Andanza’s impact is felt throughout Puerto Rico.
Last November, the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture in the Bronx welcomed Andanza, a Puerto Rico–based contemporary dance company. The performance marked the group’s New York debut and displayed Andanza’s range of influences, from modern dance to Puerto Rican cultural heritage, all rooted in classical ballet technique. And each piece, whether playful or contemplative, fluttered with feeling. “Puerto Ricans, when they walk, they dance, and when they speak, they sing,” says Andanza’s artistic and executive director Lolita Villanúa. “That’s something very special about our dancers. Even the most classical, they can swing.”
Andanza performing last November in San Juan, Puerto RicoThat quality is well-known and celebrated in Puerto Rico, where the company has four main annual productions in San Juan. But Andanza, founded by Villanúa and school director María Teresa Robles in 1998, is more than a professional performing ensemble. Its multifaceted mission includes education and community outreach. “We always try to integrate all three aspects—the artistic, the educational and the social,” says Villanúa.
Since the beginning, Andanza has had a dance school. Today, approximately 300 students, from the very young to the very old, take classes in everything from classical ballet to creative movement, hip hop to Pilates. A few may eventually become company members, but that isn’t the primary goal. “Arts and education are basic in a society. It’s like breathing,” says Villanúa. “The arts and dance have an intrinsic value, but they’re also instruments for social change.”
Which is why the organization’s work extends well beyond the school’s walls. Shortly after Andanza’s inception, it began doing outreach, initially offering classes to people in nearby communities. In 2002, it teamed with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and began broadening its scope. “We went to visit communities to offer scholarships,” says Villanúa. “And then we found there were too many, too far away.” So rather than bringing individual students to the dance school, Andanza decided to bring dance to the communities.
Now in its 13th year and supported largely by Fundación Banco Popular, the outreach project shares dance with up to 600 students in communities across Puerto Rico. The participants—young and old—take weekly classes with company members and teachers from the school. The sessions closely mimic a studio class, with a warm-up, guided improvisation and choreographed routine. Community participants also see Andanza company performances. “That’s an important part, because most have never been to the theater,” says Villanúa.
Many of the young students come from underserved communities or homes beset by violence, and the results have been profound. “You see that these children become more disciplined and more secure with themselves and learn how to respect their colleagues, and you see that their tolerance is being developed,” Villanúa says. For her, those are invaluable accomplishments. “If we get some professional dancers from all these projects, great. But if we get some sensitive and responsible and good individuals, that’s what Puerto Rico needs and what the world needs.” DT
Katie Rolnick is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photo by Robert Villanúa, courtesy of Andanza
This month, with the launch of the Tap Teacher Training Certificate Program, the American Tap Dance Foundation welcomes the first green shoots of a seed planted long ago. “It’s really been at least 10 years of serious discussion and roundtables and experimenting,” says ATDF artistic director Tony Waag, “so we’re very excited.”
The program is the first of its kind: a comprehensive teacher-training program built on the rhythm tap technique and repertory of the Copasetics, a collective of some of the 20th century’s finest hoofers, including Charles “Honi” Coles, Ernest “Brownie” Brown and Charles “Cholly” Atkins.
ATDF has a long history with this canon. Brenda Bufalino, the organization’s artistic mentor, trained and collaborated with Coles and has been a stalwart champion of the Copasetics’ legacy. And for the past seven years, ATDF’s youth ensemble has been schooled in all things rhythm tap, from its history to classic repertory, like the Coles Stroll and the BS Chorus, to Bufalino’s own innovative choreography.
Susan Hebach, ATDF youth program director, spearheaded the development of the youth ensemble curriculum, with help from the foundation’s education advisor Margaret Morrison. They took the lead again on the teacher-training program, with input and guidance from Waag, Bufalino and other ATDF faculty. “It’s no small feat,” Waag says of the curriculum they’ve developed. “The challenge is that there’s so much information that needs to be addressed.”
