Below are nine newspaper articles by Howard Blume about tap dancers and tap dancing. (Articles about Howard Blume and Eddie Brown can be found on the "About Howard & Eddie" page.)
(Whenever possible, we've included links to the original article. We encourage you to read these articles by linking to the publication and thereby helping to support print journalism.)
"BOB CARROLL, 1966 - 2014 -- Improvising tap dancer"
"He taught tap -- and life" - About tapper Alfred Desio.
"One Step Ahead" - About Leonard Reed
"Ghosts of Tappers Past"
"Best Tap Dance Teacher: Alfred Desio" (link not available, article is below)
Los Angeles Times
October 26, 2014
Home Edition, Main News, Page A-32
BOB CARROLL, 1966 - 2014
Improvising tap dancer
By Howard Blume
Some local Home Depot customers might remember Bob Carroll as that affable, prematurely balding guy in carpentry -- never realizing that Carroll was among the most respected tap dancers of his generation.
The quirky, beloved Carroll, 48, who had been in declining health, died Oct. 13 in a single-vehicle traffic accident in Pueblo, Colo.
Carroll was best known as a performer for 18 years with the Southern California company Rhapsody in Taps, where he danced featured roles in choreographed pieces and unleashed memorable solo improvisations.
"Some improvisers, you can tell they're ending a pattern they worked up and moving into another pattern," said company artistic director Linda Sohl-Ellison. "He just seamlessly flowed right through the dance from beginning to end with all kinds of in-the-moment inspirations."
At 16th-note speed he could create footwork that was "poetic, introspective and playful," she added, "but inevitably pushed along like a sweeping current."
Carroll was nominated numerous times for L.A.'s Lester Horton Dance Award for best male soloist, Sohl-Ellison said. He also worked as a tap coach/advisor for 20th Century Fox Studios and with noted choreographers including Twyla Tharp, Don Crichton and Debbie Allen. He also starred with other dance companies and was part of the original cast of "Caution, Men at Work: TAP."
Carroll was born Sept. 28, 1966, in Hibbing, Minn. The large family moved 22 times in 15 years to follow the construction jobs of Matthew Carroll, who married Bob's mother, Frances, and adopted Bob.
They were living in Everett, Wash., when the smallish 10-year-old, who had bailed out of karate, watched his older sister take a tap class. He wanted to try it, remembered his mother, Frances Pratt. Afterward, the boy asked the teacher, in earnest: "Do I have what it takes to be an entertainer?"
After six months of incessant practice, he joined the teacher's dance company. After three years, the teacher insisted that Bob, who also was acting, go to Los Angeles.
The family landed randomly in a San Fernando Valley hotel. The manager, who happened to be a musician, learned of the boy's obsession to absorb tap and advised: "Don't try anybody until you try Louis DaPron," his mother recalled.
The renowned teacher had a studio down the street, and Carroll quickly became DaPron's protege. The boy soon landed a role as a featured child performer on "The Tim Conway Show."
As a teenager, Carroll achieved some acclaim and regular work. Gregory Hines nicknamed Carroll "white lightning" after Carroll's white shoes and fleet feet.
But the 1980s were difficult times for a child performer who was growing up and wanting mainly to tap before live audiences. "I'm not that cute little kid anymore," he told his mother.
He put tap on hiatus for seven years, working in Alaska fisheries, among other places, and traveling widely.
Sohl-Ellison saw him dance at a picnic and invited him to join her company. He was always a crowd favorite because his talent transmitted through regular-guy humility. Peers and students described a quiet, generous teacher with a zany streak.
Carroll was "the easiest guy to work with," said drummer Chris Blondal, but added: "I was intimidated to play off him because he was so fast. Half the time I'd give up because I can't play so soft and fast at the same time."
Carroll worked various jobs to get by, including at home-improvement stores. He always was handy, making kites for his sisters from discarded scraps and artisan-quality drums from wood he salvaged from the destruction of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Also an avid outdoorsman, he once tried to persuade his sisters -- only half in jest -- to try his concoction of fresh cattails mixed with instant oatmeal.
