Tap Dance in America

This weekend, I finally got around to watching Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America on YouTube.

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Image courtesy of YouTube

It was originally shown on PBS back in 1989 I believe, and it is clearly from someone’s VCR recording that they probably transferred to DVD at some point.

It lasts almost an hour and gives a great run-down of the leading tap artists in America, quite a few of whom are sadly no longer around. But here you get the chance to see them in action, on stage or taking part in a tap battle. Tap is definitely a social dance! You might recognise legend Honi Coles as the bandmaster in Dirty Dancing (I’m talking about the original film, not the disrespectful-to-Swayze remake).

Watching the documentary, my favourite performances were from Gregory Hines (of course!), a young Savion Glover and the duo of Gregg Burge (choreographed Michael Jackson’s Bad) and Hinton Battle (Scarecrow in Broadway version of The Wiz). Battle and Burge really reminded me of the Nicholas Brothers in the way they did classical tap, complete with jetes, leapfrogs and the splits. Brenda Bufalino was also great to see perform as I’ve heard and read a lot about her and I believe she taught a masterclass in London earlier in the year.

There is also a bit of comedy running through the documentary about trying to get Gregory Hines to tighten the screws on his taps (some tappers dance with loosened tap plates, others don’t) – I’m quite a stomper, so I like my tap plates tightened to the shoe.

Verdict: This ever so 80’s PBS special is definitely worth watching as part of your tap immersion. Some enjoyable viewing on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

The next tap-related film I want to watch is Tap starring Gregory Hines (1989). I caught a clip on YouTube where people were dancing on tables and it looks so New Jack Swing FUNKY. Takes me back. Love it!

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Book Review

Tap book

Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955 by Rusty E. Frank 

I have finally got around to writing this brief review, having finished reading this book back in July!

LA tap dancer Rusty E. Frank has compiled this fabulous book of interviews with all the tap dancing greats of the early to mid twentieth century as a potted history of tap. The book opens with a foreword by tap legend Gregory Hines (one of my faves!) who briefly describes the origins of the Jazz art form and the various styles and rhythms that evolved.

The book is then split into 3 parts:

Part 1: 1900-1929 (includes people such as Willie Covan, Ruby Keeler and Leonard Reed (of the Shim Sham Shimmy))

Part 2: 1930-1939 (includes the Nicholas Brothers (LOVE them!), Shirley Temple, Fred & Gene Kelly and Jeni Legon (known for wearing trouser suits…shocking!)

Part 3: 1940-1955 (includes Gene Nelson and Brenda Bufalino)

Within each section, each chapter covers a different dancer, with some introductory blurb on the historical context of the era and what was happening on the dance and entertainment scene, followed by an autobiographical interview with the dancer. Being an American art form, you can’t ignore the fact that the book covers the era of segregation. The biggest example of this is the separate entertainment circuits of Vaudeville and the TOBA (the African-American version), minstrel shows, and the separate clubs, such as the famous gangster-owned Cotton Club which was for black entertainers and white audiences. There was some cross-over, but mostly for those who were able to “pass” as white, such as Leonard Reed…until he was found out.

It was interesting to read how each dancer had their own style within a style (flash, soft shoe, Buck & Wing, rhythm tap, acrobatic). Some were tapping from childhood, some fell into it and some came from classical dance backgrounds (e.g. Gene Kelly, Ann Miller), which clearly influenced their tap style. It was also amazing how many dancers learnt from, danced with, were influenced by or loved to compete with Bill Bojangles Robinson, the world’s greatest tap dancer. (It is said that he was a tap perfectionist who put hours and hours into his craft).

Helpfully, there is a glossary of terms at the end of the book, which I referred to regularly, followed by a series of Appendices covering all the tap acts, the years they were active and what they were known for, plus a list of tap in film and on record, which is also worth looking at.

Verdict: A fantastic snapshot of tap dance and entertainment through the Jazz Age, the War years and the post-war years, straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will. A MUST-HAVE for any tap dancer if you want to understand where it all began and how it developed. I’m really pleased tap dance is making a come-back 🙂

 

Review of Stepping Out at the Pump House

Last Thursday I went to Watford’s Pump House Theatre to watch a Belmont Theatre production of Stepping Out, written by Richard Harris and first performed in the West End in 1984. It was also made into a movie in 1991 starring Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters; I need to get this!

The story is basically about a group of people who attend a weekly tap class in their local church hall, each with their own foibles and quirks, and through the course of the play, snippets of their lives and backgrounds come to the fore. This, interspersed with a bit of tapping here and there, culminating in a final showstopper!

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I really enjoyed this performance at this little, intimate theatre (so intimate in fact, we saw people we knew, including one person in the play!). The acting was good, the setting was believably suburban, the jokes worked (if not a little forced in places), dramatic moments cut through the humour and the dance wear certainly caught your eye.

Now, as a tap student myself, I was really looking forward to seeing the tap dancing, but as this was presented by an amateur dramatics group, it wasn’t the best I’ve seen. Watching the final showstopper, I think there were maybe 2 or 3 ladies who have trained in tap dance, while the rest maybe hadn’t done any prior to this show (if they had, I apologise!). But, that made it all the more believable, rather than everyone suddenly becoming a perfected Ginger Rogers at the end. I like the fact that people sometimes trip over a line or speak at the same time as another character by accident, because that is the BEAUTY of LIVE performance. No editing. I’ve seen West End shows where the singer’s voice has cracked, or they got out of breath, or the stage equipment got stuck, and that shows that they’re human.