The new program is limited to 20 participants (there’s already a waiting list) and aimed at teachers of beginning students. During an eight-day intensive, July 13–20, in New York City, teachers will refine and clarify their rhythm tap technique while getting a crash course in the Copasetics’ repertory. The curriculum also includes coursework in improvisation, jazz music structure and tap history. But perhaps most important, participants will learn how to effectively impart all this material—and then they’ll have to prove they’re doing just that. After the summer session, teachers will return to their home studios or schools and spend a semester applying what they’ve learned, with remote coaching from ATDF mentors. “It’s not just prepping you and pushing you out the door,” Waag says. “You have to be held accountable. It’s hard, but I think it’s the right way to do it.” The certification culminates with a return visit to New York for evaluations.
This is only level one of what ATDF envisions as a multitiered program that will progress toward teaching more advanced students and teaching contemporary tap. “We’re approaching it methodically and with a lot of thought behind it,” Waag says. “I think we’re all at a point in our own careers where we really see the value of passing on this information and making sure that it’s passed on correctly.” DT
For more: atdf.org
Photos by Tony Waag, courtesy of ATDF
In a well-known scene from the 1989 movie Tap, a young Savion Glover lingers outside a sunlit studio. Inside, Gregory Hines engages in a genial challenge with Sammy Davis, Jr., Howard “Sandman” Sims, Harold Nicholas and other tap luminaries. The scene highlights the dancers’ impeccable skills, but the confluence of three generations of hoofers also reveals an underlying feature of the dance form: Tap is vernacular dance, traditionally taught and shared person-to-person, creating a veritable family tree of steps and styles.
Today, some students are mentored, while others learn tap in a studio setting, where a typical tap class mirrors its ballet and modern dance counterparts: warm-up, exercises across the floor and a combination. But the progression may not be designed with a particular endgame in mind. While students inevitably learn a great deal, they could be learning more. Enter Barry Blumenfeld.
Blumenfeld teaches with New York’s 92nd Street Y professional development program for dance teachers and artists, the Dance Education Laboratory and at NYU Steinhardt. Using the DEL model as his guide, Blumenfeld has developed a tap curriculum anchored in two concepts of modern pedagogy: backward design and scaffolding. The approach offers many advantages, not the least of which is efficient use of limited class time. The curriculum is inherently adaptable, making it appropriate for all ages and skill levels. And if the concepts are completely new to you, Blumenfeld says you can start small by applying them to just a single class period.
Break It Down
The curriculum takes a long view on planning. Teachers begin by outlining objectives for the full semester (or even the entire year) and then move backward—hence, backward design. “The idea is that you think about your really big goal, your reason why, and then clarify it into small goals,” Blumenfeld explains. “For me, the biggest idea is that tap is an expressive art.” With that in mind, he asks, “What do I want my students to know when they’re done? And what do I want my students to be able to do?” These questions help him identify the specific skills that allow dancers to use tap to express themselves, such as virtuosity, clarity, speed and musicality. He also includes improvisation, which gives students the tools to create their own choreography. And he wants his students to have dance literacy—that is, a context of tap history and a vocabulary that allows them to describe movement.
Blumenfeld continues moving backward, progressively breaking down each objective. “It works on multiple levels over the semester,” he says, “so that each class reflects the larger structure.”
Put It Back Together
Designing backward breaks down big goals into manageable pieces. Scaffolding assembles manageable pieces into lessons that work toward the big goals. A clear example of how these ideas work in tandem is scaffolded exercises that build to an end-of-class combination.
To begin, you would identify an objective for the class period—for instance, exploring different ways of moving in space. “Part of virtuosity is the ability to travel,” Blumenfeld says. “If you want to be able to dance, you need to move in space.” He uses Laban Movement Analysis, so he breaks this idea down into self-space and general space, but you can use your own movement vocabulary.
With this mission in mind, you would work backward, choreographing a combination that illustrates the big idea. “So I need steps that spring straight up and down,” Blumenfeld explains, “and stuff that travels.” With the final combination in place, you can integrate those steps into every aspect of the class, from the warm-up to across-the-floor exercises. These bite-size lessons are the scaffolding that supports your overarching goal.
The Curriculum in Action
If you want to teach students to think about movement in space, the warm-up might include hopping and leaping steps, which introduces the concept and engages the springing muscles. A shuffle exercise could build on the theme with a break featuring a leap so that students think about switching feet in the air. And ideally, the steps for all your exercises are pulled directly from your end-of-class combination.
