In January, 1979, the Jazz Tap Ensemble was created by three dancers and three musicians: Lynn Dally, Camden Richman and Fred Strickler; Paul Arlanian, pianist, Tom Dannenberg, guitarist, and Keith Terry, percussionist. They made their debut at Pacific Motion Dance Studios in Venice, California. Within a year, they became recognized as the best of the new tap groups that emerged in what later became known as the Tap Renaissance. In this article, Strickler writes about the evolution of tap during that period and its development into tap dancing in the 21st Century
In 1979, three tap dancers and three musicians created the California-based Jazz Tap Ensemble. Lynn Dally and I lived in Los Angeles, pursuing careers in modern dance. Camden Richman had studied modern dance at U.C. Berkeley. She lived in Oakland with her partner, Tom Dannenberg, who was a guitarist. The other two musicians, pianist Paul Arslanian and percussionist Keith Terry lived in the Bay Area, too. Lynn was the instigator, inviting Camden and Tom to visit us at our workspace, Pacific Motion Dance Studios, in Venice, right after we opened our doors in the fall of 1978.
At that time, I was a member of the dance theatre collective, Eyes Wide Open, and Lynn had her own group, Lynn Dally & Dancers. Lynn and I had studied tap with her father, Jimmy Rawlins, in Columbus, Ohio, but had readily given that up when we discovered modern dance at Ohio State, where each of us earned our undergraduate degrees.
Now in California, I was happily pursuing dance as an art form, with no serious thoughts about tap dance. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. I did, but it wasn’t really an option to consider tap dance as a career. As far as I knew, that option didn’t exist. There weren’t any professional tap dancers any more. I think it was that way for Lynn, too. However, tap dance was, to my surprise, becoming popular again, so we offered tap classes at Pacific Motion and people enthusiastically signed up. I was having fun recalling my old routines and making up new timesteps, and practicing my shuffles, flaps, cramp rolls, pullbacks and wings.
When Camden and Tom arrived, they were delightful. Camden was wafer thin, beautiful and rather shy. When I saw her dance, though, she was very assured and sophisticated: graceful. Her technical skills in tap completely surprised and amazed me. I had never seen anything like that. Complicated rhythms jam-packed with syncopations. I was excellent at counting, but there was no way… Camden offered to teach me some steps, but she scatted the rhythms. I had no clue about the did-a-la-deep-ba-dah sounds she was making, but the rhythm was clear and I began to pick up bits of what she was doing. I wanted more of that.
A year or so before, I had made a showy 3-minute tap piece, without music, that I remembered. When I did it for Lynn, Camden and Tom, they liked it. Lynn was working out some blues rhythms that were cool. We played together for a week, and during that time we went to see a new show that was playing at the Westwood Playhouse in L.A. We’d heard that there was a really good tap dancer who was featured, so we went.
The great singer Jon Hendricks was starring in Evolution of the Blues. Donald McKayle was the director/choreographer, and show was a hit, with lots of sexy jazz dancing that sparkled and cracked. The show also featured a jazz tap percussionist: the remarkably fast and smooth tap dancer, Foster Johnson, who wore shiny white shoes and a white silk suit that matched his massive white afro. Lynn, Camden and I were dazzled by Foster’s intricate, brilliant rhythms as he glided effortlessly all over the stage.
Afterwards, we went backstage to meet him, with the express purpose of inviting him to Pacific Motion Dance Studios, to do some sessions with us. He invited us out for a beer and we began working with him the next morning. We did no warm-up. He just started showing us rhythm steps at full speed. He didn’t count, he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t break down the sequences. He did the dance and we followed, stumbling along till we began to get the material.