But a lifelong diabetic condition increasingly took a toll. His feet began to swell painfully after he danced. He suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He quietly retired from dancing three years ago and moved to Colorado.
Investigators say a medical issue may have caused him to lose control of his truck on a mountain road, resulting in the fatal crash.
One of Carroll's final improvised performances with Rhapsody in Taps can be viewed online at the dance company's website.
In addition to his mother, Carroll is survived by six of his seven siblings: Roger Pride, Jacquie Carroll, Franee Carroll, Cassidy Hooker, Ty King and Rhonda Anderson.
Los Angeles Times
March 7, 2007
Calendar, Part E; Pg. 3
An Appreciation: He taught tap -- and life
By Howard Blume, Times Staff Writer
Looking out at the crowd gathered in front of him, dancer Channing Cook Holmes struggled to describe the singular magic of his late mentor, Alfred Desio. But he couldn't recall what he intended to say as he stood fighting back grief, clad in a neat gray suit, smart yellow tie ... and stocking feet.
So he slipped on a pair of shoes and started dancing.
That's what happens at a memorial for a tapper.
On Sunday, Holmes and about 150 other people answered the call of their personal pied piper one last time and trooped to Zipper Hall at the downtown Colburn School, where Desio, 74, taught life as well as tap before succumbing to cancer last month. Like me, they came to remember not only a great hoofer and instructor but also a friend.
A onetime child prodigy back East, Desio enjoyed a solid Broadway career before moving to Los Angeles and making his name as a teacher and performer -- and as the guy who figured out how to enhance live tap sounds with a synthesizer in real time, a brilliant engineering feat that became part of the movie "Tap." That innovation, of which he was ever proud, will be regarded by some as Desio's unique legacy.
But to my mind, the dazzling sound effects somewhat obscured the purity of his virtuoso dancing. He ranks among the most technically precise and dexterously advanced tappers I've ever seen.
Those in attendance Sunday got a sweet taste of Desio's dancing on tape, courtesy of Louise Reichlin, his widow, who herself runs a modern dance troupe. Among the gems was "Brandenburg Boogie," a hip arrangement of Bach that Desio choreographed into a classic. And there were selections from "Caution, Men at Work: TAP," his answer to Australia's Tap Dogs.
Sunday's event quickly became a live show, a gratis Desio alumni shindig. It included 23-year-old twins Sean and John Scott, who regularly dazzle crowds on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Ten-year-old Joshua Villanueva and Rachel Rosenbaum, 14, performed portions of the Brandenburg piece, just as they had with Desio during his final, gutsy performance last May.
It was true to form for Desio to extend himself in sharing his art form. He made regular pilgrimages to hardscrabble urban schools, carrying Velcro strap-on taps for demonstrations. His own performing ensemble became a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and backgrounds.
One parent spoke of the utter, attentive respect he would show the youngest children. The mothers and fathers of first-time students would watch -- perplexed, amazed -- as Desio sometimes taught an entire class without saying a word. He'd start moving with a certain cadence, a discernible repetition. Pairs of clattering feet did the same. If he added a brush, so did they. Then the music would change. He'd start clapping, then stop after three counts. So did they.
"I probably do it that way to not get too involved with describing things," he said a few years ago, "but to try to sharpen a student's visual skills -- to be able to look at something and duplicate it, or listen to something and duplicate it." Later in the class, he'd often spread out string instruments, drums, castanets, blocks and keyboards and let the children discover musicality.
When his students approached adolescence and developed attitude, Desio readied for war. His patience grew short, his demands long. He was fighting for them, to get them to the other side as gifted dancers and responsible adults. "I won't give them an inch," he said, especially if they wanted to join his company, the Colburn Kids. "To the girls, it's 'Knock it off with the bare midriff.' To the boys, it's 'No belts hanging off in front of your pants.' If I see a nose ring and multiple earrings, I'm going to comment on it."