“All the while, you’re using the terminology,” Blumenfeld says. “For example, ‘We’re going to move across the floor in general space.’” When students individually workshop pullbacks, he describes it as traveling through general space. During an improvisation lesson, each student might get eight counts to freestyle, but Blumenfeld might challenge them to include a wing or pullback moving in either general or self-space. And a short video, such as The Nicholas Brothers’ famous Stormy Weather routine, introduces a historical aspect while serving as an exciting visual example of the overall concept.
By the time you get to the combination, instead of teaching a dance from scratch, you simply put together the pieces you’ve laid out as the class progressed. “So when they get to the combination, it’s like, ‘Surprise, you already know it,’” Blumenfeld says. “The students feel great, because everyone wants mastery.”
Built for All
By setting a long-term objective and threading it through every lesson, the curriculum caters to a variety of learning styles. An idea that makes sense for one student during improvisation may click for another during across-the-floor exercises. Blumenfeld even scaffolds in audition skills using a combination that connects to the historical video, a crucial lesson for dancers who want to pursue performance careers—but this also targets students who learn best through careful observation and listening.
The rigorously structured curriculum may seem counterintuitive given Blumenfeld’s desire to facilitate and foster creative expression. But in fact, he says it is precisely this organized architecture that allows students to flourish. “You need the structure,” he says. “You can’t jump if there’s no floor to push off of.” DT
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer living in New York.
Photo by Catherine Lucey, courtesy of Friends Seminary
The Copasetics provided fellowship for tappers in lean times and laid the groundwork for the rhythm tap of today.
In grainy footage from 1975, members of the Copasetics Club, including Charles “Honi” Coles, Leslie “Bubba” Gaines and Charles “Cookie” Cook, lead a lecture demonstration at Brenda Bufalino’s New Paltz, New York, studio. At one point, the men launch into a routine called “Funny Step,” each dancer taking a turn in the spotlight, performing a goofy move. Though simple, the bit illustrates the dancers’ range of styles, from Coles’ lithe frame letting out little flutters of footwork to Cook’s more loosey-goosey approach, his shoulders pumping while his feet create lower tones. But the Copasetics wasn’t always a performing group. The club was initially founded in 1949 as a tap fraternity in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, tap’s lodestar who had recently died.
Copasetic means fine, all right, cool. Some claim Robinson coined the term, and he may as well have, given how often he said, “Everything is copasetic!” The 21 founding members of the group—including many tappers who had earned recognition in the same venues where Robinson had performed—initially met to pay tribute to his indelible legacy. But ultimately, the Copasetics helped preserve tap’s spirit throughout the 1950s and ’60s, years when evolving musical and choreographic tastes displaced tap from its reign on Broadway and in jazz clubs. And when a new generation of dancers, including Bufalino, became interested in rhythm tap in the 1970s, they looked to the Copasetics as a bridge to the past and a path toward the future.
The Copasetics Club was born December 5, 1949, and the original roster included Coles and his partner Cholly Atkins, Peg Leg Bates, Cook and his partner Ernest “Brownie” Brown, among others. The members were jazz tappers who used their bodies as musical instruments. (The group also welcomed musicians, most notably the composer Billy Strayhorn, known for his work with Duke Ellington.) They were also versatile entertainers who had cut their teeth on vaudeville stages: They sang, some performed comedic bits and others wowed audiences with pratfalls and stunts. Each dancer had his own style, but they were also part of a shared tap community.
The group’s preamble stated that its members would “do all in their power to promote fellowship and to strengthen the character within their ranks.” They met weekly, at members’ homes or clubs—Showman’s Café in Harlem was a favorite spot. They would recite the preamble and keep minutes, but mainly they would drink, laugh, reminisce and, of course, tap. “We communicated with our bodies—that’s what we did,” Coles told David Hajdu, who wrote Lush Life, a biography of Strayhorn. “If we were celebrating, if we were debating, if we were fighting, we did it in dance.”
These casual gatherings soon developed into something more. Beginning in 1950, the group began hosting what became known as the Copasetics Ball—a big affair featuring original music by Strayhorn, and choreography, often created by Pete Nugent, a founding member. It was the event to attend and the guest list was a who’s who of Harlem; attendees one year included Miles Davis, Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne and Willie Mays.
