Jane Goldberg

Tapper | Historian | Comedian

Introduction to Jane Goldberg’s Writing, Blog

Posted October 19th, 2019 at 11:02 am

From the age of five, though I had a modern dance background I took seriously, I broke my leg in competitive diving at age 12 and started writing. My father helped me a lot with that. I even took journalism in high school, in my junior year, so I could work on the school paper the next year. I kept up the dancing, but not the diving. I was afraid to go back to the diving board after the accident where I wore a plaster of Paris cast up to my hip for 6 months. The good old days.

(I played Gerald Magrew in Dr. Zeus’ famous, “If I Ran The Zoon” for the Washington Post Book fair.” That was a highlight of my modern dance life as a youngster).

Speaking of The Washington Post, I’m a Washington D.C. native, and wanted to write for the Post from those journalism days in high school at Bethesda Chevy Chase. I didn’t even think I wanted or needed to go to college, I was so dead serious about writing for The Post. But it seemed everyone went to college back from 1966-70, and those were the best years with all the activism on campuses across the country and in Europe. Many people who live in D.C. come there to work for the government. At least that’s what my father did from Pennsylvania. But I was born there, at Sibley Hospital.

The Counter-Culture hit me hard. Though I didn’t smoke pot, I was a journalism activist, and wrote many articles for the Boston University News, even becoming its city editor my senior year. I was at Boston University and historian Howard Zinn played a big influence in transforming me into a government major and changing my politics to what would be considered “left wing” or now called “liberal.” (A dirty word back then; we preferred “radical”). I forgot about dance totally until my senior year at BU when I had finished my course work and started studying dance, first to the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” on my own and then hearing about a great teacher at Radcliffe, Claire Mallardi. Soon I was hooked on dance again. I went to a Greek island to dance and it was as romantic as it sounds dancing outside under olive trees with butterflies abound, a small island in transformation from farming to café life.

The tap bug hit me in 1973. Nostalgia was in the air with Twyla Tharp doing her Bix Pieces and Jelly Roll Morton dancing. I wanted so badly to dance with Twyla, but I didn’t have the technique nor at the time, ballet background, which she herself was heading toward with Baryshnikov as an inspiratory.

A big turning point: I read a book review on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and wanted a partner like Astaire. Who didn’t? I also lived with a man at the time who had a used clothing store, not yet called “vintage.” He picked “rags.” I thought the best way to Astaire and a partner who could dance like him, was to study tap dancing.

I looked “tap” up In the yellow pages. I’m sure I wouldn’t have held the definitions of historian/writer/dancer/teacher/all around tap persona had it not been for seeing four hoofers in a basement telling jokes and tap dancing. I wanted their “feet.” But even more importantly, I loved their humor.

My first tap teacher was a Rockette, when I was four, but my mother saw the writing on the wall and tap was “OUT”, considering a dying art, or a lost art. Then after college, while still serious about modern dance, I was up in Boston, had trained to become a dance writer at the time, 1972, and my first “hoofer” of the black school of tap was Stanley Brown. He had one of those old timey studios on Mass Ave with lots of “Rehearsal halls” and pictures of John Bubbles and Bill Bojangles Robinson hanging on his walls.

Like other young dancers in their 20s, I just wanted to dance. I think that’s true today, though you do meet some interested in “the history of tap.” If it weren’t that I had that journalism background, I wouldn’t have been carrying a tape recorder around when I couldn’t get Chuck Green of Chuck & Chuckles’ complicated steps. He spoke on the tape recorder of Buck & Bubbles, and The Three Chocolateers, many others with great names like Moke & Poke.  I was beginning to get hooked on tap lore. Everyone always asked, “What are you going to do with that?” Tap was not being offered, especially the rhythm tap.  The hoofers had gone underground.

You have to know: in 1973 there was hardly any tap anywhere, certainly not in the media. Twyla did a little tap in The Bix Pieces, but it was really the Fred and Ginger movies that incited my imagination. And wanting a ballroom partner like Fred. That never happened, but I became totally obsessed with tap, its history from the Stearns book on (I made a point of meeting Jeanne Stearns in Key West). Tap’s history is ironic. Marshall died just as his and Jeanne’s book went into galleys, so it didn’t get much play.