I would definitely recommend seeing a production of this show if you get the chance (or watch the film).

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Alvin Ailey UK Tour 2016

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On Saturday I went to see a matinee of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater UK Tour at Sadler’s Wells (the home of dance!) in London. To save faffing about changing tube lines from Marylebone, we caught the 205 bus directly outside Marylebone Station all the way to Angel! Easy peasy.

I’ve only seen them once before when they were last in London, at Sadler’s Wells in 2010, so I was really excited to see the show. I went for Programme C, more for the timings than for the particular pieces, because all the programmes contained Revelations, Ailey’s fantastic signature piece, of which I have the soundtrack.

(Programme C: LIFT / Awakening / Cry / Revelations)

We were up in the Second Circle, but still had an excellent view, compared to when I’ve been to watch shows in some of the very old theatres (e.g Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, starring at the scaffolding)!

LIFT was a fantastic, African-inspired varied piece, with lots of musculature. Lively moments and reflective moments.

Awakening woke me out of my stupor. It very futuristic in the way that it balanced “chaos and resolution”. Loud, jolty music, jolty dancing in white outfits. I won’t say I enjoyed that piece particularly, but it was very avant garde, interesting and unpredictable.

Cry was choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself for his mother, and I felt it captured the mother’s spirit perfectly. Wonderful, colourful dancing.

Revelations is my favourite, and clearly everyone else’s favourite too, as the audience applause was deafening! I love the songs, the dances and the setting of the Deep South, God-fearing church-going, ladies in hats waving fans, men in suits days. Fabulous!

 

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Image courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Review: Sleek Technique Ballet Bootcamp

This afternoon I did the Sleek Technique Ballet Bootcamp DVD workout.

In the introduction the instructors, professional dancers Flik Swan and Victoria Marr, draw you in with how this workout will give you the “ballerina body you always wanted” and give an explanation of the ballet positions.

The warm up is the same as the Barre Technique DVD, so more arm swinging to get warmed up!

There are then 3 Bootcamp workouts to do either individually or one after the other if you are super fit and hardcore!

Bootcamp 1 gave a challenging workout with plies, chasses, planks (which I hate!), reverence, and arabesque twists. I particularly enjoyed the jete sequence. The mat work had those planks which were really tough! I felt like a lump of lead. Anyway, they’re so good for your core. Plus the leg work is great for lengthening tight hams like mine at the moment.

Bootcamp 2 had an arm cardio section, and my arms were burning way before this, so it was tough, but so good. You can really feel those muscles working! The arabesque section really tests your coordination. There are plenty of balance and core exercises on this DVD!

Bootcamp 3 was my favourite because it was a bit more dancey with weight transfer, arabesque, attitude and port de bras. I need to watch the circular port de bras again because I’m sure i did it wrong, but you can’t really watch the screen while doing it. The floor work is once again excellent for core and leg building.

The DVD ends with a good cool down section.

Verdict: I prefer this DVD to the Barre Technique one. I was less concerned about pulling muscles and bad technique (although still possible when moves are sped up) and there were plenty of teaching and technique points throughout, i.e. things you forget when concentrating on something else. It is definitely a bootcamp; I was dripping with sweat and everything was working! It is probably more manageable and enjoyable to just do one of the workouts because they are quite tough if you do them properly.

Give it a go! You’ll be sculpted in no time.

DVD Review: Sleek Barre Technique

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Seeing as I missed Floor Barre on Thursday due to illness, I decided to use Sunday morning to try out one of my new Ballet workout DVDs from the gals at Sleek Technique, Sleek Barre Technique. (Although you can see that there are 3 DVDs in the box set, I am reviewing Barre today. More to follow!)

The workout is split into sections, with an introduction and tutorial at the beginning to cover the main feet and arm positions, ballet terminology and tips, such as lifting out of your waist. After this comes a warm up of squatting and fairly quick arm swinging to get those muscles ready for the next bit.

The main workouts are Barre 1, 2 and 3, which are 20 minutes each and each have some floor work before launching into the familiar exercises we do at the barre, such as plie, tendu, pique, fondu, grand battement, arabesque, retire, attitude. I used a chair in the living room rather than my barre and I really enjoyed the practice of these exercises, especially on Barre 2, but I did find them quite fast, particularly the transitions between them.

If you are a complete beginner to ballet, I think it is best to watch the sequences through first to get an idea of what you will be doing and to gauge the speed of it. As someone who has been doing ballet classes for about 2 years on and off and having danced other styles a lot longer than that, I struggled to keep up or perform the correct technique before they had moved on to the next thing. As a dancer, I don’t want to get into bad or sloppy habits or injure myself, so that’s probably why.

The demonstration of the movements is good, the filming is good (no legs cut off at vital moments!) and I love the warehouse setting and their Bloch leotards. Barre Technique is excellent for toning, strengthening, lengthening muscles, building a strong core, posture and speed. I looked up some reviews on Amazon and lots of non dancers seemed to say it was a great workout and easy to follow, but the dancers like myself had the same issue of compromised technique!

Verdict: a good fitness supplement to regular ballet class attendance. Practice makes perfect!

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