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Now that the summer is pretty much over, I’ve decided to set myself the challenge of going through the tap dance dictionary to increase my tap vocab. This week I’m concentrating on the Front Essence:
A 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.
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!
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.
This final series of Tap & Tea history talks kicked off a few weeks ago with special guest Heather Cornell. Heather is the artistic director of Manhattan Tap and was the only dancer to be mentored and trained by legendary jazz musician Ray Brown. She is known for having been a major player in the tap dance renaissance and her famous ‘Tap Labs’ are celebrating 30 years this August.
Heather started dancing as a child in Canada with classes in ballet, jazz and tap, with the tap being taught as per the syllabus system, which she, and many others (particularly in the UK) describe as having lots of limitations, to the point where Heather was actually ‘aged out of it’ by the AGE OF 14… She described Canada at that point as having “no understanding of the history of tap”, and she stopped tap dancing because the only avenue was to go into musical theatre, which she didn’t want to do. She went to study Dance Therapy at NYU and did modern dance, but she was at a loss with the vocabulary. She then discovered the more rhythmic Cunningham technique of contemporary dance and decided to move to New York permanently. She ended up getting back into tap, and someone recommended she go study with Cookie Cook – Heather described the first time she heard the sound of his taps and burst into tears! It was a world away from the Canadian tap syllabus.
During her talk, Heather described Charles “Cookie” Cook as a consummate performer. He did comedy, Russian dancing, knockabout, you name it! He had an amazing sense of theatre, timing and how to put together a show and the education she received from him helped her to create her own company, Manhattan Tap. It was that old school style of learning – she hung out with him, he talked and she soaked it all up. Speaking of the old school hoofers, as many have said, none of them taught in the modern way of ‘this is how you do a shuffle’…they just danced and played, and you just had to pick it up: “It was a culture, not a subject”.
Continuing on this theme, Heather moved on to talk about the concept of mentorship: “I collect people”. She said it’s a serious thing – find a mentor, but be prepared to commit. As mentioned by other guests on previous weeks, Heather didn’t hide her disdain at the “distorted euro-centric way of learning” where ‘I pay you, you give me…’ because it will “never grow the art form”. She also made us aware that apparently many of the older generation of tap dancers bristle at the current use of the phrase ‘tap fam’ (as in tap family) because the relationships in those former days were deep and personal, like a parent passing something onto their child. I’ve seen the phrase ‘tap fam’ used a lot on social media as a way to make everyone feel connected across the globe as one big tap family (especially during Covid, right?) but I can see where Heather is coming from when she describes the current scene as more ego-driven and business-like, especially when everyone’s got a social media presence and fan base to maintain.
She was so not impressed with the cutting contests and competition scene, where you have teachers sitting in judgement over other tap dancers, or the newer tap festival scene where teachers are kept apart from attendees. Why? Because “mentors need to be accessible”! Cutting contests happen at all the festivals I’ve been to, and in my opinion, I think they create a bit of excitement and engagement, particularly for younger dancers…but personally, I won’t be taking part any time soon! I do agree with Heather that a tap jam is a better expression of what you can do, because participants can share, learn and ‘steal’ from each other, rather than be under the pressure to compete and then be told by a ‘judge’ that something they did was ‘wrong’ or not as good as their rival. What do you think?
Heather Cornell was fascinating to listen to. She is one tough cookie with understandably strong opinions on the direction the tap scene is going in. But that’s a good thing, because you need people to defend the art and make sure it goes in the right direction and continues to be accessible to all.
Some quotes from Heather
Wake up and start taking responsibility for yourself
If we don’t pass on the history [of tap], nobody else will
We need to reconnect tap dance to the music
You have to make mistakes or you won’t get better
Don’t be afraid to colour outside the lines
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!
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
Last week saw my final rhythm tap class before breaking for the summer holidays…but not before I attended two great summer workshops:
The Shim Sham
On Wednesday evening our rhythm tap teacher ran her one hour ‘Tap Shim Sham‘ summer workshop online. I was really looking forward to this because I didn’t get to take part last year due to other commitments (a friend’s BBQ!) and I’ve never quite picked up the razzmatazz ending of this famous tap dance standard. I was able to run an extra long cable from the broadband router in the house, down to my laptop in the garage so that I wouldn’t have to rely on intermittent Wi-Fi. Problem solved and no interruptions – apart from my cat poking her arm through the window and meowing at me through most of it! Even though I know the steps of the Shim Sham and have taken part in a few of these dances at various festivals (and even recorded myself for a lockdown video collab in May), it was just so helpful to go through it slowly, sort out my Tack Annies and just clean up the steps a bit, before speeding up. Fun!
Improvisation & Choreography
At 7pm on Thursday our teacher ran her two hour ‘Tap Improvisation & Choreography’ workshop on Microsoft Teams. As I’ve mentioned previously, public improvisation can be quite nerve-wracking, but with it being online this year, I emailed our teacher a few weeks earlier to ask how it would work this time. She said the session would focus more on using improvisation to create choreography, as opposed to just working on improv for improv’s sake. (When we have this workshop in person we usually work in a big circle doing call-and-response, exercises where we copy and then add our own ending, and nearer the end of the session we improvise in the middle of the circle, one at a time, before tagging someone else to take over – eek!)
For our online workshop there were only 5 of us, and we began by sitting on the floor to do some call-and-response clapping, including one exercise where if a certain rhythm was given, you were not supposed to clap (a bit like Simon Says)! We then moved onto doing the same exercises, but using our feet. We then moved onto using only 2 or 3 types of tap step to dance to a piece of music (e.g. only shuffles, flaps and stomps). We were then asked to choose a nursery rhyme, and come up with some choreography using those rhythms, being sure to sing while you did it. I chose Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Then we had to demonstrate it to the rest of the class who had to guess which nursery rhyme it was – which they did quite quickly! I found it a really useful exercise with which to come up with some basic choreography, to which you can add more challenge by throwing in, say, a change of direction, or by crossing your feet. It’s definitely worth trying out at home – go on, do it!
Finally our teacher got us to pick a song and have a go at improvising in our very own Microsoft Teams breakout room, where she was able to ‘pop in’ and give each of us some feedback. After swiping frantically through my phone and pausing over Prince and Incognito a few times, I chose Duffy’s Rain on Your Parade, which worked very well for not being complicated. We had the task of focusing on different aspects of the song, such as the downbeat, the upbeat or the melody. It started off fixated on paddles and got and eventually got more creative, but then we ran out of time, so we didn’t get to demonstrate what we’d come up with – not that I minded on that occasion! Our teacher has asked us to send her a video of us jamming to our chosen song if we wish to…I’m thinking about it!
I have to say I was pretty done after two workshops, plus my usual rhythm tap class and Tap & Tea session all in the space of 2 days, but I got so much out of each of them, especially the improvisation & choreography class, and it really did take the stigma and fear out of having a go.
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:
Great news – we start a new 4-week series of Tap & Tea next week!
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…
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!
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 🙂
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!
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!