1 Aug 2003
Impressions of A Festival of Learning and Joy: Tap City 2003
By Alice Bernstein
The third annual Tap City festival, produced by Tony Waag of the American Tap Dance Foundation, was celebrated in New York City in July by hundreds of dancers of all ages, countries, and a wide variety of styles. The events included workshops, films, jams and 213 classes taught by, among others, Dianne Walker, Sarah Petronio, Brenda Bufalino, LaVaughn Robinson, Andrew Nemr and Michele Ribble, and performances by Dr. Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, Tony Waag and many more.
Alice Bernstein of The Harlem Times Ernest "Brownie" Brown and Reggio "The Hoofer"
McLaughlin photo: David M. Bernstein
To honor the spirit of education and joy at Tap City, I’m glad to tell about two events I attended – a master class and a panel discussion/performance – in relation to what I’m so grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the great American poet and educator Eli Siegel (1902-78). His magnificent principle, “All beauty is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves,” is true about all the arts in every century and country, including the wonderful American art form of tap dance.
Rest and Motion: The Chair Dance
The master class taught by 87 year-old Ernest “Brownie” Brown (the legendary comic tapper whose career began in Vaudeville) and his youthful partner from Chicago, dancer, choreographer and educator Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin, was historic. Eight years ago they began performing together and caused a sensation by reviving the “Chair Dance” – an almost lost classic from the 1930s that Brownie performed in the 1950s with the Copasetics. This dance, which Brownie and Reggio were teaching for the first time, is a wonderful relation of the opposites of
Ernest "Brownie" Brown & Reggio "The Hoofer" McLaughlin teaching the Chair Dance
photo: David M. Bernstein
rest and motion. While sitting in chairs side by side, the dancers have a rhythmic conversation in a synchronized yet unexpected tap routine. Being seated, they seem to be at rest; yet their energetic movements mirror one another and also break away; and while they never get up, you know they’re dancing.
Ernest "Brownie" Brown autographs tap shoes
photo: David M. Bernstein “You’d think it would be easy,” said dancer Katie DaSilva, “but it’s very difficult to sit down and tap dance.” About her teachers she said, “I love the whole atmosphere: no matter what level you’re at, they welcome you, and it’s okay if you don’t get it right away. They have so much knowledge and they’re so humble. I wish the whole world was like tap dancing.”
The students later gave a stand-out performance of the Chair Dance at the Duke Theater.
Melba Huber’s Moving Tap History: Past and Present
Sixty children and teens attended Melba Huber’s “Moving Tap History,” at the New York Dance Center. Ms. Huber, a beloved member of the tap community from McAllen, Texas, is a dancer, teacher, and tap preservationist, and has been a regular columnist on tap for 16 years. She introduced the children to a panel of dance artists, young and old, whose lives are a living history of tap dance: Yvonne Edwards, Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, Jeannie Hill, David Rider, Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, Jason Samuels Smith, Charles Goddertz, and Dr. Jimmy Harold "Stumpy" Cromer and Melba Huber
Photo credit: Alice Bernstein
Slyde. As Ms. Huber and her guests spoke, opposites that affected me deeply were past and present, and I loved learning about how tap dance puts them together.
Youngsters at Melba's Moving ap History
Photo credit: Alice Bernstein
The panel began with a moving presentation of hambone by Yvonne Edwards from Washington, DC who participates in the Performing Arts Society's Artists in School program at elementary and high schools. We learned that the art of hambone grew out of the brutal injustice of slavery. Though laws forbade slaves from playing musical instruments, they created this musical form in which one’s body becomes an instrument. Ms. Edwards, who has been dancing, teaching and choreographing for many years, told the youngsters about her great grandmother, who lived on a slave plantation and passed down hambone to others.
Jason Samuels-Smith teaching children during Melba's
Moving Tap History Photo credit: Alice Bernstein The influence of hambone can be seen in tap and other dance forms today. I saw the opposites of self and world, pain and pleasure, become one as percussive rhythms were created with handclaps, foot beats and body slaps. I had a greater sense of how deep and strong the desire for beauty is in humanity – and how important it is that people were impelled to make art despite the unspeakable injustice to them. It made me respect humanity so much more.
Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, whose career began more than 70 years ago and includes acting, singing and dancing on
film and stage, joined Ms. Edwards. The way Mr. Cromer accompanied her hambone with lively, deep vocal and dance rhythms was beautiful. I loved seeing and hearing these artists so gracefully put together past and present, sorrow and pleasure in their sounds and movements.
A notable, fine quality in many tap dancers is their eager expression of gratitude for what they have learned from others. At Melba’s event, tributes – in words and dance – were given by Jeannie Hill to Robert Audy and by David Rider to Michele Ribble. And as Jason Samuels Smith spoke of dancers who influenced him, he gave a stunning performance which included original tap rhythms. The way that age and youth, tradition and freshness are put together in tap, makes for true wonder.
This could also be seen in Dr. Jimmy Slyde’s rousing comments to all the children at the close of this event: “After all you’ve heard, have fun! Then you can learn about yourself and dancing. I’ve been having fun all these years; having fun remembering; having fun that’s new. I’m having fun, and I ain’t begun. Learn what a shuffle is, what a slap is, what a riff is, because it all means something. But other than that – have fun!”
Recently I read this description by Charles Dickens, of an 1842 performance by the African
Jimmy Slyde teaching children during
Melba's Moving Tap History
Photo credit: Alice Bernstein
American dancer, William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba:
“Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs – all sorts of legs and no legs….His leg movements resembled the noises of the fingers on a tambourine…. He finishes by leaping gloriously….in one inimitable sound.”
Dickens called Master Juba “the lively hero,” and at Tap City, the youngsters were thrilled to meet present-day lively heroes.
Editor’s Note: Alice Bernstein is a journalist and Aesthetic Realism associate whose articles appear in “The Harlem Times” and other newspapers, including her column “Alice Bernstein and Friends.” An earlier version of this piece appeared in “The Harlem Times.” To learn more, contact the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation (212) 777-4490, www.AestheticRealism.org