Tap & Tea with Brenda Bufalino

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I wish I’d got a better photo because she had a huge, warm smile

On Thursday we were joined on ‘Tap & Tea’ by the amazing tap master and legend Brenda Bufalino! Brenda founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra (now the American Tap Dance Foundation), and was a trailblazer in the revival of tap dance, after it fell out of favour from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. As well as being a solo performer, she partnered with legendary hoofer Honi Coles, who was also her mentor; she performed many times with the Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines and has received numerous awards, including the Tapestry Award, the Flobert Award, and the Tap City Hall of Fame Award, among others. Brenda is the author of several articles and books, including Tapping the Source, which comes highly recommended, and she currently teaches classes at ATDF in New York City. Did I mention she’s 83?

Brenda’s mother was a classical singer and her aunt a concert pianist, and they performed as the Strickland Sisters. Brenda joined the Strickland Sisters as a dancer at the age of around 8 or 9. Between the ages if 6-11 she studied at Professor O’Brien’s Normal School of Dancing before moving on to Alice Duffy’s School of Dance in Salem, Massachusetts. She was influenced by the jazz music her family enjoyed at home, including Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. She started dancing in the night clubs in Boston at the age of 14 and began to study West African and jazz dance under revered dance instructor Stanley Brown. She moved to New York City and worked with Honi Coles for around 6 months. Tap dance had died a death in the 1950s and lots of the venues had closed, but Brenda met Honi again 15 years later and brought him and the Copasetics group to her studio to create the documentary ‘Great Feats of Feet’, and eventually tap dance started to make a come back.

Eventually, Brenda began creating tap shows for the concert stage, which included the musicians being on the stage with the dancers, rather than in the pit as was the traditional way. This set the precedent for how tap is presented on stage today. Honi wasn’t convinced that people would sit still long enough to watch a whole night of tap dance, and he was heartbroken that tap dance had ‘died’, but thankfully he was proved wrong! Apparently the Nicholas Brothers were late coming back to the tap dance scene, but they did, and Brenda did lots of shows with them, particularly Fayard Nicholas, and she later danced at Harold’s funeral.

She shared loads of stories and anecdotes with us, and talked about touring the world with Honi, and the fact that tap in the UK, Australia and South Africa seemed very stiff, upright, formal and up on the toes, and jazz tap took a while to take hold, which everyone acknowledges was because of the prescriptive ‘syllabus’ tap that was and continues to be taught (although I’m told improvements have been made). I’ve never done syllabus tap – and the more I hear about it, the more I’m glad I went straight into the freedom and technique of rhythm tap classes. ‘Hoofer’ tap is down in the heels, and apparently people were furious with Brenda for ditching high heels and dancing in flatter tap shoes. Who knew? Some audiences were unimpressed at seeing a white woman on stage with a black man. SO STUPID, but unfortunately that was life in those days.

Brenda had a lot to say about Broadway. Choreographers on Broadway were generally not tap dancers and the choreographers who were tap dancers rarely received credit for their work. It was a case of having to fight for credit and the extra pay that came with that. Interestingly, she said she auditioned for 42nd Street and the choreographer didn’t know what to do with her – big giveaway, right? She did stress that in the old movie musicals, the choreographers were tap dancers – and you can tell this when you watch the tap sequences.

What a fantastic, inspirational lady! I think she was my favourite Tap & Tea guest so far, and they’ve all been pretty amazing.

I could have listened to Brenda Bufalino all day!

Quotes:

Those tap years were sexy!

Never work mechanically while doing technique or rudiments

Sense your whole body

Engage your whole self in getting that tone

Do not use music as a metronome; engage in it wholeheartedly

[Improvisation] is not a competition

When I put my tap shoes on, I fall in love

 

 

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…

 

 

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.