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 Das, the master of the classical dance of North India, known as kathak. On January 4th of this year, Pandit passed
|Pandit Chitresh Das|
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
|Leon Smith and Hank Smith @1958|
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,
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|
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|
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