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!