Ever the perfectionist, he'd lose his patience with me too, despite my generally solid adult behavior. But he also treated me to stories. He'd show me the tap shoes he kept for needy students and his cache of obscure metal taps from generations ago, which he collected for his own amusement. It was hard to imagine anything slowing down this diminutive, seemingly ageless athlete. "We never looked back," Reichlin said at the memorial. "Only present and forward."
For many, the show/ceremony could never be simply about Desio. It also had to recognize his partner in artistry. "He and Louise together taught me the value of hard work and rehearsal, and rehearsal, and rehearsal again," said M'saada Nia, now a filmmaker, who hadn't put on tap shoes for seven years before rehearsing for this memorial with pals Gina Nicholson and Myshell Curry, now a teacher at Colburn. Nia recalled how Desio provided her with free shoes and free lessons when she couldn't afford them. "I have something valuable," she said, her voice breaking, looking at Reichlin. At that moment, she wasn't talking about tap. But when the time came, so did the footwork.
Los Angeles Times
April 18, 2004
Opinion, Part M; Pg. 2
One Step Ahead;
By Howard Blume
When Leonard Reed choreographed a new routine, it was like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with an additional tablet of commandments.
It starts with a stomp-brush step, stomp-brush step, stomp-brush ball change, stomp-brush step. Then comes the Crossover, the Tack Annie and the Half Break -- all easy maneuvers, but also irresistibly showy.
The Shim Sham Shimmy is the national anthem of tap dancing, regularly performed at the end of tap shows, sometimes with audience members invited onstage to join in. And, in Southern California audiences, until he died early this month at the age of 97, you could often find Leonard Reed, the dancer credited with putting these four combinations of steps together as a signature, one-chorus show-ender.
There were a handful of others who claimed authorship of the Shim Sham, but Reed outlived them by decades, so no one quibbles. Many dancers have tinkered with the steps, but Reed's persistent annoyance was that people who were trying to do the thing right would frequently mistime the transition from the first combination to the second -- this despite an official training video Reed authorized.
That he didn't live to be 100 surprised everyone: Reed seemed so able to out-charm and outwit any challenge.
As a dancer, starting in 1922, Reed, who was light-skinned enough to pass as white, did double duty on the black and white performing circuits. But it was a dangerous business. Getting caught, especially in certain locales in the South, could have resulted in a lynching.
As a teenager, Reed once won an all-white dance contest by doing the Charleston, the only dance he knew at the time. The theater owner found him out when two black usherettes spilled Reed's secret. The proprietor planned to kick Reed out and deny him his prize money. Instead, Reed grabbed the cash and ran. The theater owner yelled: "Get him!" When people started after him, Reed pulled up his collar and took up the cry, continuing to run with the crowd until he could slip away.
The black vaudeville circuit, the Theater Owners Booking Assn., or TOBA, lived up to its nickname: "Tough on Black Artists." Performers like Reed scratched a living from town to town, all for less money and fame than their white counterparts.
Reed was actually half white, his half-black, half-Choctaw Cherokee Indian mother having been raped by a white man. But in that era -- and long after -- if a man was part black, he was all black.
Like much else in the United States, tap dancing offered a separate and unequal platform for white and black artists. Fred Astaire was justly celebrated but no more talented than contemporary John Bubbles, an originator of the complex, jazzy, low-to-the-floor rhythm tap. Astaire received seminal training from a teacher steeped in the technique and tricks of black tappers.
As for Reed, by 1929 he'd worked his way to Harlem, when it was home to the nation's premier art scene. He won a featured role in an all-black musical revue called "Deep Harlem," which moved to Broadway. The show traced black song and dance from its roots in Africa to modern America. White reviewers, however, had expected lighter fare, studded with stereotypes.
As historians Marshall and Jean Stearns noted in their book "Jazz Dance," "In 'Deep Harlem' they were swimming against the stream, for whites had a low opinion of African culture, and most Negroes had been taught to feel ashamed of it. The critics arrived expecting watermelons on the ol' plantation and were puzzled." The Sun newspaper called the show "too self-conscious ... too refined ... weighted down with a Message or whatever it was."
