Riff Paddle Exercise

This is one of the exercises we’re working on in our rhythm tap class this half-term. It’s literally just riffs and paddles with a few heels, but it does take co-ordination. It didn’t quite click for me the first week I tried it, but now I enjoy trying to speed it up and make it bigger. (I was wearing really long legwarmers when I recorded this video because the garage was freezing). I’m trying to work much more on rudiments, timesteps and technical stuff this year to build on my foundation and increase my vocab. I think I still feel like an imposter in an intermediate level class 🙂

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 Ayodele Casel

Ayodele Casel Magazine

Guys, I’m so behind with my promised write ups of the Tap & Tea history talks, but I think I’m getting back on track, and so today I’m going to sit down to tell you all about Thursday’s tap history talk with special guest Ayodele Casel.

 

You may even want to have a cup of tea to hand!

Described by the late Gregory Hines as one of the “top young tap dancers in the world”, Ayodele Casel is a New York based tap dancer and actress. She is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her art, including the 2017 Hoofers Award, and she was named one of the ‘Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019’ by the New York Times. She was artist in residence at Harvard between 2018-2019 and became a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard 2019-2020. She has performed with Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, American Tap Dance Orchestra and Jazz Tap Ensemble. She is co-director of Operation Tap, and as you can see from the image above, she is on the August cover of Dance Magazine. Her mission is to “make tap dancing a relevant presence in the arts”. .

I was really inspired to hear that Ayodele was a relative late starter to tap dance at the age of 18. (Not as late as me in my 30s, but it’s nice to hear from someone who didn’t start at 3 years old for a change!) She was actually an Acting major at university (NYU), but was drawn into tap dance classes as part of her Movement for Actors class. Prior to this, at high school a teacher had shown the class a Fred and Ginger musical as part of a ‘History of the Movies’ series and this first peaked Ayodele’s interest in tap. A year into her university tap classes, she met Baakari Wilder (“a real tap dancer!”), who invited her to classes at the legendary Fazil’s dance studio where she realised she didn’t know anything about tap. Baakari taught her the history of tap and introduced her to the idea of tap as self-expression.

A point that has come up time and again in these ‘Tap & Tea’ sessions is how the tap dancers of the hoofing culture taught – not as a transactional relationship (I pay you, you teach me), but with generosity and sharing life and experience, like a family. Ayodele agreed that there is value in the teacher-student studio structure, but it is worth remembering that not everybody is there to become an artist and often the teacher doesn’t have time to mentor the individuals that are. For her the studio structure stirred something in her, where she wanted to learn more. She mentioned another point that has come up many times – young dancers who take every class going, but are making very little progress – because they’re not using their initiative to do their own learning outside of class. How much class is too much?

After training with Baakari, Ayodele went onto train with Barbara Duffy (who we heard from a few weeks ago) at Broadway Dance Center. She joined the ‘Funk University’, a training ground for young dancers to be channelled into Savion Glover’s Broadway hit Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. It had a predominately male cast, but workshop director Ted Louis-Levy allowed her into the training workshops, changing the game in what was still a pretty male art form and giving Ayodele a huge opportunity to develop her art. She described it as being akin to being allowed into the Hoofers’ Club of the 1930s & 40s, where no women were allowed!

This led onto discussion of her current Harvard research on the forgotten women of tap (something I’m immensely interested in too, and will be doing some research on myself once Tap & Tea has finished). Being the only woman in Savion’s show Not Your Only Tap Dancer, people greeted her after the show with comments like “I didn’t know women could tap dance” or “You dance like a man!” This made her want to delve deeper, and so she researched women like Jeni Le Gon and Lois Bright of The Miller Bros & Lois. These women were so talented and were doing amazing stuff, just like their male counterparts, but they were then largely forgotten until now. You can check out Ayodele’s digital series Diary of a Tap Dancer on NY City Center’s Youtube channel, which gives a voice to these forgotten ladies.

It was another fantastic Tap & Tea session, and I found Ayodele so inspiring! I completely agree that you as the student have to take the initiative in your learning if you want to progress. Practice! Read! Watch!

Some Ayodele-isms:

You have to take the initiative. Give yourself the permission to go ahead and be great.

Exercise your bravery, don’t exercise your fear.

How do we use technique to create meaningful expression?

The marriage of information and the next level [of tap] is dependent on the student

Tap & Tea with Barbara Duffy

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On the final week of the latest Tap & Tea series we were joined by special guest Barbara Duffy, author of Tap into Improv

Barbara is a sought after teacher, dancer, actress and choreographer. She is a former member of American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO), performed with Gregory
Hines for the Clintons at the President’s Gala in 1996 which she called ‘the biggest gig of my life’, and she created her own tap company, Barbara Duffy and Company.

Barbara’s story is a really interesting one. She began her training at a dance school that managed to fit ballet, jazz and tap into a short half hour lesson! Needless to say,
technique was not taught, and this was evident when Barbara auditioned numerous times for the University of Massachusetts dance programme (five times in fact) and
was not successful. After this, she moved to Boston and took private lessons in high-heeled Broadway tap with Esther Dolan, going right back to the beginning. At this
point she knew nothing of ‘Rhythm tap’ and decided to quit dancing altogether. However, her sister invited her to watch a local tap show, and Barbara was BLOWN AWAY by the musical tap of Leon Collins. It wasn’t until Leon Collins’ dance studio relocated to be opposite her apartment building that Barbara got to study tap with him. (It was at this point that she switched from high heels to flat tap shoes). Here Barbara was introduced to tap jams and improvisation, and she was freaked out!

Tap study was a much slower process than many of us are used to these days – every week there was an hour and a half class where they’d learn just 8 bars and then go away and work on that. Similarly, while studying with Brenda Bufalino later on, classes would include things like a 5 whole minutes of just clapping and flapping, giving students the time to really settle into it and find themselves before moving onto something else. Back in those days people really STUDIED and were intentional. Nowadays, she observed, many students just want to go to class for fun and to socialise and express themselves, but they don’t work on what they’ve learned and so they turn up each week with no memory of the week before – and they see zero improvement.

After Leon Collins died in 1985, Barbara moved from Boston to New York to study with Brenda Bufalino, and was invited to join ATDO, with whom she performed and toured until around 1995. Being in based in New York City she also got to study with famed theatre choreographer Henry Le Tang and learn all of his routines. She was also invited to assist a teenage Savion Glover in ‘translating’ his choreography for his young students – and this was how Barbara Duffy’s name got out there.

The legendary Jimmy Slyde was known for having a regular Wednesday night tap jam where he would call people up onto the stage and say “show me a time step!” Barbara started going along to try and get over her fear of improvising, but the negative self-talk would creep in while she was performing, and then she would avoid going back. (I was really keen to hear Barbara speak about getting over her fear of improvisation, because I have felt that fear…and it’s coming back again with another improvisation workshop happening next week!) Her advice was to ‘stay where you are’ until you’re ready to move forward because improvisation is a “life-long process”. An example she gave was where you might berate yourself for doing the same step again and again…but that’s absolutely fine and you will get better! I’ll try to remember this and not beat myself up if I get stuck only doing paddles next week. A guy at our improv workshop last year kept returning to a spin on the spot if he ran out of ideas – and it was fine! (Better than running out crying, am I right? LOL)

Barbara described how rhythm tap was such a man’s game back in the day, but then Gregory Hines suggested that she get some women together, and Barbara Duffy & Company was born! Company dancers included Michelle Dorrance, Lisa La Touche, Maya Jenkins, Flavia Costa, Pia Neises and Karida Griffith among others, and the goal was to allow each dancer’s voice to emerge. Sadly, the company had to fold when they ran out of money during the 2008 recession.

While studying for her ESOL degree, Barbara wrote the amazing guidebook Tap into Improv for her course project. (Being a natural procrastinator, she benefitted from having a supervisor and a deadline!) The book came out of starting to teach improvisation to her own students and realising that they were just as afraid of it as she’d been. (It’s a great book, and I’ll try and review it at some point – but either way, make sure you get yourself a copy!).

I wrote down SO MANY notes from this Tap & Tea talk because Barbara had LOADS to say and was so interesting to listen to! I managed this, even though I had to run upstairs and relocate to the landing at the top of the stairs because my WiFi signal decided to play up! Here are a few of the useful tips she shared with us:

Barbara’s Tips for Tap Students:

Bring yourself to the class and be present and open. What are you bringing to the class? Are you engaged? Or are you waiting to be given something?

Sing everything. It will up your game immediately.

Practice everything before the next class.

Don’t listen to your feet; decide what you want to hear.

It you want to grow and expand, you’ve got to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

Barbara’s Jazz Playlist:

Oscar Peterson (pianist)
Benny Green (saxophone)
Christian McBride (double bass)
Lee Morgan (trumpet)

Check out this video of Barbara (on the far right) dancing with Gregory Hines at the President’s Gala for Bill Clinton in Washington, DC in 1996:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWl0mXhYsV8&w=560&h=315]

Great news – we start a new 4-week series of Tap & Tea next week!

4 Points from Last Week

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1. I completed a 5km run for charity (in stages) to a 90’s music playlist! The longest distance I ran in one go was 1km, which I was really pleased with. My SO is a proper runner, so he did a great job coaching this reluctant jogger. Now I’m waiting for my ‘I Love the 90s’ medal and t-shirt, and even though I said I was done with running…I’m wondering whether to sign up for the ‘I Love the 80s’ run…

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2. I quit Twitter. Well, my personal account anyway. I’ve kept my side biz account for now. I mainly used my personal Twitter for keeping up with London travel, news stuff, dance, cute animals and reading funny comments about TV shows. BUT, I’m just DONE with all the negativity and bigotry and politics that is oozing from it at the moment. It’s not even that I follow these accounts, but you know, you get drawn into reading the comments underneath. I really do have better things to do with my life!

