Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bill Robinson/Bojangles

The other night I was watching one of my favorite Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies,  Swing Time, on good old TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  The film has a lot of good dance routines, but the one I always want to watch and find fascinating is the "Bojangles of Harlem" number.  I'm not quite sure why I like it because it is odd.  It's supposedly a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, but Astaire's dancing is in no way like Robinson's (Astaire was more influenced by John Bubbles).  His outfit is nothing like what Bill Robinson would wear and, as one article I read on this noted, is more like what the character Sportin' Life from Porgy and Bess would wear.  And the main curious thing is seeing Astaire in blackface.  Yet, I get into watching it every time.  I like the music and dance rhythms and the extravagance of it all with him, at one point, "partnering" with a whole line of women and there is also a fun section with his shadows dancing.  The blackface on him is interesting in that it's not the typical super dark blackface with exaggerated white lips, it's more like it's "deeptanface" as if he'd been in the sun too long.

After watching the dance number this time, I started thinking the power of Bill Robinson/Bojangles in the tap world.  Below is the number from Swing Time (in two parts) and then a rendition of it I found on YouTube done by a Japanese dancer whose name I believe is Nozomi.





As I mentioned earlier, Astaire was more influenced by John Bubbles than Bill Rohinson, but evidently Eleanor Powell did know Bill Robinson and learned from him.  The following clip is harder for me to watch than the Swing Time one because Powell does wear the traditional blackface minstrel makeup and outfit as she dances her impersonation of Bill Robinson.  She pretty much has most of his steps and moves down, but her look has absolutely nothing to do with him, for he always dressed well (you'll see) and it just seems so wrong no matter how well meaning it was.  So, here is her "tribute", introduced by Robert Young.


Bill Robinson made a number of films, in and out of Hollywood, and in 1937 was supposed to be in the 20th Century Fox film Cafe Metropole.  Scenes were shot with him, one of which was supposed be at the beginning of the film.  But when the film was released, all of his scenes were cut out.  The film company at the last minute panicked about whether theaters around the country were ready to show a main stream film with a black artist in prominent display.  Recently two of his scenes were found.  The first would have been in the opening of the film and has him in top hat and tails.  The second scene is a number in the style that was known as an Apache Dance, a style that did not usually include any tap.  As you watch this second number, realize that his dance partner is a white dancer in...blackface.  Her name was Geneva Sawyer, who had been Shirley Temple's dance coach and Robinson suggested her to the producers.  Yeah, ain't this all interesting!



"Bojangles"  Where did Robinson get that nickname from?  There are a few stories of its origin.  Bill Robinson evidently said he got the nickname as a child.  In his book, "100 Years of the Negro in Show Business", black variety artist Tom Fletcher says it was given to Robinson by a bartender because Robinson was always in some kind of squabble and "bojangles" was slang for anyone who squabbles.  Whatever the origin, that nickname for many people is a synonym for Bill Robinson.  Here's another story.  Country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker was in jail for public intoxication in 1965 and met in there a homeless white man who called himself "Mr. Bojangles".  The man related a story about his dog, among other things, and then did a little tap dance.  That supposedly inspired Walker to write the song, "Mr. Bojangles".  It became a hit, but was also adopted by some tap dancers, particularly Sammy Davis, Jr., and Harold Cromer, to represent tap and what could happen to some performers.  The tune was never about Bill Robinson but, because of the name, it has become too easy for many to think it's about him.  Honi Coles never liked the tune for that very reason.  In fact Honi put together a routine of many of Bill Robinson's iconic steps that many of us have learned and refer to as "The Bill Robinson Routine" that is often done to a tune associated with him called, "The New Low Down".  There is a statue of Bill Robinson in his home town of Richmond, VA.  The last two clips take place by that statue.  The first clip reflects the misunderstanding of Robinson and the Walker tune, but has some interesting true information of why the statue is in its particular location.  The second clip has my friend, Jason Bernard, dancing ala Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as a short personal tribute to him.



See you next time.
Keep everything Copasetic!


