The Copasetics provided fellowship for tappers in lean times and laid the groundwork for the rhythm tap of today.

(From left) Charles "Honi" Coles, Henry "Phace" Roberts, Charles "Cookie" Cook, Leslie "Bubba" Gains and James "Buster" Brown

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

Resources:

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

 

 

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox