Buster Brown

Buster Brown (1913–2002) was one of the last surviving members of the legendary Copasetics, a group of master tappers who came together after the death of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. An active teacher and performer for seven decades, in recent years, Brown inspired dozens of young performers as host of the weekly “Dr. Buster Brown’s Tap Jam” at New York City’s Swing 46 Club. Through the years, he received multiple fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and even performed before Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. He was also a resident artist at the Colorado Dance Festival in 1990.

Born in Baltimore as James Richard Brown, he picked up the nickname Buster early in his career, as a dancer with the Three Aces (later renamed the Speed Kings). The trio’s claim to fame was their fast, precision tapping, which Brown perfected along with his signature steps, including wings and over-the-tops. As part of the group, Brown toured with the show Brown Skin Models before going solo. In 1943, at the height of the movie musical craze, he danced in Something to Shout About.

In the 1950s, Brown traveled the world and performed before international audiences, touring South America with Cab Calloway and his orchestra. He performed with the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, and with the Duke Ellington Orchestra as a featured dancer in Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” of the 1960s. In the 1970s, he danced in Africa as part of a commissioned State Department tour.

When popular interest in tap dancing revived in the 1970s, Brown danced in the original casts of the Broadway musicals Bubbling Brown Sugar and Blue. His appearances with the Copasetics, with Charles “Honi” Coles, Charles “Cookie” Cook and Ernest “Brownie” Brown, renewed interest in Buster Brown’s varied styles and exhibited the enduring vibrancy of tap dance. Brown also appeared in the films Tap and The Cotton Club, as well as the television specials Tap Dance in America and Gershwin Gala.

In 1997, Brown began hosting his weekly tap jam at Swing 46, an event that continues today with other emcees. He invited and encouraged dozens of performers to showcase their budding tap skills on the club’s stage, and the dancers in turn acknowledged the master’s help each year with a celebration of Brown’s birthday at the club.

His generous spirit and love of dance put performers of all ages at ease. “Buster just let dancers go, so they developed their own style,” dancer Jane Goldberg recalled in a New York Times article.

Brown’s positive reinforcement inspired many young tappers to get up onstage and try the floor, according to dancer Jennifer Lane, who toured with Brown with Jerry Ames’s company. “He always let children go up first,” she says. “Now, there is a whole generation of tappers who started out at his tap jam.” Though he loved to cheer on new tappers, he always advised dancers to get an education.

Just three months before he passed away he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University along with legendary tappers Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Bunny Briggs, Cholly Atkins, Henry LeTang, Jeni LeGon, Jimmy Slyde and Prince Spencer. Brown’s generosity and dedication to the learning atmosphere of the tap jam established an enduring legacy for tappers today.

For more on Brown, check out www.DrBusterBrown.com. DT

Los Angeles–based writer Paula Broussard is working on a biography of the Nicholas Brothers. Her book, Gregory Hines Remembered, will be published this year.

Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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