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Condos

Tomorrow, October 12th, is the anniversary of Steve Condos' birth.  He would be 96 years old.  I don't know much about him (a nice bio is at American Tap Dance Foundation website), but remember seeing him for the first time at a show called, "Tappin' Uptown" held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1982.  It was a big show with Honi Coles, Peg Leg Bates, Chuck Green and others.  He and his brothers, Nick and Frank, were an act called, the Condos Brothers that performed during the thirties and forties.  They appeared in films (often just Nick and Steve) and in later years, Steve performed as a soloist.  His thing was rhythm and when I saw him perform, his close to the floor rhythm steps were interesting to see.  At first seeing him, I wasn't impressed because to my uneducated eye he didn't seem to be doing that much, until I just paid attention...and listened!  As the ATDF bio states, "Condos insisted that his tap routines be melodious as well as rhythmic."  He kept dancing right up to the end, dying of a heart attack at 71, in a dressing room soon after a performance in Lyon, France in 1990.

One of the current roster of tap dancers who was heavily influenced by him is Marshall Davis, Jr., whom Condos took under his wing when Davis was a young man and you can see in Davis' dance the continuation of what Condos was doing.  Last Sunday, Davis hosted a event at a club in the East Village to celebrate Steve Condos.  It was called, "Turn Up For Tap" and was not a performance but rather a party just to remember the man.  Folks gathered and talked, mingled, and social danced while
Savion Glover handled the DJ job of mixing some music.  I didn't stay for the whole time, so don't know if there was any tap, but enjoyed being there and had some nice conversations, particularly with two of the younger dancers there (well they all were young, compared to me!) about the importance of passing on tap history.  That was sort of the theme that night.  Marshall hosted a bit of a trivia contest about Steve Condos and, while doing that, mentioned names of other veteran performers and he would often say "If you don't know who he/she is, look him/her up or google them."  I agree and often say the same thing, make people do some work to find out history and not be spoon fed.

My mantra seems to be, "I'm living in an interesting time".  While hanging at the party I was looking at some of the tap dancers of now who were there like, Michelle Dorrance, Kazu Kumagai, Keitaro Hosokawa, Lisa La Touche, Khalid Hill and Yuka Kameda.  All of them doing good work, some of who I have worked with and all of whom impress me.  I thought of the tap people I got to know, who influenced me like, Tony White, Charles "Cookie" Cook, James "Buster" Brown, Marion Coles and Harold Cromer, most of who were before these younger artists' time.  I remember seeing a quite young Savion dancing with Gregory Hines 24 years ago at The Village Gate during a tribute to Steve Condos held a few months after his passing.  Sunday's event, for me, was about just being in the spirit of an art form and way of living one's life.  Take the time to appreciate whatever is important to you.

Below are two clips of Steve Condos.  If you want to know and/or see more on him and The Condos Brothers.....look it up!

Also with Steve Condos.




From the documentary, "About Tap"(1985)


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Vaudeville, Tap and Fun

Yesterday was the end of 2014 NJ Tap Festival, where I presented some tap related videos this past Thursday and Friday.  I talked about vaudeville and the performers from that time who did everything when it came to performing.  It was sort of a continuation of something I did at the American Tap Dance Foundation back in April.  At heart, I am a song and dance and comedy man when comes to being on stage and like it when performers bring all kinds of skills to the stage when they do their thing.  I wanted to show the students (most of them were rather young) some performers the may not know of and also inspire them to be creative in what they do.  Part of my focus was showing examples of how props and sets can be used in performance.  I also tried to show connections and relationships between different performers, like Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Burns & Allen, Fred Astaire, The Nicholas Brothers, Bob Hope, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, and Donald O'Connor, to name a few.  So here are some examples of what I showed.  The first is with two of my favorite performers, who actually have influenced my work.



  Hardest Working Men in Show Business



Three guys with top hats and canes...The Berry Brothers



Hope and Cagney from "The Seven Little Foys"



More to come......keep dancing!!!!!
    Hank

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gregory

Photo:  Matthew Jordan Smith
The phone rang.  It was Yvette Glover.  I said something like "How ya doing?", a basic hello phrase.  She said, "We lost Gregory".  I remember thinking this must be some older performer or dancer named Gregory that I didn't know, who Yvette probably assumed I knew, who maybe had been ailing.  I said, "Gregory who?".  I could not process her answer.  Gregory Hines?  What?  That was eleven
years ago today and I'm still trying to process her answer.  Eleven years ago was also when the first LA Tap Festival was held, just a few days after Gregory passed, and today is the last day of the 12th time that festival has been held.  It's a strong day.

