Remembering Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines

Will GainesA few weeks ago Tap Dance Research Network UK hosted a panel discussion evening on Zoom, entitled ‘Remembering Bebop Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines’. Annette Walker presented the evening and we were also joined by Junior Laniyan, co-founder of the London Tap Jam, and US dancer and TED Talker Andrew Nemr. Of course I signed up to hear all about this late UK based American tap dancer who I’d never heard of before, but definitely should have.

Royce Edward Gaines was born in Baltimore, USA in 1928 and raised in Detroit. As a teenager he did roller skating and teamed up with a guy called Bill Johnson to skate together, before later getting into tap dancing. Will and Bill actually taught themselves tap dancing and started performing in the nightclubs of Detroit while they were still underage, with Bill dancing in his skates. After breaking away from their double-act, Will worked across the USA and Canada when it was common for tap dancers to be the opening act for the main act – the band. Impressively, Will opened for people like singers Sarah Vaughn, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole, as well as band leader Dizzy Gillespie, working in venues like Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club. All his tap dance was completely improvised on the spot. No routine!

So how did Will end up in the UK? 

USO Entertainment (who sent entertainers like Bing Crosby and Judy Garland) to boost the morale of allied troops during the war) sent Will to the army bases in Germany and England in 1963, where Will performed in the big London nightclubs like Ronnie Scott’s and Churchill’s (no longer in existence), and at the huge variety show, Sunday Night at the Palladium. (The USO was disbanded in 1947, but revived during the Korean War and continues to this day). After that Will decided to make the UK his permanent home – I think it was the case that like many African American performers of his time, he was treated like a second class citizen in the US, and Europe was more open-minded and welcoming. This meant more opportunity.

Check out Will’s appearance on The Arthur Haynes show in 1965:

I love it!

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Will was busy with TV gigs and touring, and he was a favourite at the big festivals, including the famous Edinburgh Festival and London’s Leytonstone Festival. In 1983 he appeared at London’s Riverside Studios along with Honi Coles and Chuck Green for the show ‘Masters of Tap’. In some footage from the show, Honi Coles actually describes Will Gaines’ style of tap as a “bebop hoofing style” as opposed to the upright Irish style of say, Bill  Bojangles Robinson.

During a quiet period when there was no entertainment work, Will worked as a carpenter’s assistant and ended up boarding in a hotel in Rotherham, South Yorkshire and later living in a council house with no telephone after some money issues. He asked a dancer called Chris Parry to be his manager, and she and her husband ended up inviting him to stay with them in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex and he ended up getting lots of work through the Arts Council. Leigh-on-Sea is where Will ended up settling permanently.

As a teacher, Will Gaines didn’t teach steps as such and he never rehearsed – “I just walk on…no warm up”. He worked with the Jiving Lindy Hoppers, various British music bands including The Square Pegs and Rent Party, and he appeared in music videos and even on Top of the Pops, which was everyone’s favourite chart music show back in the day. He danced to all types of music, even classical and folk and really bounced off the musicians.

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The discussion concluded with stories from the various guests who described when they met Will and how he took them under his wing and mentored them, and there were many, many tales of working with him from a few others who were on the Zoom call. Apparently, for most gigs, he would just drag a piece of wood in from the street to dance on!

Will Gaines sounded like a joy to know and dance with, and I was glad to be able join the session to hear all about him from those who knew him so well. I’m told they’re thinking of running a ‘part 2’ on Will because there wasn’t enough time for all the stories, so watch this space!

Make it Happen

Sunset Run
My Cheesy Instagram Shot

Hey, how’s it going? Well, my news is that I am back to work 2 days a week and the other 2 days I’m still on furlough until mid-September when I return to my normal working pattern and come off the furlough scheme altogether – hopefully permanently! It has been great to get back to some sort of normality even though I have been keeping myself occupied while not working.

What I’ve been doing

Of course I have been working on my soap side-biz, making products, doing social media posts, planning new recipes and packing and sending out orders, which have been fairly steady. One decision I made was to quit my HR studies. I’ve completed and passed 4 out of 6 modules, but I have been working at this thing for over 3 years, I have to pay money to extend the course 3 months at a time, it’s only foundation level and Human Resources is actually not where I want to be in 5 years’ time. (HR is also ridiculously competitive in terms of the job market, it can be difficult to move up into more strategic roles and the jobs were few and far between even before Covid-19). I think I’ll hang onto my student membership of the CIPD for the time being while I continue to work in my current job, just so I have access to the community forum, knowledge base and other benefits, but oh it feels like such a relief to get the course out of my hair!

As I’ve said in previous posts, my passions (besides tap dance!) are my soap biz and writing (plus I have an English Literature degree), so I decided to bite the bullet while on furlough and I switched to learning how to write copy, proofread and edit! I think this pandemic and lots of time at home has made many of us re-evaluate our lives, our priorities and how we spend our waking hours. I know right before the lockdown I was so sick of London and the commute and I wanted a new job after 10 years in this role…and now I feel like I have a clearer vision of what I want to do. What I really want and have always wanted is to be fully self-employed. Hopefully I can make it happen!

