Remembering Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines

Will GainesA few weeks ago Tap Dance Research Network UK hosted a panel discussion evening on Zoom, entitled ‘Remembering Bebop Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines’. Annette Walker presented the evening and we were also joined by Junior Laniyan, co-founder of the London Tap Jam, and US dancer and TED Talker Andrew Nemr. Of course I signed up to hear all about this late UK based American tap dancer who I’d never heard of before, but definitely should have.

Royce Edward Gaines was born in Baltimore, USA in 1928 and raised in Detroit. As a teenager he did roller skating and teamed up with a guy called Bill Johnson to skate together, before later getting into tap dancing. Will and Bill actually taught themselves tap dancing and started performing in the nightclubs of Detroit while they were still underage, with Bill dancing in his skates. After breaking away from their double-act, Will worked across the USA and Canada when it was common for tap dancers to be the opening act for the main act – the band. Impressively, Will opened for people like singers Sarah Vaughn, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole, as well as band leader Dizzy Gillespie, working in venues like Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club. All his tap dance was completely improvised on the spot. No routine!

So how did Will end up in the UK? 

USO Entertainment (who sent entertainers like Bing Crosby and Judy Garland) to boost the morale of allied troops during the war) sent Will to the army bases in Germany and England in 1963, where Will performed in the big London nightclubs like Ronnie Scott’s and Churchill’s (no longer in existence), and at the huge variety show, Sunday Night at the Palladium. (The USO was disbanded in 1947, but revived during the Korean War and continues to this day). After that Will decided to make the UK his permanent home – I think it was the case that like many African American performers of his time, he was treated like a second class citizen in the US, and Europe was more open-minded and welcoming. This meant more opportunity.

Check out Will’s appearance on The Arthur Haynes show in 1965:

I love it!

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Will was busy with TV gigs and touring, and he was a favourite at the big festivals, including the famous Edinburgh Festival and London’s Leytonstone Festival. In 1983 he appeared at London’s Riverside Studios along with Honi Coles and Chuck Green for the show ‘Masters of Tap’. In some footage from the show, Honi Coles actually describes Will Gaines’ style of tap as a “bebop hoofing style” as opposed to the upright Irish style of say, Bill  Bojangles Robinson.

During a quiet period when there was no entertainment work, Will worked as a carpenter’s assistant and ended up boarding in a hotel in Rotherham, South Yorkshire and later living in a council house with no telephone after some money issues. He asked a dancer called Chris Parry to be his manager, and she and her husband ended up inviting him to stay with them in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex and he ended up getting lots of work through the Arts Council. Leigh-on-Sea is where Will ended up settling permanently.

As a teacher, Will Gaines didn’t teach steps as such and he never rehearsed – “I just walk on…no warm up”. He worked with the Jiving Lindy Hoppers, various British music bands including The Square Pegs and Rent Party, and he appeared in music videos and even on Top of the Pops, which was everyone’s favourite chart music show back in the day. He danced to all types of music, even classical and folk and really bounced off the musicians.

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The discussion concluded with stories from the various guests who described when they met Will and how he took them under his wing and mentored them, and there were many, many tales of working with him from a few others who were on the Zoom call. Apparently, for most gigs, he would just drag a piece of wood in from the street to dance on!

Will Gaines sounded like a joy to know and dance with, and I was glad to be able join the session to hear all about him from those who knew him so well. I’m told they’re thinking of running a ‘part 2’ on Will because there wasn’t enough time for all the stories, so watch this space!

Make it Happen

Sunset Run
My Cheesy Instagram Shot

Hey, how’s it going? Well, my news is that I am back to work 2 days a week and the other 2 days I’m still on furlough until mid-September when I return to my normal working pattern and come off the furlough scheme altogether – hopefully permanently! It has been great to get back to some sort of normality even though I have been keeping myself occupied while not working.

What I’ve been doing

Of course I have been working on my soap side-biz, making products, doing social media posts, planning new recipes and packing and sending out orders, which have been fairly steady. One decision I made was to quit my HR studies. I’ve completed and passed 4 out of 6 modules, but I have been working at this thing for over 3 years, I have to pay money to extend the course 3 months at a time, it’s only foundation level and Human Resources is actually not where I want to be in 5 years’ time. (HR is also ridiculously competitive in terms of the job market, it can be difficult to move up into more strategic roles and the jobs were few and far between even before Covid-19). I think I’ll hang onto my student membership of the CIPD for the time being while I continue to work in my current job, just so I have access to the community forum, knowledge base and other benefits, but oh it feels like such a relief to get the course out of my hair!

As I’ve said in previous posts, my passions (besides tap dance!) are my soap biz and writing (plus I have an English Literature degree), so I decided to bite the bullet while on furlough and I switched to learning how to write copy, proofread and edit! I think this pandemic and lots of time at home has made many of us re-evaluate our lives, our priorities and how we spend our waking hours. I know right before the lockdown I was so sick of London and the commute and I wanted a new job after 10 years in this role…and now I feel like I have a clearer vision of what I want to do. What I really want and have always wanted is to be fully self-employed. Hopefully I can make it happen!

Keep on Running

After having done the ‘I Love the 90s’ virtual charity run in May, I’ve just completed another 5km run in stages (‘I Love the 80s!) for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, and I’m now doing a charity run for Alzheimer’s Research UK, aiming to get to 20km by the end of August….I’m at just over 7km so far! I started off by doing Couch to 5k (walk, run, walk, run…) but I found the stop-start aspect demotivating, so I’m now just running as far as I can in each session. I’m pleased to say I’m now able to run just over 1km non-stop, especially as someone who does not enjoy running!