Many people have feelings and stories about Gregory Hines.  He looms large in the tap community.  I feel he was the last tap dancer to be fairly well known in the general public, mainly because of the acting he did in TV and films.  In fact, I found a number of younger people (non tap dancers of course) didn't know he was a tap dancer because of the TV and film, non tap work that he did.  There are people like Melinda Sullivan, Chloe Arnold (Syncopated Ladies) and Jason Samuels Smith, who have aggressively worked to get tap on TV for the general public to see and I hope more do the same.   But if you asked the average person on the street to name a tap dancer, I bet they'd be stuck.

I did not really know Gregory.  We met a few times;  once when he appeared on Sesame Street where I was stage managing, a brief encounter on the closing day at Woodpeckers Studio (a tap studio/space in NYC's Soho area headed by Brenda Buffalino), passingly at a Cotton Club movie audition I did and the most extended experience being when I went to a La Mama show with him, Jane Goldberg and Sarah Safford.  When I think of him, it's hard not to think of
Gregory, Savion Glover and I on the set of Sesame Street @1992
his brother, Maurice (who I understand is developing a show where he talks about Gregory) and the act Hines, Hines and Dad.  When I was attending NYU in the late 1960's, studying TV Production, I was an NBC page and often worked on or around the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Hines, Hines and Dad often performed on that show and I loved watching them.  I had studied tap as a youngster and saw a lot of it on TV  in the 1950's but by the 60's it wasn't seen that much, so seeing these guys dance felt to me like they were keeping the tap/hoofing tradition alive.  I remember their father, Maurice Sr., liked to talk a lot during the breaks of rehearsing and Maurice was a bit heavier then and Gregory had a "process" (hair straightened).  They also played hotels in the Catskills and even did one or two independent TV specials directed by Hal Tulchin.  I know this because a fellow stage manager friend of mine worked those specials.  When the act broke up, for years I'd tell people about these guys who really could tap, but nobody knew what I was talking about.  Of course, by the late 70's, thanks to the Broadway show "Eubie", they were back on the scene and Gregory particularly started to make a name for himself.  I don't know the whole story about the Hines brothers and their ups and downs, but have always felt there is an important history there between them.

Maybe you have thoughts, memories or stories about Gregory.  Post them below in the Comments section.  The photo I have posted of Gregory and his shoes shot by Matthew Jordan Smith has a story behind it.  Click here on The Story behind the Photograph to hear Matthew talk about the "story".  To get a taste of Hines, Hines and Dad, check out the following clip of them on an episode of The Hollywood Palace that was hosted by Milton Berle.  As I said to a friend the other day, I still feel his presence...

video



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Spirit and tap

Well, it's been about six months, but here are some of my current thoughts on tap.  I've been thinking about tradition, ancestry and spirit a lot these days and in the past month, or so, I attended three tap events  that relate to these thoughts.