But by the mid-’50s, musical tastes were shifting from big bands and jazz to rock and roll. Tap dancers had to take day jobs, a disheartening blow for men who had worked as professional dancers their entire lives. Despite the downturn, the Copasetics continued to meet and hold their annual events (they also hosted a summer boat cruise and an Easter breakfast). Whether swapping stories or steps, the club kept the dancers connected—to each other and to their individual histories as performers. They met without the expectation that tap would become popular again.
But in the 1970s, tap began to reappear on Broadway, and in 1976, the production of Bubbling Brown Sugar marked rhythm tap’s return to the stage. The years that followed saw a renewed interest in the style, spurred in large part by women, including Bufalino, Jane Goldberg, Katherine Kramer and Dorothy Wasserman, among many others. They found mentors (and friendship) in the Copasetics and other dancers from tap’s boom years.
Bufalino’s work with the Copasetics helped usher in a new phase for the group as a professional touring company. Bufalino first met Coles in 1955 as his student at Dance Craft, the Manhattan studio he ran with Pete Nugent. In the early 1970s, she invited Coles and other members of the Copasetics upstate to New Paltz, where she ran The Dancing Theatre and taught at SUNY New Paltz.
In 1975, she directed and produced Great Feats of Feet: Portrait of a Jazz Tap Dancer. A handful of Copasetics make up that multifaceted portrait, and the film documents interviews, rehearsals and a culminating performance, which fuses the dancers’ various acts into a cohesive whole. “They did their Copasetic dances, and they did these big shows,” Bufalino told Tap Dancing America author Constance Valis Hill, “but there was no ‘Copasetics Act’ until Great Feats of Feet.”
Throughout the late 1970s and ’80s the Copasetics performed and hosted social and charitable events. They traveled to tap festivals where they taught a new generation of rhythm tappers who would carry the torch. These men who had built careers during tap’s golden era were entering their golden years: Charles Cook died in 1991, Honi Coles in 1992 and Leslie Gaines in 1997. In 2009, at 93, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, the last original member of the Copasetics, passed away.
“The Copasetics, that was the foundation of the school of rhythm tap,” says Bufalino, who co-founded the American Tap Dance Foundation, where rhythm tap students today learn from artists who studied with dancers of the Copasetics’ generation. “Like in ballet, we have a tradition, too, and that’s really important. Otherwise, we just exist on the body of the soloists and when that soloist goes out of favor the whole thing dies.” DT
Great Feats of Feet (DVD)
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, by Marshall Stearns
Tap Dancing America, by Constance Valis Hill
Tapping the Source, by Brenda Bufalino
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu
Katie Rolnick is a former Dance Teacher editor. Photo courtesy of the American Tap Dance Foundation
Sophie Maslow (left), Jane Dudley (center) and William Bales in Dudley's "Passional" (1950)
Lurching slowly forward, a homeless woman appears from the wing with her body hunched and arms extended. With ambient street sounds as the score, she traverses the stage, crawling, reaching and heaving her body. Periodically, she turns to stare at the audience. Inspired by the art of Käthe Kollwitz and a childhood memory of a poverty-stricken woman scavenging, Eve Gentry’s solo, Tenant of the Street, conveys a distinct perspective about economic inequality.
This work was created in 1938 under the auspices of the New Dance Group, a modern dance collective founded six years before. It conveys the NDG’s ethos but also resonates in today’s political and economic climate. So much so that the Martha Graham Dance Company included it in its 2010 concert “Dance Is a Weapon.” “The young artform of modern dance was empowered and validated by its alignment with political and social issues of the day,” says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the MGDC. “And the NDG was really in the center of that. They were leading the charge.”
Founded by a group of Hanya Holm’s students, the New Dance Group was inspired by the political movements seizing Manhattan in the early 1930s. In the wake of the stock market crash, unemployed workers looked to one another for strength and gathered for rallies, parades and protests. Just a few blocks south of the workers’ demonstrations, American dance was experiencing upheaval of its own: Modern dance was a fledgling form, and many of its leaders had set up shop in Greenwich Village (including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman and Holm). These pioneers were challenging the standard ballet vocabulary. So it was ingenious that a handful of Holm’s students thought to blend the two revolutions. They envisioned a group that would bring dance to the masses and use movement to explore and express the issues of the moment.