Keep on Running

After having done the ‘I Love the 90s’ virtual charity run in May, I’ve just completed another 5km run in stages (‘I Love the 80s!) for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, and I’m now doing a charity run for Alzheimer’s Research UK, aiming to get to 20km by the end of August….I’m at just over 7km so far! I started off by doing Couch to 5k (walk, run, walk, run…) but I found the stop-start aspect demotivating, so I’m now just running as far as I can in each session. I’m pleased to say I’m now able to run just over 1km non-stop, especially as someone who does not enjoy running!

All that Jazz

Tap & Tea has finished, but some other interesting talks have now popped up online, which I’ve been attending. BOP Jazz have started a series called ‘Let’s Talk Jazz’, discussing jazz dance in the UK, and Tap Dance Research Network UK are running a series of panel discussions on the history of tap dance in the UK, and of course there is some cross-over with these as it’s all jazz. I joined the first one from TDRUK on Tuesday night entitled Remembering Bebop Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines. Guys, it was AMAZING and full of so many hilarious stories, and I really must tell you all about it in another post, but in short: Will Gaines (1928-2014) was an American tap dancer who worked with all the big bands, jazz musicians and singers in the US (e.g. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole) and he ended up settling in the UK after a gig brought him here in 1963. Will is credited with influencing a whole new generation of tap dancers in the UK, including the creation of the fantastic London Tap Jam.

Tap & Tea with Ayodele Casel

Ayodele Casel Magazine

Guys, I’m so behind with my promised write ups of the Tap & Tea history talks, but I think I’m getting back on track, and so today I’m going to sit down to tell you all about Thursday’s tap history talk with special guest Ayodele Casel. You may even want to have a cup of tea to hand!

Described by the late Gregory Hines as one of the “top young tap dancers in the world”, Ayodele Casel is a New York based tap dancer and actress. She is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her art, including the 2017 Hoofers Award, and she was named one of the ‘Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019’ by the New York Times. She was artist in residence at Harvard between 2018-2019 and became a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard 2019-2020. She has performed with Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, American Tap Dance Orchestra and Jazz Tap Ensemble. She is co-director of Operation Tap, and as you can see from the image above, she is on the August cover of Dance Magazine. Her mission is to “make tap dancing a relevant presence in the arts”. .

I was really inspired to hear that Ayodele was a relative late starter to tap dance at the age of 18. (Not as late as me in my 30s, but it’s nice to hear from someone who didn’t start at 3 years old for a change!) She was actually an Acting major at university (NYU), but was drawn into tap dance classes as part of her Movement for Actors class. Prior to this, at high school a teacher had shown the class a Fred and Ginger musical as part of a ‘History of the Movies’ series and this first peaked Ayodele’s interest in tap. A year into her university tap classes, she met Baakari Wilder (“a real tap dancer!”), who invited her to classes at the legendary Fazil’s dance studio where she realised she didn’t know anything about tap. Baakari taught her the history of tap and introduced her to the idea of tap as self-expression.

A point that has come up time and again in these ‘Tap & Tea’ sessions is how the tap dancers of the hoofing culture taught – not as a transactional relationship (I pay you, you teach me), but with generosity and sharing life and experience, like a family. Ayodele agreed that there is value in the teacher-student studio structure, but it is worth remembering that not everybody is there to become an artist and often the teacher doesn’t have time to mentor the individuals that are. For her the studio structure stirred something in her, where she wanted to learn more. She mentioned another point that has come up many times – young dancers who take every class going, but are making very little progress – because they’re not using their initiative to do their own learning outside of class. How much class is too much?

After training with Baakari, Ayodele went onto train with Barbara Duffy (who we heard from a few weeks ago) at Broadway Dance Center. She joined the ‘Funk University’, a training ground for young dancers to be channelled into Savion Glover’s Broadway hit Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. It had a predominately male cast, but workshop director Ted Louis-Levy allowed her into the training workshops, changing the game in what was still a pretty male art form and giving Ayodele a huge opportunity to develop her art. She described it as being akin to being allowed into the Hoofers’ Club of the 1930s & 40s, where no women were allowed!

This led onto discussion of her current Harvard research on the forgotten women of tap (something I’m immensely interested in too, and will be doing some research on myself once Tap & Tea has finished). Being the only woman in Savion’s show Not Your Only Tap Dancer, people greeted her after the show with comments like “I didn’t know women could tap dance” or “You dance like a man!” This made her want to delve deeper, and so she researched women like Jeni Le Gon and Lois Bright of The Miller Bros & Lois. These women were so talented and were doing amazing stuff, just like their male counterparts, but they were then largely forgotten until now. You can check out Ayodele’s digital series Diary of a Tap Dancer on NY City Center’s Youtube channel, which gives a voice to these forgotten ladies.

It was another fantastic Tap & Tea session, and I found Ayodele so inspiring! I completely agree that you as the student have to take the initiative in your learning if you want to progress. Practice! Read! Watch!

Some Ayodele-isms:

You have to take the initiative. Give yourself the permission to go ahead and be great.

Exercise your bravery, don’t exercise your fear.

How do we use technique to create meaningful expression?

The marriage of information and the next level [of tap] is dependent on the student

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:

  • Frank, Rusty E., Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955, Revised Edition., Da Capo Press, New York 1990
  • Morrison, Margaret, John Bubbles, Dance Heritage Coalition, https://www.margaretmorrison.com/tap-research-publications [Accessed 21/01/2019]

 

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