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