Savion Glover scored a 1995 hit with something of the same idea in "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." But Reed disliked Glover's in-your-face hip-hop fusion because it characterized the Nicholas Brothers -- Fayard and Harold -- and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as sellouts for their early crossover successes. Robinson couldn't get into mainstream films until he partnered with a white child, Shirley Temple, whom he also coached.
"I don't understand this stuff about being a sellout," Reed told me in 1998, when "Noise/Funk" opened in L.A. "Bill Robinson ... did what he had to do to make a living. Eventually he got to show the world how great he was."
"Noise/Funk," he added, seemed "to put down my era of clever, classic tap dancing." Glover's show was too much "stomping and screaming and drum-beating," he said. "Tap dancing is not supposed to be noisy."
In 1933, Reed stopped dancing and instead began producing shows that often featured Robinson or the Nicholas Brothers in places such as New York's Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club (for a white-only audience). He also produced many shows in Los Angeles.
"Robinson was awesome," remembered Reed. "A tap dancer who performed, a pure salesman. And the cleanest dancer I've ever known. He had more imitators than anybody."
As for the Nicholas Brothers, "the biggest hand they got is when they did the flips and splits," Reed said. "They were good tappers, but they found that the acrobatics stopped shows, and that's what show business is all about. No one in that era or this era is comparable to them."
Reed mentored many talents, including singer Dinah Washington. He wrote songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. He produced music by Marvin Gaye. He managed boxer Joe Louis' show-business career after Louis introduced himself to learn the name of Reed's tailor. A living history book and the sharpest person in the room, Reed was the last word, a go-to person for any journalist writing a tap-related article.
Reed settled for good in West Covina, keeping a small studio/office near Hollywood and Vine until after he turned 95.
He became a fixture at local tap events, treated with near reverence. He'd always dance a little, and also get laughs when he thrust his arms back in a comic simulation of a Nicholas Brothers back flip. And when called up from the audience to lead a Shim-Sham finale, he'd always intentionally miscount that one pesky transition -- so that he wouldn't confuse a stage full of dancers who'd learned it wrong.
About 10 years ago, he choreographed a second Shim-Sham chorus, and more recently he added a third. Such occasions were like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with an additional tablet of commandments. In his 90s, Reed always was thinking ahead to the next gig, writing music, planning shows, developing proteges.
I last called him in August for comments on the death at 57 of Gregory Hines, who had virtually grown up backstage at Reed's shows, where his drummer father was a frequent performer. He'd been looking forward to catching up with Hines at a dance gathering that weekend, where Reed would be teaching. Reed defined his own health as passable, except for the annoyance of his recently broken foot: "I can't even go out in the backyard and chip anymore. It's my left foot, and in golf that's the foot you brace against, you know."
Recognition for Reed and other black tap greats finally arrived, in part because of pioneering white women tappers, including Brenda Bufalino in New York and Southern California-based Lynn Dally and Linda Sohl-Donnell. They studied with the old men and helped popularize their work by bringing them back to the stage and helping to erase tap's racial divide. It has been the black tradition that fueled tap's modern resurgence, headlined by Hines and Glover.
You can expect to see the Shim Sham at Reed's memorial, scheduled for Saturday, April 24, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the City of Angels Church of Religious Science, 5550 Grosvenor Blvd. in Los Angeles. Be sure to bring your dance shoes.
It's a fitting, reconciling metaphor to see Reed's anthem performed by all races and all ages whenever tappers gather. Even if they do begin Step 2 on count 8, instead of count.
Howard Blume is a staff writer for LA Weekly and a tapper.
April 1, 2004
Ghosts of Tappers Past
By Howard Blume
Squeezed against the wall of a basement dance studio just off Wilshire Boulevard, I watched a run-through of Steve Zee's All in Good Time, his new one-man show, which just had a short sellout run this past weekend at Cal State Long Beach. Zee is always worth watching for his tap-dancing skills, but this show also paid homage to the legendary tappers he's worked with. I especially wanted to hear about Eddie Brown, to see how it looked when Zee danced like Brown and compare Zee's rendition to my own memories of Eddie, who spent his latter years in Los Angeles.