The American Tap Dance Foundation's annual New York City Tap Festival, better known as Tap City, ended on Saturday July 12th with an out door event called "Tap It Out".  A large group tap dancers
performed different tap numbers "conducted" by Tony Waag, Artistic Director of the Festival.  There were three sets of dance and it was great fun to watch.  Last year it was held at Duffy Square in the Theater District but this year was held in Foley Square near the court buildings in lower Manhattan.  This spot was chosen because it is near where Paradise Square existed in the mid 1800s as part of the Five Points district.  Irish immigrants and free Africans lived in this district.  One free black man, named William Henry Lane, lived and performed in this area and is credited by many as the person who helped fuse African and Irish dance styles to create the beginnings of what we know as tap
Tong Waag leading the tappers.  Photo:  Hank Smith
dance.  Most tappers know he was also known as "Master Juba".  So tap was literally brought back to its roots at this event.  The dancers had fun and ranged in age from youngsters to more "seasoned" folks.  As I watched, I realized it was just round the corner from the African Burial Grounds and I felt the need to go to the grounds after the performance.  I went with two friends and we walked down into the memorial there.  I couldn't help remembering the uproar that happened in 1991 when the site was discovered as a result of digging up that area to put up a huge building.  I felt so aware of its connection to what I had just seen with the tap and felt some emotion rising in me as I walked around the site.  The parks ranger there started giving us a brief talk about the grounds and its history and as he spoke, some parents and young dancers from the tap event walked by, stopped and listened.  The ranger was very animated and good at his talk and I was glad to see these youngsters, none of whom were African American, really pay attention to him and ask questions.  I even said to them, "You see, this is why you were near here tap dancing.  This is part of its history for you to know".  If you've never been, you should check it out.  Here is the link: http://www.nps.gov/afbg/index.htm

On the previous Sunday, July 6th, I went to see Savion Glover's annual (well, almost annual) engagement at the Joyce Theater.  The evening was called "Om".  I normally like to sit in the middle or back of an audience and not way up front, because I usually like to see the overall picture of stage and audience.  But with Savion's Joyce shows I like being up front and for this, and his last show, I was in the front row.  There are two reasons I like that location; it's only $10 and I like seeing close up what's happening with him and his colleagues on stage.  At the beginning of the show, music (a Kenny Garrett piece in the spiritual style of John Coltrane) plays for a long time before the curtain rises.   On the stage, dimly lit only with votive candles, are pictures of various tap dancers and artists who have passed on and also Gandhi and others.  Other artifacts are there (at the end of the show I went up to the stage and saw a Michael Jackson album), along with the dancers;  Savion, Marshall Davis, Jr., Mari Fujibayashi, Keitaro Hosokawa, Olivia Rosenkrantz and on the side are a few people in meditative poses.  I can't describe everything exactly that happened for the next 90 minutes or so, but can only say that I went on the spiritual journey led by what was happening on stage.  Other than  one routine that included all the dancers, most of the time it was Savion and Marshall getting deep into it with their feet and bodies while the three other dancers were on stage calmly but in a zen like
With Marshall Davis, Jr. after the show.  Photo: Megan Haungs
state shifting from one pose or state to another.  It's hard to explain without making it sound hokey, but it all had an effect on me and I went many "places" in my mind and heart as I allowed myself to get pulled into it, which being up close made easy...I felt I was IN it!   He used music of different genres but all with some spiritual base.  I came to it already in a state of reflection about things in my life and how I feel about tap and about ancestors, so I was receptive to what this piece was trying to do.  Savion tries different things, as true artists do, and sometimes what he does is more "entertaining" than other times.  At this, and other performances, people left during the show, which I can understand.  But I also know a lot of people loved it.  Such is art.  In the program, it states that the work is inspired by a conversation with Bunny Briggs, who danced the solo tap segment, "David danced before the Lord" in Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert.  That makes sense.  All I know is I felt inspired and full after seeing Savion's show.  I spoke with Olivia Rosenkrantz after the show and she said that during the run of the show it became easier and easier to stand on stage quietly and slowly change poses.  The power of Marshall and Savion's energy "danced" through her body and she could've stayed there even longer.  I could see/feel that during the show, that's why I was up close.