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3. Tap class was cancelled on Thursday because our teacher (and most of London’s Virgin Media customers) had broadband problems. To be honest, I didn’t actually mind because I was quite hot and bothered in the humidity. I had practised quite a bit on previous days, and I had another Tap & Tea history talk in the afternoon, with repeat-guest Andrew Black, who this time took us through the history of tap dance in New York City, so it certainly wasn’t a tap-free week by any means 🙂

Writing Handbook

4. I set up a Writing Handbook. I think I mentioned on here last year that I wanted to return to my original teenage goal of becoming a professional writer (but often life and lack of confidence gets in the way and you end up just getting ‘a job’). Over the lockdown period I’ve been doing an online writing course, and last week I set up my Writing Handbook to gather all the helpful writing tips I’ve discovered into one place. Progress may be slow right now, but it’s still progress!

Today:

I’m still trying my best not to put myself under pressure to achieve loads during this period of being on furlough and stuck at home, because let’s face it, it’s difficult to stay motivated at the moment, despite having lots of free time! I am still writing myself a to-do list every week, but it’s much shorter than usual, and if I don’t complete a task, so what? The list is there for structure and motivation, rather than to create pressure to DO DO DO. Plus I love lists!

Work has said, sensibly, that everyone should be using their annual leave (pro-rata) just so we’re not all trying to take it at the same time later in the year. I’ve booked a week of annual leave (yes, leave from furlough) just so I have some days where I won’t be wondering if work is going to call me, or if I’m going to be called back to work at short notice. I was in touch with a friend (and former colleague) over the weekend who was made redundant from her job recently, and she said that at the moment she’s not putting herself under pressure to get another job straight away, but she’s using the time to enjoy the break and top up her tan after a sustained period of work stress. Now that’s the spirit!

Tap & Tea with Sarah Reich

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On this week’s ‘Tap & Tea’ session we heard from the amazing LA hoofer, Sarah Reich! Sarah is one of the new leaders of the tap dance movement.

She has taught in over 40 countries – I was lucky enough to take a class with her at Tap Dance Festival UK 2019 in Manchester – and her main goal is to re-programme the public perception of tap dance. She toured internationally as the featured tap dancer with Postmodern Jukebox for 2 years, and has appeared in various music videos and TV specials. She created the Tap Music Project to teach people how to dance with more musicality and has released a collaborative jazz album called New Change, which I was excited to get a copy of last year. Sarah is also the artistic director of LA-based youth tap company Tap Con Sabor (Tap with Flavour), which aims to expose tap to the Latino community.

Sarah Reich began learning to tap dance at age 5 at the California Dance Center in Culver City, after her progressive parents thought it would be beneficial to enrol Sarah and her sister in a mainly black dance school to expose them to people different from themselves. At age 12 the sisters also began salsa dancing. Sarah moved on from California Dance Center to study with Alfred Desio, then Syd Glover, and the list goes on.

Sarah has a long list of mentors, but she spoke particularly of Paul Kennedy, who she called ‘one of the greatest tap dance teachers ever’, Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold and the late Dr Harold ‘Stumpy’ Cromer, who she described as her ‘best friend’. Paul Kennedy learnt from his mother Miriam Kennedy, and as well as teaching Sarah, he also taught Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sunbry-Edwards and the Nicholas Sisters (granddaughters of Fayard Nicholas). In these classes, it was all about performing and they tapped to all the old jazz, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Learning with Jason Samuels-Smith, Sarah said this is when she fell in love with tap dance and her “passion and love for the art form came from Jason”. Chloe Arnold gave Sarah her business savvy by demonstrating how to create your own opportunities (Jason & Chloe started the LA Tap Fest in their early twenties), so at age 16, Sarah was already producing her own events. Sarah described Harold Cromer as “real old school”, a class act, and a “song and dance man”. She gave us two nuggets he instilled in her:

Learn to do by doing

Be classy…don’t look like a bum

Sarah discussed her love for other dance styles, especially swing dance and salsa, and as many of our guests have said over the last few weeks, she insisted that other styles of dance will always help your tap dance, and that it’s good to know the history of swing dance as it has links with tap dance and its jazz origins.

We heard all about the fun she had touring the US, Europe, Asia, Australia and South America with Postmodern Jukebox – a gig she initially turned down – and how this helped to establish her huge fan base, which enabled her to produce her New Change album at the right time.

Her conclusion on the state of tap dance today was that it’s getting better and more exciting, and that musicality and technique has got stronger. But, she feels that tap dance could do with more big time exposure, although she thinks it’s starting to happen…slowly.

Tap dancing allows you to be yourself

Respect the dance

Sarah Reich is so energetic and upbeat, and I can tell you, I really needed that positivity this week!

Check out this interview with Sarah in Dance Magazine: What Sarah Reich Wishes You Knew About Tap Dancers

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 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