The NDG presented performances, offered dance classes and facilitated choreographic collaboration and exchange. It was a complete dance entity simmering in a social, political and cultural stew. “They wanted to bring these burning social problems onto the stage,” says Betsy Cooper, director of the University of Washington dance program. “Some of the artists were very political; some weren’t. But they cared and wanted to use their art to raise social consciousness.”
Some pinpoint the birth of the NDG to protests surrounding a 1932 shooting of Harry Simms, a 19-year-old labor organizer killed by Kentucky police. Inspired by the swarms of people gathered in Simms’ honor, the NDG hit the ground running. They distributed leaflets at factories and union meetings—anywhere they thought they’d find potential participants. They rented studio space near Union Square, though their minuscule budget caused instability and they frequently bounced from place to place.
In its infancy, the NDG reflected the Marxist political leanings popular at the time. The group performed proletariat-inspired works at factories, union meetings, parades and rallies. But more than that, they wanted to make dance accessible to all. For a dime, the NDG offered three hours of classes: an hour of technique—initially based on Wigman’s approach, later incorporating a variety of modern forms, folk and world dance styles—an hour of improvisation and an hour of political discussion.
No other organization provided similar training. Traditional dance schools charged upward of $1.50 per class and focused on developing skilled technicians. At the NDG, students of all ages, men and women, black and white, took classes together. It was perhaps one of the first racially integrated dance schools. Within a year, the group had 300 participants.
The NDG, however, wasn’t alone in its mission. The Rebel Arts Dance Group, the Red Dancers and the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union Dance Group, among other recreational and union-based groups, used dance to engage politically. In fact, there were enough activist dance groups in New York to warrant the Workers Dance League, an umbrella organization that produced concerts and facilitated engagement between members.
But the NDG soon moved toward a more sophisticated artistic aesthetic and earned a reputation as one of the very few troupes to successfully address social and political issues through concert-quality choreography. The group’s choreographic roster and teaching faculty featured dance artists—including Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, Charles Weidman, Anna Sokolow, Valerie Bettis, Jean Erdman, Mary Anthony and more—creating a distinctly modern but varied vocabulary.
Once Marxism fell out of favor and the New Deal and World War II got the economy churning again, the other Workers Dance League groups dissolved. But NDG continued to push for equality. It was particularly progressive in championing racial integration. Long before the civil rights movement took hold, young African American dancers, such as Pearl Primus, Talley Beatty and Donald McKayle, worked with the NDG and trained, taught and performed alongside white dancers.
As years passed, the NDG became a hub for burgeoning artists of myriad styles. Its diverse repertory included the 1947 genre-bending Shuvi Nafshi, choreographed by Jerusalem-born Hadassah, who specialized in Israeli and Indian dance; Anna Sokolow’s abstract and rigorous Lyric Suite from 1954; and Donald McKayle’s 1959 master work, Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder, an emotionally expansive portrait of a Southern chain gang (now part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory). Yet the NDG still felt like home to amateur dancers. In Stepping Left, Ellen Graff writes that many of the NDG’s students continued to enroll “year after year, even though they never progressed past the fundamentals, because they felt they had a place within the communal dance atmosphere.”
Waves of change began in 1969 when Jane Dudley resigned as the NDG’s president to lead Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. Sophie Maslow stepped up, but by the early 1980s, the group began to buckle under financial strain, folding in 2009 because it couldn’t make its rent payments. But its work can serve as a guide for today’s artists. For instance, while it’s a looser and less-organized coalition, Occupy Wall Street seems of a kind with the Depression-era workers’ movement—there’s even an Occupy Dance group. Dancers like these who engage with political, social and cultural issues build on the foundation laid by the NDG decades ago. “They’re reminding us that there’s a reciprocal nature,” Cooper says. “It is a conversation between artist and society.” DT
Did you know...
- The New Dance Group began offering tuition scholarships in 1941. Among the 37 dancers auditioning stood Pearl Primus, a recent graduate of Hunter College. She became the school’s first African American scholarship recipient and went on to teach and choreograph for the group.
- For a time, the NDG was based at 305 West 38th Street—now the location for DANY Studios, operated by The Joyce Theater Foundation.
The New Dance Group Gala Historical Concert Retrospective 1930s-1970s, DVD produced by Dancetime Publications and The American Dance Guild.
Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942, by Ellen Graff (Duke University Press, 1997).
Studies in Dance History, Volume V, Number 1: Of, By, and For the People: Dancing on the Left in the 1930s, ed. by Lynn Garafola (The Journal of the Society of Dance History Scholars, 1994).
The New Dance Group: Movement for a Change, ed. by Bernice Rosen (Routledge, 2000).
“Dance and the Workers’ Struggle,” by Stacey Prickett, The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring 1990).
Katie Rolnick is a former Dance Teacher editor. Photo by Arnold Eagle, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives
Fayard (right) and Harold in the 1940 film "Down Argentine Way"
Best known for impressive acrobatics, the stage and screen tap duo Fayard and Harold Nicholas were agile technicians and fearless stunt men. But the brothers, who earned Hollywood fame in the 1930s and ’40s, were so much more.
“Of course the Nicholas Brothers were fabulous tap dancers, but they were full-bodied tap dancers,” says Billy Siegenfeld, artistic director of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. “You’re seeing a gestural kind of tap dance that can carry a story, that can convey emotion more than just on-the-spot tapping with the feet.”
For students who fall prey to sound-focused, introverted improvisations, the Nicholas Brothers prove that tap dancing is truly a performing art. Their choreography is visually and rhythmically sumptuous: Hands fly in counter-rhythm, head-nods catch fleeting 16th notes and splits stretch over full measures. They hit, bounce and slide with impeccable musical precision, balletic grace and jazzy swing. Often dressed in dapper tuxedos, the Nicholas Brothers had as much swagger as any B-boy, with the elegance of ballroom dancers.
As a child, Fayard Nicholas would finish school and rush over to Philadelphia’s Standard Theatre, where his father and mother led a pit orchestra called the Nicholas Collegians. From his front-row seat he heard jazz heavyweights such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and watched legendary black vaudeville tap acts including Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, Ford Lee “Buck” Washington and John “Bubbles” Sublett. “Just by watching,” Fayard told choreographer Danny Daniels in a 1978 interview, “I taught myself to dance.”
Fayard then taught his younger brother Harold. When they were about 12 and 5 years old, the brothers put together a routine to show their father. He didn’t have dance experience, but he offered good advice nonetheless: Use your whole body, don’t look at your feet and create your own style.
The duo made their professional debut in 1930 tapping on “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour,” a radio variety show featuring young performers. Soon after, the family moved to New York, where the boys had landed a gig at the Lafayette Theatre. In 1932, at the ripe old ages of 18 (Fayard) and 11 (Harold), they performed for the first time at Harlem’s Cotton Club. They’d continue dancing there for the next eight years (off and on), sometimes alongside the very same musicians and dancers who had inspired Fayard.
Their performance in the 1932 short film Pie, Pie Blackbird probably resembles their Cotton Club act. They’re young performers, but have a dexterous command of rhythm, finding jaunty accents to play against the bouncy but square tune. They also show off their athleticism: Harold whips his arms around while pounding the ground in a double toe stand, and Fayard throws in a quick split.
Their skills caught the attention of Hollywood, Broadway and even George Balanchine, who cast the brothers in the 1937 production of Babes in Arms. “He asked us to do a little something on the stage, so he could get some ideas,” Fayard told Jennifer Fisher of the Los Angeles Times. “Balanchine said to us, ‘You look like you did ballet’…Well, I told him, ‘We just dance the way we feel, and if it looks like ballet is in there, so much the better.’ We never did ballet—I guess it just came naturally.”
That poise and grace, along with their keenly attuned ear for jazz rhythm—not to mention their mellifluous singing voices—was perfectly suited to the era’s movie musicals. They made their full-length–movie debut in 1934 in Kid Millions and soon began appearing in film after film, including Down Argentine Way and Sun Valley Serenade. They also teamed up with choreographer Nick Castle, who pushed them to try ever more daring stunts. They were widely known as a “flash act,” a term for acrobatic-heavy performers. But the Nicholas Brothers weren’t doing tricks for the sake of tricks. In “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” from the 1942 movie Orchestra Wives, Harold does a tight double tour en l’air, drops straight into a split and then pulls his legs together to stand up—all in perfect time to the music. “You often would see people do tap dancing and acrobatics, but they tended to break the flow of the rhythm and interrupt it to do a trick,” says tap dancer Sam Weber. “The Nicholas Brothers never did that. Their acrobatics were always incredibly musical.”