The jazz musicians in the 70s and 80s weren’t interested in tap’s relationship to jazz as far as I could tell. Still, I was obsessed with getting the story, and talked to producers, directors, hoofers, musicians, and agents, anyone who knew anything about tap dancing. Stanley Brown had given me the names of Honi Coles and Henry Le Tang, and the year before I moved to NYC, I studied with Le Tang. Honi was unreachable at the time, even though I called diligently every week for lessons. But I came back to Boston from NYC with having seen Twyla’s Beach Boys choreography, and the old time hoofers, Rhythm Red, Chuck Green, Sandman Sims, and “The world’s greatest tap dancer”, John T. McPhee from Atlantic City.

Eventually by 1978 I got my first NEA grant, having pestered that organization, which had money then in the 70s, and even formed a non profit all the while promoting the hoofers, begging people like Joe Papp of NY Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre, Art D’Lugoff of the Village Gate, and Max Gordon, of the Village Vanguard, to name just a few presenters, to sponsor the hoofers.

Much to my surprise, with one great review in the NY Times, in 1978, I began “working”. “Work” was an abstract concept to me when Brenda Bufalino talked about it. She had “worked” in nightclubs in the 50s, but they were gone by the time I got to the art. Suddenly however, because I had done my homework and gotten a rave review that ended with “Break down the doors to see this show,” in the NY Times in 1978, I too joined the work force. I began working alongside some of the all time great hoofers, especially Charles Cookie Cook who was my teacher after Honi Coles, who I finally persuaded to teach a class of four.

Honi had hung up his shoes for teaching. Because of my persistence calling him every week, and showing him my “feet” one day at Jerry LeRoy’s, later named “Fazils’’, formerly Mikes where Fred and Eleanor Powell practiced. I began the serious mission of studying and performing and researching.

Soon I was getting a reputation, and people were wondering who did my publicity. I was able to combine tap with publicity from my journalism background, but everyone then who was getting serious about tap found his/her own way to start companies, to start performing, in small theatres and lofts. Meanwhile, Gregory Hines was forging ahead on Broadway in Eubie and Sophisticated Ladies. We young hoofers weren’t geared to Broadway as much as self-expression and then onto improvisation and choreography.

I  was aggressive about getting to know Hines, since I’d read an article where he said he didn’t have anyone to talk to about the old time hoofers, men like Bunny Briggs and Sandman Sims who taught him in the Apollo Theatre alley when he was a kid. We began to talk tap seriously. He had vision and I had a tape recorder. We loved to argue about the hoofers, “who was the greatest,” (they were called “champs” back in Gregory’s day, and compared to the boxers of the day.) Aside from our love of tap, Hines and I were practically the same age and both used Dr. Bonner’s Soap and talked about the hippie days.

I started a tap newsletter, Footprint on Tap, and the first tap festival, “By Word of Foot: Tap Masters Pass on Their Tradition”, just to prove that this kind of jazz tap, now called rhythm tap could be taught, and actually used music other than jazz.

“The rest is history.”  I found my voice in my book, Shoot Me While I’m Happy, developed an act called “Rhythm & Schmooze”, taught at NYU for 20 years. I just loved tap. I learned from so many, met producers, presenters, jazz musicians from the old school, (I was Philly Joe Jones’ crash pad near the old jazz club, The Tin Palace). I became the tap goddess of the Lower East Side.

I now live in yupped up Tribeca, and the hoofers have all but died that I knew, Mable Lee being the last. She herself knew the history of tap, something a lot of people don’t know about the recently late Mable Lee. I did the first all women’s tap show. It wasn’t an easy journey for me. There was lots of competition, jealousy, bad vibes, but along with them, “some of my best friends are tap dancers.” I was always interested in race relations; ever since Martin Luther King was killed when I was still at BU, I took black history courses, and could draw parallels between tap and race. I’m still interested in that. I’m presently reading a book on bebop master Dexter Gordon. Every time a tap dancer is mentioned, it says nothing but the name. The jazz writers rarely include tap in their writing and don’t make the association of the tight history between the big bands like Ellington and Basie, and tap dancers who were often part of the stage shows where the musicians performed. Jazz people often still separate themselves from tap except for the old school of George Wein and his Newport Jazz Festival.

Tap has many histories. In this writing, I hope to talk about my archives that just went to Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts, the controversy of video, and much to my surprise, how many people are tapping again now. Still few venues, but people are studying tap in festivals and classes. Though there isn’t a lot of interest in the history, there are still a bunch of us around to spread the gospel.

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