Takeshi, Ali, Alex, Michela, Frances, Kyle.  Photo: Hank Smith
I've known Michela Marion-Lerman since she was 11 years old and have watched her grow as a person and dancer.  As I've written before, a big influence on her was James "Buster" Brown who ran a tap jam at the jazz/swing club restaurant Swing 46, for a few years that many of us attended.  She has always loved music and due to Buster, her parents and others of us, got exposed to much in the
jazz/R&B vein...African American music.  She went to jazz clubs in her pre-teen and teen years, usually with our encouragement!  So, it's in her DNA and nowadays she's working to keep the relationship of jazz and tap alive.  She hosts a weekly tap jam at Small's Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, has performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center and talked at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  On June 29, I went to the Harlem Arts Festival held in Marcus Garvey Park to see Michela, joined by Alexandra Brinae Ali Bradley and Frances Nielah Bradley, to tap as "Rendezvous In Rhythm".  They were backed up by Charenee Wade on vocals, Takeshi Ohbayashi on piano, Alex Claffy on bass, and Kyle Poole on drums.   They did a 30 minute set on the Main Stage that really got the crowd going, which is not easy for an outdoor event.  The fellow in front of me was really enjoying himself and shouting back to the stage while they performed.  I found out later he had been a tap dancer, appearing on the old "Electric Company" TV show.  The trio of dancers took turns performing individually and together through different tunes.  A moment I really liked was when Ms Wade was singing a tune to accompany Michela's tapping and at the end they did a bit of a vocal/tap improv with both dancing to finish.  It was one of those "in the moment" things that comes from really listening.  I feel they are keeping the jazz (a limited term, actually) tradition alive by dancing to and with the music.  Everyone on stage was making music with instruments, voices and/or feet.  I'm so often feeling a lot of tap dancers these days don't really listen to the music and work with it.  But I've said this before...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Happy New Year!

Well, somehow another year went by again.  Seems to happen every 365 days or so.  Anyway, the year has passed and my annual promise (to myself) to put up more posts has once more not been kept.  So, this year I declare "Every post in its time".  Here are two observations to start the year.

Last week I saw the Broadway show, "After Midnight", an enjoyable revue that is sort of based on the entertainment at The Cotton Club and other spots in Harlem years ago.  Although it is not a "tap" show, the art form is well represented on the stage.  Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attimore do a nice tap duet early on and then appear later with other dancers.  The powerful Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards sings and dances in her fabulous way.  Jared Grimes comes out near the end to tap alone with the band (The Jazz At Lincoln Center All Stara) and usher the show to an energetic conclusion.  The star, Dule Hill, was not in the performance I saw, but his replacement, David Jennings, did a good job in song and dance.  I liked the show but couldn't help thinking about the performers I've seen who were from the era depicted on stage.  Fantasia Barrino (who I confess I've heard of, but was not really familiar with) did a heck of a job singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Stormy Weather", with a real good honest feel to it, without the extra embellishments I can't stand that so many contemporary singers do nowadays.  It did trigger memories of seeing Lena Horne sing those songs (well at least "Stormy") live in her one woman show years ago and, as I took in Fantasia, I felt a continuum of spirit from Lena to her.  The talent was great, the choreography was okay, but did not have the flavor and nuance of the era it was depicting, none of the dynamics that make you go, "Yeah!"  I must say that the best part of the show is when some of the band members cut loose on their own with some solos that for me somehow had the strongest legitimate feel of the whole afternoon.  Check out the show.  You can get rush partial-view tickets the day of the show for $37, which I did and the seat was fine because it's a relatively small theater.  Here's a taste of the show below:



This past Sunday, I saw a film about two masters of percussive dance.  The film is the documentary, "Upaj: Improvise", and focuses on the collaboration of Jason Samuels Smith and Pundit Chitresh Das.  Smith, as many of you know, is one of the great tap dancers out there today and Das is the master of kathak, the classical dance of North India.  In this film you see the meshing of two cultures and the relationship of two men passionate about what they do.  The film follows them on their journeys  performing in India and here in the states.  It is quite interesting and informative, with moments that just may touch you in surprising ways.  After the screening there was a short live performance of the two men that was incredible to watch.  Surprisingly, they have performed their full show almost everywhere in the U.S. except New York City!  The event was held at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in front of an enthusiastic crowd.  Next Monday, January 20th, the film will be shown on PBS as an episode of Afropop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange at 8pm, so check you listing.  I believe in the NYC area it will be on WLIW21.  Set your DVR!  Watch the Afropop preview below:



At the end of the month I plan on seeing "Tap or Die", a documentary that will be shown at the Dance On Camera dance film festival.  I've heard some things about the film, so I want to see it for myself.  If you want to see it, Jan. 31st is the date at the Waler Reade Theater, by Lincoln Center.  Screening is at 3:30pm.  Maybe I'll see you there!