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!

Quick Bio: Honi Coles

A still of Honi Coles from ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987)

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”

“Brilliant”

“…the delicacy and power of a master pianist’s hands”

“…makes butterflies look clumsy”

Amazing! I have to admit, I knew nothing about him until reading the book ‘Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955’. Watching some of his performances on YouTube are definitely inspiring me for my rhythm tap classes. Just need to get quicker!

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