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

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.