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.
In my intermediate Rhythm Tap class this half-term we’re practising a combination created by tap legend Honi Coles. Who? You know, the guy who played bandleader Tito Suarez in Dirty Dancing (1987). But he was much more than that, so I thought I’d share with you everything you need to know about him:
Who: Charles ‘Honi’ Coles
Born: 2nd April 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: 12th November 1992 in Queens, New York
Learnt to tap dance: On the streets of Philadelphia where people would challenge each other in ‘cutting contests’, which are basically tap dance battles.
Known for: The fastest feet in showbiz. After being let go from the dance act ‘The Three Millers’ he apparently shut himself away for a year and practised constantly (known as ‘wood-shedding’), and when he returned to the performing circuit he had perfected his technique and could fit a crazy number of steps into a bar of music.
Tap Dance Style: Classic, class act, soft shoe, high-speed rhythm tap
Said: “If you can walk, you can tap”.
If you can walk, you can tap
Recognition: Drama Desk Award (1982), Tony Award for Best Choreographer (1982), Dance Magazine Award 1985, Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement (1988), National Medal of the Arts (1991). He was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2003.
Performed with: Cholly Atkins (an expert Wing dancer) as class act ‘Coles & Atkins’ for 13 years. Prior to that, he was one the ‘Three Millers’, who were known for performing extremely intricate steps on tiny platforms…until he was replaced by someone else. In the late 1930’s he performed with the ‘Lucky 7 Trio’. He also toured with the Swing bands of Duke Ellison, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong.
Stage: Vaudeville circuit, Broadway (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, My One and Only)
Movies: Rocky II (1979), The Cotton Club (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987)
TV: Tap Dance in America, Conversations in Dance, Great Feats of the Feet, The Tap Dance Kid, Mr Griffin and Me, Charleston, Archives of a Master, etc
Taught: Taught Dance History at Yale, Cornell, Duke and George Washington universities. He opened the Dance Craft Studio on 52nd Street in New York City with fellow tap dancer Pete Nugent in the 1950’s, but by then tap dance was falling out of fashion.
What they said about him:
“A supreme illusionist”
“…the delicacy and power of a master pianist’s hands”
He revived Rhythm Tap in mainstream culture in the 1980s and 1990s after it had seriously gone out of fashion
He was an amazing improviser (just watch some of his stuff on YouTube for inspiration!)
He started dancing semi-professionally aged 5, with his brother Maurice, and took lessons with Broadway choreographer Henry Le Tang, who taught people such as Bunny Briggs, Eleanor Powell, Sandman Sims and Debbie Allen
He was inspired by some of the tap dance heavyweights, including Sammy Davis Jr and the Nicholas Brothers
He has influenced many, many artists such as Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Jane Goldberg, Ayodele Casel, Michelle Dorrance
In 1988 he successfully petitioned ‘National Tap Dance Day’ in the US (25th of May, which happens to be Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s birthday), which has now morphed into International Tap Dance Day!
He starred on Broadway, and in many films, including ‘White Nights’ (1985), ‘The Cotton Club’ (1984) and ‘Tap’ (1989), receiving a Tony Award in 1992 for the musical ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ plus several other nominations.
He created a fantastic documentary for PBS in 1989 on the history and culture of tap dance, called ‘Tap Dance America‘
He was a great singer, fronting a rock band in the 70s and later performing with artists such as Luther Vandross
In the late 90s he had his own sitcom ‘The Gregory Hines Show’, plus he had a recurring role on the popular sitcom ‘Will and Grace’
In 2019, 16 years after his untimely death at the age of 57, the US Postal Service created a Gregory Hines Black Heritage postage stamp
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 brothersis 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).
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!
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”
“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!
A few weeks ago now my SO and I watched 1989 movie Tap starring the late legendary Gregory Hines. Gregory’s character Max Washington gets out of jail after a conviction for robbery and returns to his old New York stomping ground to the surprise of his old dance mentors and former lover…
The story hinges on whether he will stay on the straight and narrow and get involved in a tap project that Sammy Davis Jr’s character has envisioned, or whether he will give in to the lure of a life of diamond heists and cash-money.
I didn’t realise this when I bought the DVD, but there are loads of older tap legends in the movie (Sammy Davis Jr, Steve Condos, Harold Nicholas, Jimmy Slyde to name a few) as well as the talented Savion Glover, who is a kid in the movie, well known nowadays for bringing tap to modern audiences through his innovation.
Although it seems like that plot has been run before and there is a cheesy love scene, the tap dance and the characters make the movie, especially the old guys!
There is a thread running throughout the film of how real tap kind of got eclipsed by Hollywood ‘show’ tap. You will notice this when Max agrees to go and audition for the Broadway show and feels restricted by nicety, compared to the other, more freestyle tap scenes. This was also something my Rhythm Tap teacher alluded to when I mentioned I was going to see 42nd Street back in the summer.
I have 2 favourite scenes:
1) The funky street tap jam in the middle of downtown New York in the evening
2) When Gregory dances in the club with taps that are linked up to a sound system: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEU0qZQIdNM&w=560&h=315]
Verdict: If you love tap and want to know a little bit more about it’s history, you will love this!
This weekend, I finally got around to watching Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America on 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!