Once Upon a Time in Tap-Land
Posted December 13th, 2019 at 4:18 pm
So much is happening in the art form of tap dancing now, it is impossible to keep up with all the different tap worlds. And there are a lot of tap worlds I’m sure, many that don’t exist in what was/has been considered the capital of the tap worlds, New York City.
There are the individual tappers who don’t even try to keep up but instead work alone, finding unusual venues that have nothing to do with tap. I myself used to tap in a lot of them, many politically oriented. Anti-war, The Brecht Forum, off of diving boards, you name it.
Even with scholarships abounding, the “tap festival circuit” such that it is, classes and performances can be too expensive for the average hoofers who aren’t saving up their pennies. Some tappers don’t even try to deal with the hierarchies, which do exist. Some have made their reputations just by organizing a festival. They aren’t even necessarily tap dancers. More existed I think in the 80s in Portland and Boston. Some do today.
This year, I participated in two festivals in strange ways. The first was in Austin, Texas that Tapestry Dance Co. co-director Acia Gray organized. Her festival had the smallest number of attendees, because many of the students hadn’t heard of the people she was producing/presenting, seven choreographers (all female) from the 1980s primarily. I was impressed, I must admit, that all of them still had their chops together, even if their companies no longer existed as they had when the choreography was being developed. The Austin festival, according to Gray, “truly revolved around the modern dance/concert repertory company model. That’s what was truly introduced in the 1980s and those dancers that came from that background be it ‘contemporary’ in its time or Avant garde. But as well, I had a personal connection with all of them as teachers.”
Gray thinks it was the smallest festival because “the tap student community had no idea who some (if not all) of these women are!” She felt that the students they pulled were those truly interested in the concert dance model “So You Think You Can Dance” or stay local and work with their master teacher that has a production/pick up company. I think we didn’t have that big-ticket item (for lack of a better term)–the popular, young and some are passing 40 now) or Dianne Walker–(she can pull her own crowd everywhere–and well deserved)… I also think much of it is that dancers are in the show mode and not in the same creative mind-space that we all used to be in.”
Now, here we would wonder, is there a tap student community circuit that travels all the festivals? It seems they have to pick and choose where they want to be and with whom they want to study. According to Gray, a lot of the choreographers, (all of whose work I knew directly from the 80s when it was created), were “famous figures” at the time. Did they slip into obscurity? Not necessarily. Some went to teach as professors in colleges. Some started new organizations under which they could use as umbrellas. Some just retired. One was studying hula (Lynn Dally) but had no intention of being a hula dancer. Dally, along with Fred Strickler led one of the most popular tap companies at the time: The Jazz Tap Ensemble that toured internationally. Fred introduced her the second night of performances which included all seven choreographers, most live, but Anita Feldman opted to show work on video.
Each of the seven choreographers was allowed to bring a guest, be it a company member or someone she worked with. Note: I started perhaps one of the first non-profit tap companies, Changing Times Tap, but CTT didn’t quite fit the definition of a choreographer who put dancers on the concert stage. I did do choreography, and put dancers on the concert stage, but my company was black/white, old/young, male/female, each who did his/her own work often. Hence CTT didn’t fit the model of a choreographer with a company of dancers for whom she choreographed.
Another important factor in common with the seven companies and how the choreographers were chosen was in terms of the funding. The National Endowment for the Arts, one of the main funders understood the modern dance model of choreographer/ with a company. The NEA didn’t understand “improvisation,” for example, which the late Gregory Hines once told me was tap at its highest form (or so he thought during that discussion.).
In fact, I know of one incident where a popular choreographer/professor well known in his field, Richard Bull, and very popular at Wesleyan University by the end of his life, had changed the name of his company from the “Improvisational Dance Ensemble” to “The Richard Bull Dance Company”, so as not to confuse the role model. An administrator at the NEA couldn’t understand what Tap ‘mastress’, Dianne Walker, was doing at the Goodman Theatre in 1985 when she walked out on stage in a show I produced, and improvised her solo. This NEA administrator didn’t understand how someone could just get up and go with no credit to a choreographer.
The seven choreographers featured in the Austin festival also taught classes. They were Anita Feldman of Anita Feldman Tap, who didn’t perform, and was missing her guest, David Parker, who just had had a total knee replacement. Brenda Bufalino of The American Tap Dance Orchestra, who brought Tony Waag, with whom she cofounded her organization, and who referred to himself “as a token woman” (since it was all women invited as choreographers: Acia Gray of Tapestry Dance Co., whose entire company seemed to be represented, Lynn Dally of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, who was introduced by Fred Strickler, a co-founder of JTE, Heather Cornell, of Manhattan Tap, who brought Jeannie Hill, now at the U of Wisconsin, and Linda Sohl-Ellison, who brought her drummer/husband, Monte Ellison with whom she collaborates). Last but not least was Katherine Kramer of Syncopated Inc., who has lived just about everywhere (Alaska, Montana, Wisconsin now, Lexington, Ky., Puerto Rico, and her companies have changed. (All companies have had different members, but Katherine’s entire company would change with each city. Her emphasis on presentation of former work during her “spot” in the week, featured mainly work from Lexington, Kentucky. She brought Ann Kilkelly along, a scholar/dancer, and choreographer/dancer in her own right, who was fun to hang out with.
I call myself a lapsed hoofer, because I’ve been concentrating mainly on my comedy/tap, not my feet so much. And it is always very different to learn than to teach. I had stopped tapping, though not teaching, for awhile, and at these festivals there are no beginner/beginner classes. I don’t think I’m at that level anymore, but Advanced Beginner at both festivals I attended this year were for the serious tap dancer who studies regularly, all serious about becoming professional if not already. I was impressed with the level of “feet.” And how quickly people learn nowadays. That started way back in the 80s, but with a total knee replacement myself; I never went back to hoofing, as much as improving my running commentary over the feet.
