Tap & Tea with Bril Barrett

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Bril Barrett is a tap dancer based in Chicago, founder of M.A.D.D Rhythms (Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms), director of the Chicago Tap Summit, a provider of tap outreach in Chicago’s public schools and even has his own TED Talk. He describes his mission as being “to preserve and promote tap dance as a percussive art form…”.

He kicked off by discussing the fact that tap dance is a musical art form, and this is how it began, before it was grabbed by Hollywood to become something where you copy a routine perfectly; the creativity being removed. The original ‘hoofers’ were all about the music and didn’t even have names for the steps – it was just ‘bah dee bah dah’. You weren’t taught, you just learnt. Somebody would be doing some steps – you either picked them up or you didn’t! (Reminds me of an oversubscribed class I did at the MOVE IT Dance exhibition in London LOL). Improvisation was how tap was created, and that was how Bril created M.A.D.D Rhythms.

Bril is a massive champion of improvisation, and he includes it in his classes right from the beginning, so particularly with children, there is no fear, and his goal is to help them keep this fearlessness throughout their tap education. (Obviously it’s much more difficult to be fearless in improvisation as an adult beginner, speaking from experience!)

He started learning tap in free classes at his local community centre in his Chicago neighbourhood, before following his teacher to another studio on the North side of the city, where family members had to pool together to pay for $5 lessons for Bril and his cousins. At this studio, all the boys had to take tap and gymnastics, echoing the skills of the studio founders, Sammy Dyer and The Dyerettes. At the age of 11 Bril saw a guy called Mr Taps in the subway, a tap dancing busker, and asked if he & later his cousins, could tap with him after school every day. Mr Taps improvised his dancing, and this is where Bril got his improv education. Amazing! It was through him that he was introduced to the Nicholas Brothers and the Four Step Brothers, which was life changing. Through a family member, he and his cousin were introduced to a talent agent and they performed as a double act.

Bril was a tap dancer in the world-famous Riverdance, and told us a bit about being on tour with the company (including backstage jam sessions), and how the show touched on the trading of steps and sharing of dance styles that happened between Irish immigrants and free Africans in New York. (There was a similar story line in the Irish dance show I saw last summer called Heartbeat of Home). As mentioned in other posts he was also in Derick Grant and Aaron Tolson’s show Imagine Tap. Bringing together people from different tap backgrounds (such as Ray Hesselink) this was when he wanted to stop being classified as a type of tap dancer. As Ray said in his talk, Bril agreed that Derick bridged the gap between the types of tap. Just because someone dances in a theatre tap style, it doesn’t mean they can’t do other things! He actually said he likes the term ‘tap dancer’ and doesn’t like the term ‘rhythm tap’. I definitely appreciate what he’s saying. The classes I attend are called ‘rhythm tap’ (and we do a more heel-drop style of tap), but I think that helps people looking for classes to know what to expect, just like you know with ‘musical theatre tap’ classes (I chose from a list of ‘American Tap’, ‘Rhythm Tap’, ‘Theatre Tap’, ‘Jazz Tap’ and er ‘Tap’ classes in London and picked ‘Rhythm Tap’ because it sounded interesting…and was close to work). But yes, call yourself a tap dancer, rather than a rhythm tap dancer because all tap should have rhythm! Right?

We also chatted about tap jams (London has an amazing one in Hoxton, currently on Facebook Live every other Sunday night) and Bril runs some free tap jams as a way of building community and also removing the barrier for those who are without, so that they too can learn, grow and perform. I don’t know if I’d be able to get up on stage just yet 🙂 But it’s fine to go along and watch, and see where the evening takes you!

This was another amazing talk, and of course we overran because there was so much to say! Maybe they’ll invite him back again. I just loved hearing about how he’s removing barriers and making sure tap is accessible to all, no matter your background.

Bril’s Jazz Playlist:

  • Oscar Peterson
  • John Coltrane
  • Nina Simone
  • Miles Davis
  • Thelonious Monk

Quotes:

Once you make tap your own, you’ll do it; you won’t need to be told to practice

Improvisation is how tap was created

If you’re a good tap dancer, style is a choice

Tap jams make us better

Tap & Tea with Ray Hesselink

 

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I didn’t get a Tap & Tea photo this week, so here’s my cat

Hey everyone! Hope you’re doing okay; the world is pretty stressful at the moment…

(With regard to George Floyd, I was shocked but sadly not surprised that he was treated this way because it seems to be an ongoing trend in the US. I love to write this blog to share Tap Dance and its (mainly) African American history which is at times uncomfortable to the modern reader who hasn’t experienced racial segregation or apartheid, or perhaps doesn’t have the slave trade in their family tree, but it’s no good pretending it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t affect life and societal structures today. I am ALL ABOUT THE UNITY OF PEOPLE and treating others as you want to be treated, and I love how the Tap Community in all its diversity has come together in this). Enough said.

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This week: Not only did I temporarily return to working from home on Monday after a month on furlough to a tonne of emails and work that needed to be done yesterday, but the Tap & Tea History talks resumed on Zoom last week! I didn’t get a chance to write about last week’s talk, so here it is! I’ll share this week’s talk from Bril Barrett straight after this one.

