on for tap performances.

Tony told us that ATDF is the custodian of a huge tap dance archive, which is to be donated to the New York Public Library, and he encouraged those of us in the UK to research tap history in the UK and write it, because there were things happening here (e.g. African-American performer Master Juba in London the 1840s) that were documented in the media of the day, but then largely forgotten. Leading UK tap artist and researcher Jess Murray shared the link to the Tap Dance Research Network in the chat box – things are happening!

The final question that was asked in the Q&A was “how can I become the best tap dancer I can be?” Something I often wonder! I scratched down some quick notes from Tony’s advice:

 

  • It’s up to you to go for it
  • Check it’s what you want to do, rather than someone else’s dream
  • Trust your gut
  • Keep an open mind and be flexible
  • You’re allowed to change your mind
  • Experiment
  • Don’t compare yourself to others
  • Make something up!

 

Next week we hear from Jenny Thomas, choreographer of Strictly Come Dancing!

Hope you enjoy some of the performances I’ve linked to in this post. I’m off to the garage now to practice!

Tap & Tea Thursdays

Yesterday I signed up to Theatre Tap London’s Tap and Tea study sessions taking place every Thursday at 4pm on Zoom for the next six weeks! They have a different tap pro scheduled to talk each week about tap history, context, technique and so on, followed by a Q&A.

I attended the first one this afternoon, (along with 48 others!) with special guest Nathan James, who spoke passionately about his PhD research into the big MGM musicals, concentrating particularly on Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell.

Some interesting facts of note:

  • A lot of the Dance Directors in those big movie musicals couldn’t actually dance. It was more about staging. Those that could dance tended to have a ballet background and tappers like Ann Miller did a lot of their own choreography…without acknowledgement.
  • Female tap dancers never got a lead role. They weren’t considered the romantic lead type with all that aggressive hoofing!
  • The dancers didn’t actually wear tap shoes in the movies. The tap sounds in the movies were recorded and added in later.

I’m looking forward to next week, where we’ll be learning from American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tony Waag, who I was lucky enough to take a class with at Tap Dance Festival UK back in January 2019.

Keep dancing!

Quick Bio: John W. Bubbles

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Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Who: John W. Bubbles (born John William Sublett)

Born: 19th February 1902 in Louisville, Kentucky

Died: 18th May 1986 in Baldwin Hills, California

Known as: The Father of Rhythm Tap!

Partnered with: Ford L. “Buck” Washington and performed as ‘Buck & Bubbles’ on the Vaudeville circuit. Buck & Bubbles were the first black artists to perform at the Radio City Music Hall.

Big break: Ziegfeld Follies (1931)

Hollywood Movies: Varsity Show (1937), Cabin in the Sky (1943), A Song is Born (1948), Atlantic City (1944)

Tap Dance Style: percussive heel drops, complicated syncopation, jazz music style improvisation with traditional techniques

Invented: Rhythm Tap and the Cramp Roll (Ball-R, Ball-L, Heel-R, Heel-L done very quickly)

Notable Students: Fred Astaire

Recognition: Received the Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists in 1980, and was inducted into the Tap Hall of Fame in 2002

Catchphrase: “Shoot the liquor to me, John Boy”

Noteworthy quotes about him:

“Before Bubbles, tap was danced primarily on the toes, in the 2/4 feel of early jazz music”

“[There is] no tap dancer today who has not been influenced by Bubbles’s inventions”

“[He] revolutionised tap by cutting the tempo…and extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music” (Margaret Morrison)

“He could get an extra thud whenever he wanted it” (Honi Coles)

“…a new style of tap dancing…he brought his heel beat into tap dancin’…” (The Nicholas Brothers)

References:

 

Book Review: Brotherhood of Rhythm

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Last week I finally finished Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap of the Nicholas Brothers by Constance Valis Hill (2000). I bought a second hand copy which is full of scribbles and I may go back over it and make some scribbles of my own!

Beginning with a foreword by the late, great Gregory Hines, Valis Hill takes us through history from the origins of jazz music and dance to the early heroes of tap dance, such as Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Leonard Reed. She then takes us to Chicago in the early 1920s and introduces us to the bright young brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, their family and their ambitions at emulating these early jazz tap acts and then going even further with their own unique class act style.

There are 10 chapters literally bursting with information. The overarching theme in this biography of the tap dancing brothers is the unfortunate backdrop of racial segregation in America up to the 1960s.

One of the stand-out dance acts of all time, they were grossly overlooked in Hollywood once they had reached an age where old enough to be considered a threat to segregated societal norms (i.e. no possible suggestions of sexuality, no hints at interracial relations, and certainly no being the star in a film made for white audiences) they were relegated to being a novelty act and never really got the mainstream recognition they deserved. It was much easier to keep them in the role of boys and keep feeding the minstrel show stereotypes. (It brought to mind the servile and deliberately non-threatening Mammy next to the glamorous Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind).

I found it really interesting that a movie many people know the Nicholas Brothers for – Down Argentine Way (1940) – would have been censored for Southern white audiences so that the brothers’ amazing dance sequence was cut from the showing. Crazy! However, it remained in the version shown in cinemas and people loved it! Today that dance sequence is actually the part of the movie that people want to see (check it out on YouTube – fabulous).

