Dance History Lesson Plan: Honi Coles

Coles in a studio shot for My One and Only. He was known for wearing fine tailored suits, giving him an air of sophistication. Photo by Kenn Duncan, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Charles "Honi" Coles was an American rhythm tap dancer known for his speed and sophisticated style. He was a founding member of the Copasetics, as well as one half of the popular vaudeville duo "Coles & Atkins," whose song-and-dance routines epitomized the vaudeville class act—routines that countered blackface stereotypes. Coles' later collaborative work with tapper Brenda Bufalino helped revive tap dance in the 1970s and led to the founding of the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City.


Coles was born in Philadelphia in 1911. As a kid, he learned to dance from street tap challenges. He made his professional debut in New York City at 20, dancing with the Three Millers. When the other members of the trio decided to replace him with a better dancer, Coles went back to Philly to improve his technique.

By the time he returned to New York, in 1934, he had become the fastest tap dancer around. While keeping an easy, upright posture and his knees relaxed, he tapped close to the floor, creating long, smooth phrases of speedy yet precise sounds. He became a legend at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where tap dancers congregated to compete, not just for his speed but for his effortless grace, too.

Coles performed with the Lucky Seven Trio for a few years and then toured with jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In 1940, while performing with jazz singer Cab Calloway, he met Charles "Cholly" Atkins, another virtuosic tapper. After serving in the army during World War II, they paired up to create their own act, Coles & Atkins, which they performed together for 14 years.

In 1949, while still performing as Coles & Atkins, the two joined forces with 19 other hoofers and musicians to form the Copasetics Club, a tap fraternity in honor of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Throughout the 1950s and '60s as tap dance became less popular, due to changing tastes in popular music and musical theater choreography, the Copasetics helped keep tap alive by hosting an annual ball, boat cruises and charitable performances in the community.

In 1960, Coles and Atkins went their separate ways. Coles worked as the stage manager at the Apollo Theater for 16 years. In the '70s he oversaw the revival of tap dance spearheaded by Brenda Bufalino and other women tappers. He continued performing solo roles throughout the 1980s, on Broadway and in films like The Cotton Club (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987). He died of cancer in 1992 at 81.

Style

Coles developed his exceptional speed by staying light on his toes and relaxed in his legs, keeping his feet close to the ground and executing small steps in lieu of acrobatic moves. At 6' 2", he had a slender frame, which he carried with ease—staying calm in the upper body and shifting his weight naturally. His tap phrase work was rhythmically complex—an innovative combination of triplets, swinging eighth notes and quarter notes.

Honi Coles in 1979:

Coles & Atkins:

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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