The brothers’ style reached its apotheosis in Stormy Weather, an all-black musical featuring Lena Horne and tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In “Jumpin’ Jive,” the brothers dance with Cab Calloway and His Band. They are suave yet buoyant, and their taps crackle with tight rhythms while their bodies—arms, hands, heads, torsos—add crisp accents. To top it off, they finish with a show-stopping sequence in which Fayard takes a flying leap from the top of a staircase and lands in a split on the next step down. Harold leaps over Fayard, landing in a split on the stair below. Then Fayard jumps over Harold, and so on until they reach the bottom—only to bound back up the steps and slide down ramps that run alongside them. Fred Astaire famously called the performance “the greatest dance number ever filmed.”
Though rumor has it some audiences shouted for projectionists to play the brothers’ routines twice, other moviegoers never saw the Nicholas Brothers dance. Due to segregation in the South, producers gave black performers nonspeaking roles that could easily be excised. The brothers fought stereotypes with self-assured class, but in the 1950s, this sort of racial prejudice sent Harold to Europe. For a time, they pursued independent careers.
Fayard and Harold reunited in 1964 to perform on “The Hollywood Palace,” a TV variety show. They continued dancing, alone and together, well into their golden years, often making guest appearances at tap festivals. They also stood side by side to receive a slew of accolades. Before Harold’s death in 2000 and Fayard’s in 2006, they were given the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and a Dance Magazine Award in 1995, among others.
Though the Nicholas Brothers are distinctly of a time, they are nonetheless timeless. On “So You Think You Can Dance,” judge Nigel Lythgoe perpetually implores tap dancers to “perform” more—something that Fayard and Harold wouldn’t have had any trouble with. “They transcend tap dancing,” Weber says. “They were simply great artists in the history of dance.” DT
DID YOU KNOW...
- In 1942 Harold Nicholas married movie star Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. In Sun Valley Serenade, she dances with the Nicholas Brothers to “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
- Before they were the Nicholas Brothers, they were the Nicholas Kids, and the act included their sister Dorothy.
- In “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” in the movie Orchestra Wives, Harold Nicholas runs up a wall, pushes off into a back flip and lands in a split. Donald O’Connor paid Fayard tribute in the Singin’ in the Rain number “Make ’Em Laugh.”
- Mikhail Baryshnikov called the Nicholas Brothers “the most amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life—ever.”
- In the forward to Constance Valis Hill’s book Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines wrote, “…we will never ever see the like of the Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, dancing on any stage or screen or in person again. The dances they did. The moves they made. The pictures they painted. Well. That’s it. Enjoy it. Because, my brothers and sisters: They owned it.”
Katie Rolnick is a former Dance Teacher editor.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives
The Dorothy Shim Sham
by Dorothy Wasserman
Saint Cloud Productions, 2010
It’s a jazz tradition to take a standard and make it your own—which is precisely what Dorothy Wasserman has done with the Shim Sham Shimmy. Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant created this routine comprising four phrases of simple steps in 1927, and Wasserman learned it in the mid-1970s as a member of Brenda Bufalino’s tap company. “I love the Shim Sham,” Wasserman says. “Those old rhythms bring together a great historic sound.” Inspired by the original and her fondness for ’70s funk music, she began working on her own interpretation. Using the same four-phrase structure, she added complexity, syncopation and bounce.
Though the Dorothy Shim Sham is challenging, Wasserman acts as a skilled guide in this 90-minute DVD. She presents each phrase separately, breaking steps down into sounds, counts and rhythms, and progressively builds speed and leads viewers in a call and response. Her experience as an educator—she has taught at the North Jersey School of Dance Arts for more than 20 years and is also a full-time elementary school art teacher—is evident.
The DVD also features a brief history on the original Shim Sham Shimmy and archival footage of legendary hoofers the Copasetics performing the routine. And Wasserman traces the development of her version from 1978 through 1989, when it caught the eye of Gregory Hines, who featured the Dorothy Shim Sham in the film Tap. To finish, Wasserman leads viewers through the full dance at various speeds, first a cappella and then with different accompaniments. She recommends that teachers using the DVD in class have their students pay close attention to her weight shifts. And during the rhythmically tricky third phrase, focus on the metronomic beat provided by the claves. But most important, Wasserman says, you have to let go: “In order to get this dance correct, your whole body has to respond to what your feet are doing.”