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The good news is that Harold and Fayard went to Europe, which was was more open-minded and they experienced great success in places like the UK and France (particularly Paris), but the US didn’t give them the dues they deserved. Sad times.

We’ve all heard of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but ask your average Joe if they’ve heard of the Nicholas Brothers, and they’d probably say “who?” A CRIME in history as far as I’m concerned!

Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers dance on air

Madonna, Vogue (1990)

Although it took me a while to get into it, I found Brotherhood in Rhythm an enjoyable, extremely informative book to read, with lots of detailed facts and musical counts and ‘dee-dee-dahs’ to digest (yes, really). A great historical record of the Jazz Age and all things Nicholas, including a little of their personal lives, but without the gossip aspect. There are also quotes littered throughout from hoofers, dancers and musicians that will be of interest to tap dancers and jazz enthusiasts. There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book to explain various terms used in the book such as “Legomania”:

Highly individual and unusual leg movements in jazz dancing, such as rubber-legging.

A goal of mine for a long time was to master the splits. Well, after reading about Fayard Nicholas’s hip replacement…I’m not so sure!

Verdict: Warm, wordy, wow!

Mammy
Scarlet & Mammy

BBC Four – Tap America: How a Nation Found Its Feet

Photo courtesy of BBC4

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b396jx

Over the weekend, after watching the amazing Royal Wedding (Congrats Harry & Meghan!) I watched Tap America: How a Nation Found Its Feet on BBC4, as part of their dance season. A school friend actually messaged me to tell me it was on, but as I’m all over anything tap, I already knew it was on.

If you are able to, you have to watch this! Tap America is essential viewing if you love tap dance. Presented by Clarke Peters (Five Guys Named Moe), he explores the history of tap dance, meeting with well-known modern and older tap dancers and tap historians.

He interviews Michelle Dorrance of Dorrance Dance (sadly I couldn’t make their workshop at Sadlers Wells last year 😥), Obba Babatunde, Chloe and Maud Arnold (love them!), Maurice Hines, Arthur Duncan, and many more. The documentary also discusses the work of other hoofers, such as the Nicholas Brothers, Baby Lawrence, Bill Robinson, John Bubbles, Sammy Davis Jr, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

Peters explores the origins of tap dance in slave drumming and story-telling which led to ‘buck dancing’ along with the influence of Irish indentured workers and their traditions of the jig and clogging. He moves on to looking at minstrel shows, Vaudeville and the Cotton Club, and the inequalities that existed in the US during racial segregation.

I like the fact that the documentary draws out the different styles of tap, specifically the African style, which is down in the ground, bent kneed (ie the Rhythm Tap I’m learning) versus the more upright Hollywood 42nd Street style which was, I guess the sanitised version that went mainstream in the entertainment world.

The Tap Drought section of the documentary is very interesting. Tap went out of fashion in the 1940s, tap dancers struggled to get work, but there were a few keeping it alive, still going when it wasn’t cool, and those who revived it, a bit like the revival that’s happening right now!

Some noteable quotes about tap:

“a form of musical expression”

“communication… sound… a drum”

“a universal language”

“American identity”

“a percussive dance form”

I really hope this becomes available on DVD because I will definitely buy it! I’m going to try and watch it again as it’s available on BBC iplayer for 28 days. A must-see!

Tap Dance in America

This weekend, I finally got around to watching Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America on YouTube.

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Image courtesy of YouTube

It was originally shown on PBS back in 1989 I believe, and it is clearly from someone’s VCR recording that they probably transferred to DVD at some point.

It lasts almost an hour and gives a great run-down of the leading tap artists in America, quite a few of whom are sadly no longer around. But here you get the chance to see them in action, on stage or taking part in a tap battle. Tap is definitely a social dance! You might recognise legend Honi Coles as the bandmaster in Dirty Dancing (I’m talking about the original film, not the disrespectful-to-Swayze remake).

Watching the documentary, my favourite performances were from Gregory Hines (of course!), a young Savion Glover and the duo of Gregg Burge (choreographed Michael Jackson’s Bad) and Hinton Battle (Scarecrow in Broadway version of The Wiz). Battle and Burge really reminded me of the Nicholas Brothers in the way they did classical tap, complete with jetes, leapfrogs and the splits. Brenda Bufalino was also great to see perform as I’ve heard and read a lot about her and I believe she taught a masterclass in London earlier in the year.

There is also a bit of comedy running through the documentary about trying to get Gregory Hines to tighten the screws on his taps (some tappers dance with loosened tap plates, others don’t) – I’m quite a stomper, so I like my tap plates tightened to the shoe.

Verdict: This ever so 80’s PBS special is definitely worth watching as part of your tap immersion. Some enjoyable viewing on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

The next tap-related film I want to watch is Tap starring Gregory Hines (1989). I caught a clip on YouTube where people were dancing on tables and it looks so New Jack Swing FUNKY. Takes me back. Love it!