Still, I felt in the awkward position of being an icon without a job, though I was honored to be invited as a special guest artist and I loved performing my act one night. I had a wonderful time with a wonderful reception as did everyone. Plus, I enjoyed myself at one of Acia board members homes, Kaz Kazinoff, who had the best record collection of blues and jazz I have ever witnessed. He’s a sax player and harmonica, and had attended Copasetics boatrides even before I did in the 80s. It’s rare to meet a musician who really loves tap and working with hoofers. Kaz gave me a book on Dexter Gordon that filled me in somewhat on how tap dropped off from swing to bebop. Many of the dancers didn’t try to keep up with the new music, bebop, of the 40s-60s when Gordon played the most. I caught him at the Village Vanguard. He sounded like a wonderful person whose wife, Maxine Gordon, finished his memoir, dry, full of names of musicians. Every time a tap dancer was mentioned, which was rare, it was just a name. I always thought there was this love relationship with the dancers and musicians, but often, according to the late Cholly Atkins, charts were handed to the bands and that was the extent of the relationship. I could be wrong, but it seems tap was a world unto its own. Even while always working with live music.
Incidentally, men had companies too in the 80s, who used the concert stage as their venue, but limits had to be drawn, and thus, this festival set out to produce the prolific women of the 80s. I missed Gail Conrad, whom Gray thought was more theatre than dance, and Peggy Spina, who rarely toured outside of NYC. Each choreographer had time to show her work from the “good old days” of the 80s, in time slots that sometimes were too early for me to attend, but I tried to make them all. As well as on the last day of the festival, each choreographer was able discuss her inspiration, how she got started, short bios that lasted all day because of the number of choreographers and amount of information.
One controversial aspect of the festival, that really wasn’t controversial publicly because it was never brought up, was the subject of race relations. Back in the day, race was huge. I think it still is, but I have lost track. It often has to do with the origins of tap and who started it. Most dancers, I’ve found however, care mostly about how one handles his/her feet. But the outside world is still very aware, especially in the Trump age, of race relations. I know there was discussion of race behind the scenes, but it didn’t rear its controversial head at the festivals I attended which was mainly about choreography and how it went from revue format, or Vaudeville, to the concert stage. That was a big deal. I remember one concert I saw held at Carnegie Hall. The late Gregory Hines produced that show. I still call them shows, even though others will call them concerts. Carnegie Hall is definitely “concert.”
While in Austin, I swam in natural waters and a secret creek near Kaz’s house. I didn’t eat any of the famous food known there –barbeque– but we went to the wrong place. I love the feel of Austin. I wish I’d also heard some of the live music Austin is so renowned for. Lots of venues still exist there, that aren’t too expensive.
Gray knew she was “taking a chance on love” by having this type of festival where the “hot stars” of today weren’t represented, but as she wrote to me, “Believe me, there is a lot to talk about (that didn’t have time at the festival). This just scratched the surface, but was truly meant to celebrate these women who hold the common bond. One can only do much at one time. Hopefully, it will spark and continue…”
The second festival I attended was in my own backyard, Tony Wagg’s “Tap City,” a few weeks following the Austin shindig. (Not to demean Austin; I love the words shindig).
As a lapsed, but still active tap persona, I ended up on the first day of Tap City at the wrong venue. Instead of the hidden W or might have been E 43rd St. spot tucked away among many business high rises, were where many of the adult class intensives took place. I landed at the Tap Foundation’s headquarters on Christopher St. I was ready to pop in to the professionally oriented teenagers, but was told not appropriate. Which was true. I just wanted to dance. I came ill prepared, although found it hard unless studied for a while to read the full menu of classes. Tap talks, led by Brenda Bufalino, was a popular feature during lunch time breaks, where we got to hear how each of the main intensive choreographers: Dianne Walker, Max Pollack, Chloe Arnold, and Thelma Goldberg spoke about their work. I watched classes by Max Pollack and Dianne Walker in the afternoon. I remember the late Pam Raff of Leon Collins and Co., talking about how much she got out of watching classes. I did, too.
One bummer for me that others either ignored or zoomed through: it was a hot, hot week in NYC, so by the end of the day, you had to have energy to attend the evening events. I made it to the famous “Copasetic” Boat ride with a live band and lots of jamming by the up and coming hoofers of tomorrow. I foraged around for food (shame on me) and people were generous with what they brought. It was as always, at the Circle Line and a beautiful night. It was crowded with laughter and gossip, but mainly, dancing with the live band.
And thanks to Larraine Goodman, who talked about the best mode of transportation, I rode my bike all the way home, happy to get off the boat, and happy I closed the show with “I’m bombing,” while everyone was tapping the shim sham and screaming “Tap City, Tap City” at the breaks. I wish I’d gone to the awards ceremony; which Hank Smith wrote a blog about – he won the Preservation award this year and discussed the family of tap in detail – his own personal take on how tap is family. I’d heard that from my first teacher, Stanley Brown of Boston. I wonder if this is because tap is still segregated from the mainstream dance world of modern dance and ballet and thus its own ‘family,” but it does feel like family, flawed or congenial.
I forgot to mention, though I joined in late, I was able to learn a few steps in Thelma Goldberg’s advance beginner class. Goldberg. Yes, that is family, for sure, if in name only. I was able to follow her Thelma’s figurations and kindness to her students, learning them all by name.
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