Monday, February 2, 2015

Passing It On

Times flies.  Where does it go?  At different points in our lives we wind up feeling particularly close to those statements.  Recently, a good friend was talking to me about missing the elders who he'd see when returning to his home town who would check in on him and ask how he was doing.  There was something reassuring and comforting in feeling those folks' concerns.  I told him I understood and that the deal is, now we are those folks who look out for the younger ones.  But when did that happen?  I'm realizing that I am approaching, or at, the age that some of the tap greats were when I first met them.  These men and women were important to me, and as this new year begins, I've been reflecting on time, legacy, mentorship, and passing on.  Passing on of an art form to share and passing on from life after sharing what you can.  

In January of last year, I posted about two tap events I had seen, one of which was a screening of a film about the collaboration of tap artist Jason Samuels Smith and Pandit Chitresh Dasthe master of the classical dance of North India, known as kathak.  On January 4th of this year, Pandit passed
Pandit Chitresh Das
away at the age of 70.  It hit me hard for some reason.  I did not know Pandit at all, and only met him

briefly a few times because Jason is a friend.  But I guess the combination of his age, which I am so close to, and his working relationship with Jason, whom 
I call "cuz" and care about, made me feel a strong connection.  The connections some of us have made with other artists who sometimes become our mentors is important.  As I am now realizing, I'm an "elder" and look at the years of teaching I have done and those I have influenced.  I think about those who influenced me, and those I would call mentors. There are three key men.

I first studied tap in Harlem in the late 1950's at Mable Hart's Dance Studio, located on 7th Avenue across the street from the location of the Renaissance Ballroom.  It was a place for young people to study and, in addition to tap, there were classes in ballet and modern.  If memory serves me well, I think Ms Hart taught both ballet and modern, but the tap teacher was Earl "Sonny" Dow, my first "in person" tap influence.  I had watched tap on television in films and live shows shown and I guess I showed enough interest to move my mother to sign me up for tap classes when I was about 11 or so.  I don't remember much about the tap classes or how Mr. Dow taught, but I remember the classroom, Ms Waters on piano accompanying the classes (I also took piano lessons with her at her apartment in Harlem's Riverton Houses) and the records that were also often played for class ("Exactly Like You" was a favorite).  I enjoyed it and apparently showed some prowess for it, because I eventually became one of the kids up front in class.  I remember going downtown to Capezio's to get my first pair of tap shoes, a black patent leather edition....I was fascinated by them.  I took good care of those shoes and probably snuck in some practice at home when nobody was around.  As I said, I don't remember much about Mr. Dow, other
than he was a tall, dark skinned, slender man.  I do remember that Ms Hart said she like the way I danced.  Every year on Father's Day the studio did a recital (the photo heading this blog is from one of those shows), first at the Roosevelt Auditorium on 17th St at Union Square, now called the Union
Leon Smith and Hank Smith @1958
Square Theater, and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, at a time when it was hardly used and way before it was known as BAM.  There was a boy at the studio, also studying tap, named Leon Smith and we were paired as "The Smith Boys" for one of the recitals.  I was only at the studio for two or three years, but I looked forward to those Saturday trips on the subway to Harlem for class and the experience there was my foundation for tap dance and performance, even though I had no intentions at the time of doing it for any kind of a living as an adult, since I was planning on becoming an architect.