Well-trained to analyze new movement and break it down into clear sequences and counts, I was trying to figure out what he was doing. At one point, I brazenly asked if a particular move in the first phrase was a shuffle, or what? He looked at what I did, which was a shuffle and said, “Yeah, that’s it. What did you say you call that – a shuffle?” He didn’t call it anything, except maybe a be-doo or a dah-da or a sheeda-bahda-doodalee-deedalee-ow or anything else that seemed to make the sounds of the taps he was doing. I quickly learned that my questions were useless (and probably not welcome) so I started paying attention in a brand new way. Thankfully, he was patient and we learned the piece, which he called Fine and Dandy because that was the name of the tune.
By the end of the week, Camden, Lynn, Tom and I agreed that we had enough rhythm choreography to make up the first half of a short show. We also agreed to make up the rest and promised to come together again in a few months. They went back to Oakland and we got to work at Pacific Motion. They returned in January with a pianist, Paul Arslanian, and Lynn had brought in a drummer, Marilyn [?], and we put together our show of live music and tap dances, which we called Riffs. We opened on January 19th and we did three or four performances over the weekend. The big studio at Pacific Motion could be transformed into a fairly nice low-budget performance space that could seat about 75 people. We packed in about a hundred at each performance and people loved what we did! We even got a great review in the LA Times (though the reviewer didn’t care for my “leaden arms”. Ouch). For weeks after, people would tell us, “That was so great. You should do it again.” So we did.
In March, we got a new drummer, Keith Terry, revised and polished our repertory, and added a few new pieces. We also gave ourselves a new name: The Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble. A friend of Lynn’s, Bridget Terry, was working as a publicist for the film auteur Robert Altman. Bridget had seen our January show and she invited another filmmaker, Christian Blackwood, to come to see our new program. He was making a new documentary about the recent resurgence of interest in jazz tap dancing, so he came to our opening show. He was delighted and told us afterward that he wanted to include us in his new documentary, Tapdancin’. On Sunday afternoon he showed up with a film crew and we did some of our dances for him, jammed a bit, and did interviews. I remember him shoving a microphone at me, asking, “Fred, what is your contribution to tap dance?” I have no idea what I said, but it ended up on the cutting room floor, thankfully. I’d been doing this for less than 3 months. Contribution? um…ahh…hhmmmm….By the end of the year, we were in New York for a week at the experimental modern dance venue, Dance Theatre Workshop. A great many tap dancers, new and old, came to see us. Sally Sommer included us in a big article for the Village Voice, declaring us as the best of the new tap groups. We also got a booking agent, Sheldon Soffer. We began to tour the U.S., went to Europe and Southeast Asia and became the most famous tap dance company of our generation.
We had hit it just right and became important players in what became known as the Tap Renaissance.
By the mid-1970s, the hey-day of tap dance, with its swinging, syncopated jazz rhythms, was long past. Jazz music of the ‘30s and ‘40s had been quickly replaced by rock and roll in the ‘50s as the new popular music. So, too, tap dance had faded from the public interest. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, had been the last successful Hollywood movie that featured tap, and around the same time, tap vanished from Broadway shows and nightclubs across the nation. Even on TV variety shows, which were still new then, tap dancers appeared only occasionally, nostalgically reminding audiences of past times that had been “great fun”, but … Despite the declining interest, a few tap dancers, known as jazz tap percussionists, continued to perform here and there. The majority, however, had great difficulty finding work. Making a living as a tap dancer had always been a struggle, so many just hung up their shoes and moved onward, or downward, forgotten by all but a few.
As a species, tap dancers may have been nearly extinct, but a few began to show up again in the ‘70s as “re-discovered masters” of American tap dance. Slowly, the resurgence of public interest grew. Session by session, show by show, tap came back and it was in full swing by 1980. Great dancers like the elderly, but elegant, Charles “Honi” Coles, as well as a young, vibrant Gregory Hines were Broadway stars. Tap dance was in the news again and the Tap Renaissance had begun.
Live tap shows were beginning to pop up across the nation. People were curious once again about this thing called tap dancing. There was a nostalgic celebration going on. Old Hollywood movies starring many of the great tap dancers Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, and the Nicholas Brothers were being re-run on TV.
