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!

The Tap Pack

After a busy day at work on Thursday (helping cater and host a lunchtime leaving do for 60+ for our department head :-}), I met my SO at Holborn station as we were going to see The Tap Pack at the Peacock Theatre! Exciting! Before the show we went to the Meat Market, which sits above Covent Garden’s Jubilee Market Hall, and enjoyed a ‘healthy’ dinner of wings, hippie fries (topped with onions and hippie sauce) and slaw. I think I’d pass on their wings next time because they tasted like they were deep fried.

The show began at 7.30pm and I went for tickets in the back, end of row seats in the stalls as the view is always good, being a modern theatre. A bonus was that we had the row to ourselves so we could move along to the middle 🙂

The Tap Pack are 5 guys from Australia and as you can guess from the name, the show takes its inspiration from the Rat Pack (ie. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr are the members you will have heard of). The show was full of all kinds of music, both modern and classic Rat Pack, plus plenty of humour and amazing tap dance! I wasn’t expecting the guys to sing as well as dance, but they sang throughout the show, accompanied by live band. The audience was introduced to each member of the pack and their skills in turn, and you really saw each member come alive.

My favourite parts were:

a) when founding member Jesse Rasmussen alternated between sitting and drumming on a wooden box and tapping…sometimes tapping while sitting down. He has some fast hands and feet!

b) his tribute to some of the tap dance greats

c) the showy song and dance piece to Bruno Mars’ Runaway Baby

d) Thomas J Egan’s improv section – AMAZING. Like whaaa??!

e) the section of audience participation with clapping call and response (I love a bit of call and response!!)

These acts stood out to me, but there was plenty to enjoy. It was a fabulous show!

The show runs at the Peacock Theatre until 19th May, and then will be touring the UK before heading back to Australia.

https://www.thetappack.com/

OMG Cats Workshop

Pineapple Studios

So yesterday afternoon I went into London and took part in the OMG So Stagey Cats (The Musical) Workshop at Pineapple Studios, Covent Garden, taught by cast member Cameron Ball (Macavity/Admetus).

It was AMAZINGGGGGGG!!!

It was a packed studio as expected, and extremely hot until someone found the air con switch! We did a quick aerobic warm up consisting of jogging with various arm circles, plus some stretches and some cat-like movements and mannerisms to get us into character and ready for the routine we’d be learning…. The Jellicle Ball! OMG Yes, everyone was very excited!

If you know the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, you will know it’s the bit everyone gets excited about. It’s a 12 minute full on dance piece, but we were only learning the first few minutes. Apparently the full piece is notoriously a killer! The part we learnt is an audition piece – ooh!

The choreography by Gillian Lynne is amazing. Formerly a ballet soloist, she is now 94 and apparently still does the splits, every day. Wow.

I’ve been to see the show several times, including once at its original home, the New London Theatre in Covent Garden’s Drury Lane. I also have the show on DVD, which I used to dance along to a bit here and there, so I kind of know the part we were learning very well, but obviously we were learning the intricacies that you don’t pick up from a DVD, i.e. the particular steps, and the bits when the camera pans away to something else! But this prior knowledge definitely helped me remember where I supposed to be going because there are a lot of changes of direction. We performed the piece various times as a whole group, in 2 groups and even in 3 groups while the others watched. There were also people watching from outside the studio – all adds to the exhilaration of performing!

After learning the routine, we were then taught the bit at the very start very start of the Jellicle Ball, where we all begin by lying on the floor and then different cats pop up as they sense that someone is there (Grizabella, a fallen glamour cat). We were all labelled number 1, 2 or 3 and then each number had a different thing to do once the music kicked in. I was a number 1, so I was tapping on the floor with my claws 6 times, then I had to come up to standing, bring my hands up in front and behind my midriff with knees bent and then do a kind of jazz-hands, head shake, body shake. Others were shoulder shimmying and or shaking their booty. So much fun! This then led into our main routine, which we then performed all the way through in groups and all together!

I have to say I felt my back pinch the last time through, but, the show must go on! I was ok, I had just over-rotated when I was on the floor.

Watch the Jellicle Ball here (we ended at 1:18):

It was such a fun afternoon and I finally got to learn some of the Cats choreography, which I’ve wanted to do since I first saw the show in the 90’s.

p.s. Only one person was dressed up head to toe in costume, plus makeup! No, it wasn’t me 😁

OMG So Stagey do other West End Workshops at Pineapple (Kinky Boots, Les Miserables etc), so check them out if you’re in the London area.

Movie Review – Tap

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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:

Verdict: If you love tap and want to know a little bit more about it’s history, you will love this!

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!

Book Review

Tap book

Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955 by Rusty E. Frank 

I have finally got around to writing this brief review, having finished reading this book back in July!

LA tap dancer Rusty E. Frank has compiled this fabulous book of interviews with all the tap dancing greats of the early to mid twentieth century as a potted history of tap. The book opens with a foreword by tap legend Gregory Hines (one of my faves!) who briefly describes the origins of the Jazz art form and the various styles and rhythms that evolved.

The book is then split into 3 parts:

Part 1: 1900-1929 (includes people such as Willie Covan, Ruby Keeler and Leonard Reed (of the Shim Sham Shimmy))

Part 2: 1930-1939 (includes the Nicholas Brothers (LOVE them!), Shirley Temple, Fred & Gene Kelly and Jeni Legon (known for wearing trouser suits…shocking!)

Part 3: 1940-1955 (includes Gene Nelson and Brenda Bufalino)

Within each section, each chapter covers a different dancer, with some introductory blurb on the historical context of the era and what was happening on the dance and entertainment scene, followed by an autobiographical interview with the dancer. Being an American art form, you can’t ignore the fact that the book covers the era of segregation. The biggest example of this is the separate entertainment circuits of Vaudeville and the TOBA (the African-American version), minstrel shows, and the separate clubs, such as the famous gangster-owned Cotton Club which was for black entertainers and white audiences. There was some cross-over, but mostly for those who were able to “pass” as white, such as Leonard Reed…until he was found out.

It was interesting to read how each dancer had their own style within a style (flash, soft shoe, Buck & Wing, rhythm tap, acrobatic). Some were tapping from childhood, some fell into it and some came from classical dance backgrounds (e.g. Gene Kelly, Ann Miller), which clearly influenced their tap style. It was also amazing how many dancers learnt from, danced with, were influenced by or loved to compete with Bill Bojangles Robinson, the world’s greatest tap dancer. (It is said that he was a tap perfectionist who put hours and hours into his craft).

Helpfully, there is a glossary of terms at the end of the book, which I referred to regularly, followed by a series of Appendices covering all the tap acts, the years they were active and what they were known for, plus a list of tap in film and on record, which is also worth looking at.

Verdict: A fantastic snapshot of tap dance and entertainment through the Jazz Age, the War years and the post-war years, straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will. A MUST-HAVE for any tap dancer if you want to understand where it all began and how it developed. I’m really pleased tap dance is making a come-back 🙂