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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:

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