Years went by and my career goal shifted from architecture to TV production.  Then I got involved in performing as a result of studying mime in the 1970's.  I wound up studying that and other performance disciplines on the theory that it would make me a better director (hadn't really directed anything yet) but eventually had to face the fact that I really wanted to perform.  By my late 20's I started thinking about studying tap again and even bought a pair of shoes.  I looked for a teacher and, in 1974, went to a performance in the Bruno Walter auditorium at Lincoln Center of a tap dancer named Tony White.  Something about his presentation impressed me.  It was just him with a boom box,
Tony White
which played the music he danced to.  After the show, I approached him asking about teaching, and thus began the relationship with my first tap mentor.  We got along because we were both independent thinkers and doers.  I had been doing mime performances with a group of friends where we just found places to do our thing.  Tony did the same thing, he just went places and did his tap thing.  We would meet at the old Showcase Studios on 8th Ave., or his small apartment, for lessons. Things he turned me onto included Bud Powell's music and the "paddle and roll" tap step.  Having been a ballroom dancer and a Lindy Hopper, he talked a lot about those experiences and how he incorporated them into his tap.  I'd also meet him at bars where he'd point out different people to me who had worked with big time performers.  It was the beginning of me realizing that the "hanging out" experience with an artist/teacher/mentor outside of the studio is an invaluable some of knowledge.  By seeing the art of how someone lives their life, you learn something.  Tony always encouraged me and included me in one of his shows in NYC, for which I was quite nervous.  He got me back to tap.

In the 70's while freelancing in TV production and doing some mime, I got interested in all kinds of movement.  It was a time of dance of many forms exploding around the city and also an era where terms like New Vaudeville and New Mime were popping up.  There was a lot of experimentation (a carry over of the 60's) on stage and an exciting time to experience things.  Overlapping my time with Tony was my time taking classes at Clark Center in Manhattan.  This was a place where a lot of dance began (Alvin Ailey started his company there) and I took classes in Jazz Dance with Pepsi
Charles "Cookie" Cook
Bethel and Modern Dance with Thelma Hill.  But the biggest impact on me there was taking tap class with Charles "Cookie" Cook in the 1980's.  A member of the tap fraternity/performing group known as The Copasetics and veteran performer, Cookie started teaching at Clark Center after tap had been inaugurated there by Eleanor Harris.  A bunch of us like, Heather Cornell, Susan Goldbetter, Kevin Ramsey, and Jacqui Malone were regulars in his class and some of us even wound up performing

with him on occasion.  I got to know him pretty well and he became my second mentor.  As with Tony, I'd hang out with him and he'd tell stories about his show business experiences, which I soaked up with great gusto.  He had an interest and opinion about all types of performance forms and went to see anything.  In fact, he was the first person to tell me about the solo theater work of Eric Bogosian, which interested me because I was working on my own solo performance material at the time.  In support of my work, Cookie appeared in one of my semi-solo mime/clown full length pieces called, "Moving About".  I think Cookie and I got along because of own mutual admiration for comedy and vaudeville.  He was important and a number of other tap artists had the privilege of knowing him in the same rich way as I did.  Cookie.

There are two other people who are important to me in relation to tap and they are James "Buster" Brown and Marion Coles.  I first met Buster through Cookie because Cookie would let me come and hang out at The Copasetics rehearsals, so I sort of got to know the other members (who were, at this time, Charles "Honi" Coles, Henry "Phace" Roberts, Leslie "Bubba" Gaines, Louis Simms, Leroy
Marion Coles, Buster Brown, Hank Smith
Myers and Cookie) because of him.  But I got to really know Buster when I started his weekly tap jam at Swing 46, on 46th St.,  in 1997.  It was because of that jam and his open support that I found the confidence to tap as a solo and take chances on stage.  There is a whole crew of tap people who gained the same gift going to his jam.  He really wasn't a mentor of mine, but a good friend and colleague.  Through him, I got to know Marion Coles, who was the wife of Honi Coles, but also a talent and force to reckon with.  She not only taught me, and many others, some nice routines, but always stayed on my case to be true to myself and be protective of what I have to offer.  She also had great style.

These people are in me as I do what I do.  I also get inspiration from the generation of dancers who were so young when I first met them, who are now movers and shakers in the tap world and mentor people younger than them!  Yes, flies.  Seems like not too long ago Cookie was telling me about a young kid who was an incredible tap dancer who could copy any step he saw moments after seeing it.  That "kid" is now in his forties with this year being the 20th anniversary of his (and George Wolfe's) "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk" opening at The Public Theater.  We do, we share, we pass it on....

"Life and death are the only reality.  You come alone, you go alone.
Only thing to do in between is practice and do whatever you do with love."
  _ Pt. Chitresh Das