National Tap Dance Day

Some of the world's greatest tap dancers appeared on stage in The Town Hall New York on Sunday 23 May 1999.

The New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day produced a fabulous show of the art featuring performers old and new at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street on Sunday 23 May. The evening's proceedings centred upon the presentation of the 1999 Flo-Bert Lifetime Achievement Awards to Brenda Bufalino and Bunny Briggs. The evening also acknowledged the 121st birthday of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and the work of Bert Wheeler. The house was not a sell-out, but did include such luminaries as Harold Nicholas, Norma Miller, Mercedes Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr's mother and Hoagy Carmichael's son.

The evening opened with music from the Frank Owens Trio, playing a tribute to Duke Ellington on his centenary. Some video footage of Clayton 'Peg Leg' Bates was shown prior to the opening remarks of co-chairmen Al Heyward and Carl Schlesinger. The performances in the first half of the show began with Liz Homer-Smith, dressed in black, and wired for sound. This was evident when she started a bout of body percussion to complement her taps. Liz was followed by Andrew Nemr, one of the new hopes for the future of tap dancing. Andrew has an awkward, gangly style, but good technical proficiency, as well as a sense of humour. This is entertainment, after all. However, taken to an extreme, you end up with the next act, The American Tap Dance Orchestra, who were very showy and glitzy in a Las Vegas-type style.

Savion, Brenda, Buster, Jimmy and Bunny

The first presentation was then made to Brenda Bufalino. Brenda is a dancer, teacher and choreographer, and has written and made films. For many years she toured with Charles 'Honi' Coles. The Flo-Bert Award was made by Laraine Goodman, and then the audience was entertained to a highly amusing acceptance speech by Ms. Bufalino. The first half of the show ended with Hank Smith giving his impressions of Bert Williams, preceded by a video show of the man himself. Hank reproduced Bert's poker game mime, before displaying a beautifully understated soft shoe shuffle.

The Frank Owens Trio opened the second half with what was introduced as a medley in tribute to Fred Astaire. This consisted of two songs: Cheek To Cheek, and that other Astaire classic, Singin' In The Rain. So: a medley of two songs, one of which was sung by Gene Kelly! However, this was quickly forgotten as Al Heyward introduced Valeria Pinheiro and Vata, a Brazilian dance team that combined their native style with American rhythm tap. This was the first sign that the evening was really going to pick up. The fusion of styles was a great success and thrilled the crowd, especially when the four principals were joined by two capoiera dancers.

Now it was time to pay respect to some past masters. Buster Brown walked on stage dressed in a very dapper suit and hat, and then proceeded to roll back the years with a glorious display of tap dancing. It was not only the dancing, but also the way he communicated to the audience, facing front and covering the stage. A hard act to follow, and this duty fell to Rod Ferrone and Max Pollak, billed as Feet 2 The Beat. They immediately made the connection between the past and present with their tribute to Coles and Atkins, before embarking on a display of physical energetic tap. Once again, the technique was there to see, and with humour to the fore they produced a varied set, which included percussionists.

Mabel Lee. What a girl. Star of the Soundies in the 1940's, she was more song than dance, but none the less enjoyable for that. In good voice, and armed with some good material and a wicked smile, Mabel mesmerised the crowd - and the presenter! When Al Heyward appeared afterwards to introduce the presentation to Bunny Briggs, he was clearly thrown by Mabel and lost his lines on more than one occasion. Eventually he recovered sufficient composure to tell the audience about the upcoming video clips. These were astounding, showing Bunny in his prime, and really putting the previous performers in some kind of context. The ability, the talent, the skill, and those huge eyes filled the screen. The award was made by Savion Glover, who was a lot less eloquent in speech than in dance. Bunny made an extremely modest acceptance speech, in particular thanking his wife for her love and support.

The Flo-Bert Awards are named after 1920's entertainers Florence Mills and Bert Williams, and are given in recognition of the advancement of tap through performance, teaching and choreography. They have been given to, amongst others, The Nicholas Brothers, Peg Leg Bates, Cab Calloway, Cholly Atkins, Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor and Gregory Hines.

The Glover conundrum: Here is a young man who clearly has great talent and has studied at the feet of the masters, several of whom were here tonight. The technique is there for all to see, but where is the presentation? Facing forward, but head turned to the wings, Savion dazzles with his footwork, but such personality as there is does not get projected beyond the edge of the stage. Tap dancing is not a social affair, such as Lindy Hop, so most people will only see it in a performance setting. And they not only want technique, they want entertainment too, otherwise it becomes a dry, academic exercise. There are not many occupations where you can be successful in the long-term if you do not communicate with your employers, and Savion Glover may find that tap dancing is no exception. Glover was appearing at The Variety Arts Theatre on Third Avenue in June, but the $50 tickets were being offered at half price.

In true showbiz tradition, the best was saved to last. Jimmy Slyde. Or maybe that should be JIMMY SLYDE! Damn! Give this man his own floor show, TV show, air show, car show and salad dressing. He was astonishing. Michael Jackson! Michael Jordan! Michael Owen! Your talents took a hell of a beating on a New York stage one Sunday in May! He moves, he slides, he glides, he swerves, he stumbles - no! it's a gag, and he's always in control. Such is his mastery of the art that the lines between education, entertainment, technique and talent are merged into one glorious performance. The slides, the spins, the shuffles, the shimmys, those eyes and that smile make you want to gasp, laugh, applaud and cheer. Simultaneously.

The evening ended with a jam featuring Buster, Bunny, Jimmy, Brenda and Savion. They were joined by Van Porter, who has clearly picked up on the personality projection idea as well as the steps. The stars were then joined by the rest of the performers, presenters, producers and for all we knew, caterers, for one big Shim Sham.

This was the eleventh year of the Tap Extravaganza. Its productions provide an essential link between the past and present exponents of the art of tap dancing. With events of this calibre, the organisation deserves the grateful thanks and support of the public for many years to come. If you would like to find out more about the organisation and its activities, they can be reached on 212 252 2927.

© 1999 Andrew Winton

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