All that Jazz

Tap & Tea has finished, but some other interesting talks have now popped up online, which I’ve been attending. BOP Jazz have started a series called ‘Let’s Talk Jazz’, discussing jazz dance in the UK, and Tap Dance Research Network UK are running a series of panel discussions on the history of tap dance in the UK, and of course there is some cross-over with these as it’s all jazz. I joined the first one from TDRUK on Tuesday night entitled Remembering Bebop Jazz Hoofer Will Gaines. Guys, it was AMAZING and full of so many hilarious stories, and I really must tell you all about it in another post, but in short: Will Gaines (1928-2014) was an American tap dancer who worked with all the big bands, jazz musicians and singers in the US (e.g. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole) and he ended up settling in the UK after a gig brought him here in 1963. Will is credited with influencing a whole new generation of tap dancers in the UK, including the creation of the fantastic London Tap Jam.

Tap & Tea with Stephen Mear CBE

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On Thursday I attended week 4 of Theatre Tap London’s ‘Tap & Tea’ tap history series. This time we were joined by two time Olivier Award winning choreographer Stephen Mear CBE! He has had a prolific career in musical theatre, and is known for his work on West End and Broadway shows including Mary Poppins, White Christmas, Funny Girl, Singing in the Rain, Sinatra, Sweet Charity and many more. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to dance.

Tap dance was the first type of dance he learned at his mother’s dance school, and he later trained in Matt Mattox style jazz dance (aka Freestyle Jazz) at London Studio Centre. I was interested to hear that he took 14 ballet classes a week to get his ballet up to scratch! He’s also probably the 4th or 5th British dancer I’ve heard say that they were the best tap dancer in their home town; then they went away to a college in London or took tap classes in New York and found themselves at the bottom of the class!

Stephen showed us and discussed clips of jazz isolations in Beat me Daddy 8 to the Bar from Bob Fosse’s ‘Big Deal’, the jazz-tap combination in The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing from ‘White Christmas’, and we also looked at a clip of his idol Ann Miller on stage in 1987 with her famous ‘Easter Parade’ number ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away‘ as part of variety show Happy Birthday Hollywood. 

There was much discussion of jazz dance, having been inspired by Matt Mattox, Jack Coles, Chet Walker, Bob Fosse, and Hermes Pan, who collaborated a lot with Fred Astaire. We found out loads about Stephen’s choreographic process, particularly as someone who is dyslexic. Someone asked during the Q&A how he notates his work, and it turns out he films everything (although assistants will write it all down in detail). He also uses dance college students to map everything out before taking it to teaching the cast.

Useful Advice from Stephen:

  • Auditions – leave your attitude outside! Choreographers all speak to each other as well, so be nice to everyone. Do the best you can, know who and what you are auditioning for. He said he looks for people who are passionate over those who are just technically brilliant.
  • Starting out as a choreographer? Try not to be too overzealous – i.e. “Just because you have a parasol in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to twirl it”. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down ideas.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this time as I’m not so into the West End stage type of tap dance, but Stephen was so interesting to listen to! I loved hearing about how it all works behind the scenes, the ups and downs, how he started out, who he worked with and who inspires him.

After this session, my passion for jazz dance was reignited and having googled Matt Mattox, I’ve ended up subscribing on YouTube to ‘Monday Mattox’ jazz (and tap) technique classes with Bob Boross (who trained under Mattox) – LOVE IT!

This coming Thursday, we’ll be joined by Broadway performer and choreographer Andrew Black.

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

Jellicle Cats

Yesterday afternoon I went to the second Cats the Musical Workshop at Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden, organised by OMG So Stagey and led by Cameron Ball aka Macavity.

It was a hot and humid day in the Capital, but having seen the note that we’d be in a larger studio than last time, I was hopeful of some sort of air conditioning.

I got there and after paying the £2 day fee (as I’m not a member) I was buzzed in to climb to the top floor (puff, pant) where I found studio 79 and had time to change footwear and stretch.

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Claws ready

I was a tiny bit nervous beforehand, but not like last time when I’d never attended a class at Pineapple before. A girl asked me if I knew anyone, I said no and neither did she! Quite a few people had come along in pairs or small groups. I had forwarded the details to a couple of dance friends who had expressed interest, but they didn’t go for it in the end.

We started with an aerobic warm-up, followed by some stretches to limber up. Then we did as per the previous Cats Workshop and did some actions to get into the character of a cat (intense staring, movement on all fours, holding our hands like paws, awareness of whiskers, ears, tail etc).

Next we moved onto the choreography for the opening scene of the musical, which is the Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats section. Having seen the musical several times and having studied the DVD, I am familiar with the movements, but obviously in a workshop you are learning what they actually are, rather than what you think they are.

We were put into 8 different groups. I went with another girl, and then she ended putting her hand up to be brave enough to go on her own, so I ended up on my own too! ARGHHH. Okay, it was a bit scary, but it ended up being absolutely fine. The groups were numbered 1-8 and then each group (or individual in my case) had to come on stage in a particular way of your choosing. We also had to come up with another movement for another point in the song (you’ll get the idea if you watch it on Youtube).

In the end we learnt all the choreography for the song, albeit a slightly abridged version, performed the entire thing twice through (once being filmed) and it was SO MUCH FUN!!! I particularly enjoyed the acting aspect of it, which I hadn’t really anticipated. There was more acting in this workshop than in the Jellicle Ball workshop as we were introducing ourselves and playing up to the audience.

When I got home I watched the scene from the DVD (and some other performances, including one in French on a TV show), ate piri piri chicken wings, rice, corn and salad, had a shower, stretched and made good use of my foam roller. Not feeling too bad today! In fact, I’m still slightly hyper!!

Here is the video of our class on Facebook…Don’t laugh at me :))))

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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.