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Wasserman
Ever wondered what it would be like to walk in a colleague’s shoes? There might be few professions where the basic job description varies as greatly as that of dance teacher. The tasks and objectives can be as different as the settings where they are practiced: studio, high school, university, conservatory, company, festival, summer intensive, community rec center. Here, five educators talk about the challenges and rewards of their particular career paths.
When Chloé Arnold was 10 years old, Savion Glover visited her hometown of Washington, DC, to audition dancers for a local crew. Arnold made the group and spent four hours every day for the next month rehearsing with the tap heavyweight. She studied with Glover again the following year. And shortly after that, Savion took his DC dancers to New York City to perform in Frank Hatchett’s Broadway showcase. The trip was pivotal. “I was like, ‘Wow, you can really tap dance; this is a lifestyle. This isn’t just something I’m doing; this is what I want to do,’” says Arnold.
Today, Arnold is a tap luminary in her own right. She’s performed in stage shows such as Imagine Tap, Thank You, Gregory and Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker. She was Beyoncé’s dance double in the video “Upgrade U” and danced in the movie Idlewild.
But Arnold makes perhaps her biggest impact at tap festivals. Annually, she performs or teaches in at least a dozen international festivals. She’s been the co-director of the L.A. Tap Festival since its launch in 2003, and in 2008, she and her sister Maud founded the DC Tap Festival. Each fest lasts only a few days, but Arnold knows the power of brief encounters—like those she had early on with Glover and also with Debbie Allen, who became her mentor. “Savion and Debbie were able to come to DC, change my life and go on about their business,” she says. “That’s the thing that makes me the most excited about what we do. I can look at the students who come to the L.A. or DC festivals and see the potential and then see the growth.”
Though Arnold’s now a staple on the festival scene, she never attended one as a student. She says L.A. Tap Festival director Jason Samuels Smith also had limited fest experience. So how did they know where to begin? “I researched every festival around,” Arnold says. “When you’re creating any business, the smartest thing to do is find out what’s out there, what exists already, what people enjoy about that.”
In the tap field, where careers are patched together job by job, this entrepreneurial spirit has served Arnold well. “The reality of it is that when you’re a tap dancer, you have to create opportunities and venues that aren’t going to be created for you,” she says. (Her one-woman show, My Life, My Diary, My Dance, debuts this month at La MaMa in New York.)
Arnold has an innate ambition, but Debbie Allen also nurtured this trait. At 16, Arnold was cast in Allen’s dance musical Brothers of the Knight. Since then, the two have worked together in various capacities. Arnold has been Allen’s associate choreographer and has shadowed her mentor when Allen has directed TV projects. Allen is also the founder of the L.A. Tap Festival. “In each instance, I learn something different,” Arnold says. “Debbie’s not just a dancer: She’s a director, a choreographer, a visionary. So much of what I know comes from her.”
Arnold encourages an enterprising attitude in her festival students. In addition to classes, student showcases and jam sessions, the L.A. Tap Festival has included a panel discussion called “The Business of Show Business.” In DC, they’ve held seminars on how to build interest in tap. She also shares knowledge informally; talking at length with students about everything from training techniques to resumés and headshots.
When her students do create their own work, Arnold happily lends her name and time to help ensure their success. For instance, when Emilie Koenig, a former assistant, premiered the Space City Tap Fest in Houston last February, Jason Samuels Smith and both Chloé and Maud Arnold were there to support her; they’re all on the faculty roster again this year.
Indeed, in the tight-knit tap community, making connections is almost as valuable as the dancing itself. Arnold first met tap dancer Baakari Wilder when they were both part of Glover’s DC crew. Later, she was his student, and last year, he taught at her DC Tap Festival. At the L.A. Tap Festival, everyone—dancers and faculty—eats lunch together, a setup specifically intended to foster these types of relationships.
“I tell my students, ‘All you have to do is reach out,’” Arnold says. “You’re going to end up working together and helping each other put on shows. It’s so incredible to see that happening.” DT
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Photo by Rachel Papo