There were a few touring shows, too, notably Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, featuring Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, who became known as the Dean of American Tap. Ann Miller was touring the nation in Sugar Babies, attracting new audiences. Both of these shows were very successful music revues that showcased a revived interest in jazz music and rhythm tap. The dancers were superb, and audiences everywhere were delighted to rediscover tap.
Gregory lived for a while in Venice, CA, where he sang with the rock group, Severance, in the 1975-76. Then he returned to New York to star on Broadway in Eubie! (1979). The show had been conceived and directed by Donald McKayle, then opened under the direction of Michael Smuin. In quick succession, his extraordinary tap dancing, singing and acting got him two more starring roles in Sophisticated Ladies (1981) and Jelly’s Last Jam (1992). His tap films include The Cotton Club (1984), White Knights (1985) and Tap (1989). In White Knights, his co-star was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Gregory’s dancing was credited as “Improvography”. Like most tap dancers he loved to improvise. Playing an unhappy American dancer stuck in Russia, he goes into a studio, turns on a rock tune with a heavy backbeat and “meditates” on some hard-hitting rhythms as he careens around the studio venting his frustration.
This, I believe, was the very first instance in the Tap Renaissance that anyone tap-danced to that kind of music. It had always been jazz or show tunes. This was a galvanizing moment, an instant update for the whole world of tap. Gregory paved the way for how tap dance is performed by today’s generation of tappers. Spurred on by the phenomenal accomplishments of Savion Glover, a whole new generation of tap dancers have taken on the music and driving rhythms of today’s popular music.
THE RENAISSANCE OPENS A NEW ERA
In 1989, Gregory hosted a television special, Tap Dance in America, for the PBS Great Perfomances Dance in America series. He brought together many of the best tap dancers in America and I was thrilled to be part of that landmark production. That’s where I got a reputation as a classical tap dancer. I performed a solo to the final movement of Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, with a string quintet. I will write at length about this in another article, but here’s what was important about that event, I think:
It was a celebration of all that had been happening in the Tap Renaissance. The variety of styles was impressive. Broadway dancers Hinton Battle and Greg Burge did a killer version of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. Gregory and Tommy Tune performed Takin’ a Chance on Love, a tap classic number in slow motion that Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins had created in the early ‘50s. Brenda Bufalino’s choreography for her company, the American Tap Dance Orchestra, dressed in formal tuxedos, matched the powerful drive of Haitian Fight Song, by Charlie Mingus. Manhattan Tap quartet did a scintillating be-bop Charlie Parker piece, Scrapple from the Apple, and Germaine Ingram and LaVaughn Robinson performed a dazzlingly fast duet. There was a trio of solos focusing on the rising status of women in tap, featuring Dianne Walker, Camden Richman and Jennifer Lane. Gregory danced a split-screen duet with himself that once again featured the pounding backbeat of rock. He also jammed in a “challenge” with tap masters Bunny Briggs, Sandman Sims, Buster Brown and Jimmy Slyde. They danced with bravado and showed us their best moves, which were, well, awesome.
Finishing the program was an improvised solo without music by Savion Glover, who turned 15 on the day we taped the show. He was the youngest dancer of the whole cast, and his rhythms were the fastest, the strongest, the most complex. There was a feeling of the street about him and at the same time we all realized he had a level of sophistication that was very impressive. Savion had studied with many of the masters and he embodied them all in his dancing. Watching him tear into the floor that night, I distinctly remember wondering: if he’s that good now, it will be amazing to see what he does as he becomes a man. And he has amazed us all.
Savion led us into the finale of the show and, with that glorious culmination, the credits rolled. Immensely happy, we kept on dancing as the Tap Renaissance ended. We were complete. Although we didn’t quite know it then, the future had just showed up.
© Copyright 2012 Fred Strickler All rights reserved.