Ray Hesselink

Ray is a tap dancer, director, choreographer and comedian based in New York City, who teaches at Julliard, Steps on Broadway and previously taught at Broadway Dance Centre. He’s also done some instructional tap videos! His background was really interesting to me because he started as a pianist, and then got into tap dance at UCLA when he auditioned in the theatre programme, but couldn’t do the tap required, so he started taking lessons! Being based in LA, he was in the right place to meet up with and learn from lots of older tap dancers who had retired from the movies, including Miriam Nelson, who became his mentor and told him he needed to move to New York! (This theme has popped up in several Tap & Tea sessions – New York is the place to be). Ray talked about how he moved into teaching, his discovery of Eleanor Powell (who apparently only had 10 private tap lessons and choreographed all her own movie dances), how he choreographs and how to sustain an audience.

I was interested to hear that Ray studied classical Indian dance, after becoming obsessed with Jack Cole, who did the same, and how it informs his tap dancing. I was also interested to hear him say that he wished there was a bit more respect for tap dance, particularly from his students, which comes from knowing and respecting its history. It’s difficult when children are being made to do it by their parents!

As has been the case for a few of the guests we’ve had on Tap & Tea, Ray was invited by Derick K. Grant to be in his big-budget show Imagine Tap (2006). It was inspiring to hear that he saw who else was in the cast, like Maud Arnold, Jason Samuels Smith, Ayodele Casel, Michelle Dorrance, Bril Barrett, etc (people he described as ‘fierce’) and felt totally out of his depth and wondered why Derick had invited him, but then he realised he had something else to bring! Basically, the gap was bridged between ‘theatre tap’ and ‘rhythm tap’.

Finally, he discussed inspiring the next generation, and the fact that he’d like to see more interesting tap choreography on Broadway and more people in tap classes! Apparently lots of people ignore tap until they get an audition – I can vouch for this. When I was doing Beginners Tap, this actor came to the class and said he’d got a part in a show and needed to learn to tap in 6 weeks…and then said he wasn’t learning it quick enough. Crazy!

Another amazing Tap & Tea session!

Quotes:

Practice what you’re not great at

The only person who will push you, is YOU

The more you can do technically, the more rounded you’ll be…but do something because you like it!

You never stop learning

 

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…

 

 

Dorrance Dance Review

Last Thursday evening I went to Sadlers Wells, London’s home of dance, to see Dorrance Dance perform a triple bill: Three to One, Jungle Blues and Myelination. Led by Michelle Dorrance, Dorrance Dance are known for their Rhythm Tap as opposed to the typical theatrical showtap style, which made me jump at the chance to see them.

Jungle Blues

A lighthearted, southern, bluesy piece featuring the whole company. Smiling and laid back, with the gangly and awkward Warren Craft sliding around the stage in a slapstick fashion, it was fun to watch.

Three to One

After a short break, this piece began with 3 pairs of legs illuminated by a rectangle of light. Dorrance was in the middle in tap shoes and two barefoot male dancers were either side, doing exactly the same steps; an interesting concept of sound and silence, light and dark. Eventually they were fully lit and Dorrance is thrust into the darkness.

Myelination

This final, longer piece showcased the entire company, including the two breakdancers. The pint-sized B-girl was mesmerising in her contortions and fluidity of movement, if not slightly disturbing at points. I’m thinking of her frenetic movements on the ground, engulfed by red light as Warren Craft plays an electric guitar behind her, like something from The Exorcist (I’ve never seen the film, but I’ve seen enough trailers and silly gifs).

This show was pure rhythm and every sound was hit like a drum. Each dancer had their time to shine, and my favourite was Christopher Broughton’s old school tap solo, which was a nod to dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and others. A suited Nicholas Van Young’s quick tapping brought to mind Gregory Hines’ close to the floor tap style.

Can I just mention the live jazz band on stage. The singing was exceptional. The guy on the keyboard and occasionally the drums had a voice like velvet. I’d buy his album!

I give the show 4 out of 5 stars for its innovative 21st century interpretation of rhythm tap dance, but it wasn’t as exciting as I was expecting, after rave reviews of previous shows. It was probably a little ‘out of the box’ for me this time.

It’s Tap Wednesday!

This evening I managed to stay at work until 5pm. Doesn’t sound late, but it’s at least an hour after all my colleagues have left! But that’s another story. Went to Rhythm Tap II (tried to hydrate as much as possible beforehand) and caught up briefly with R. No sign of K this term – maybe she’s doing something else.

Once again the basement studio was like a SAUNA. I actually missed an opportunity to use a sauna at a hotel we stayed at in Birmingham at the weekend for the National Running Show, so maybe I shouldn’t complain LOL

It was a full studio as is the way on Wednesday nights and you could sense everyone’s energy – KABOOM!It’s funny how different it feels to a Thursday lunchtime which is smaller, calm and laid back. We warmed up in a circle as usual and then did some more 3 beat exercises as per last week. One exercise travelling backwards, one crawling to the side another on the spot. The one I’ve been practicing constantly because it’s in the routine! Just doing that I was sweating.

We then moved on to our routine which, you guessed it, is in 3/4 beats. I remembered the beginning and then there was lots of new stuff to learn. Some parts a little tricky, but I’ll get ’em. Loved the quick jump in the air with double-flap at the end! (jump-f-lap-f-lap!)

Class finished with the group split into 2 to perform it while the other half watched. I felt a little self conscious in the sense that my mind went blank just as we were about to start (!) BUT I trusted that I would just go with it, and I actually did better than when we were all dancing together. I think it’s that thing of doing better under pressure again, which I don’t get. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been meditating on 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!