Of course, Zee had a take on Gregory Hines, who died last August at 57, near the height of his fame, just months after an exhilarating one-man song-and-dance tour that was fully intended to defy death. Because Hines knew he was dying of cancer even though few others did.
Zee demonstrated how Hines could hold an audience rapt by improvising something out of nothing — like incorporating invented tap steps into an imagined jaunt to a coffeehouse. Okay, Zee isn't Hines. But you got a feel for the Hines magic as Zee pounded out rhythms reminiscent of Hines' cheerfully magnetic style.
For the late Harold Nicholas, the younger of the famed Nicholas brothers, Zee recalled the time when an elderly Harold, too frail to dance, had to be carried from dressing room to stage — a painful contrast to the younger Harold, who could sing, dance, act, and also turn a flip, land in a split and pop back up in a second.
As Zee told it, the aged Harold retained to the end his sense of how something ought to be done. When he sang “'S Wonderful,” for instance, Nicholas remained in complete command, even directing the process by pointing at the musicians who were to solo at any given instant. (Older brother Fayard Nicholas, by the way, still lives in the Los Angeles area.)
Zee's own greatest mentor was Stan Kahn, a Bay Area tap master. As a teenager, Zee stepped over drunks in a urine-scented alley off Market Street, before reaching the mecca inside, the Embassy Theater studio run by Kahn's wife, Pat Mason. Kahn was so meticulous that he developed a famous shorthand notation for writing down steps. In one segment of the performance, Zee illustrated how the shorthand works.
What a contrast with Eddie Brown. As if Brown ever wrote down a step . . .
He'd invent combinations on the spot, and often forget them just as quickly. Yet he'd know instantly if you did something wrong, even when he couldn't remember exactly what the correct step had been.
Brown didn't show for Zee's first lesson in the mid-1980s. When Zee reached Brown by phone, Eddie said he'd be there in an hour. He didn't say anything about arriving sober. Zee followed Brown, who ‰ “bobbed and weaved” down the hall into a hellhole Hollywood Boulevard studio lit with bare light bulbs. The floor was composed of chipped, uneven parquet slabs.
“He puts on his shoes and I'm wondering how he's going to dance,” Zee recalled in his monologue. “But when he starts to go, he is the Eddie Brown I saw onstage the week before. I'd never seen anything like it. I'd never heard anything like it. It was not tap dancing. This guy was playing melodies with his feet.” Zee found that in a lesson with Brown, “There was very little teaching and very little conversation. I learned how to learn by watching and listening.” Then, Zee performed Eddie's trademark BS chorus.
There's more that Zee might have said about Brown, of course. About how Eddie lived in a thimble-size but painstakingly neat apartment and never paid more than five dollars for shoes on Hollywood Boulevard. About how he hated when people would mistake him for Sammy Davis. About how suave he looked in his blue polyester shirt with the white polka dots. About how his idea of restaurant heaven was Norms, though I once foolishly insisted on taking him to a sushi bar. About how an ordinary lady named Virginia Conti would collect the fee for Eddie's lessons, because Eddie didn't like asking for money himself.
Eddie Brown died in 1992. But some of Brown's students, including me, still gather every Saturday to re-create his routines and devise new ones as well.
In his performance, Zee remarked that, in a strange way, it's not young people who represent the future, but old people. There's something to that, I suppose, as long as someone's paying attention to the elders. At his best, Zee depicts how pain, loss and poverty are partly the soul of art — and of tap as well as its cousin jazz. And yet tap also is undeniably and indivisibly the sound of rhythmic joy and percussive laughter. For the moment, with Zee in that basement studio, it was enough for me to be transported fleetingly to the past.
October 17, 2003, Friday
Best Tap Dance Teacher: Alfred Desio
(For “Best of L.A.” 2003 edition)
By Howard Blume
If these pint-sized acolytes expect the master to reveal his secrets in spoken language, they are mistaken. Here, in his studio at the crest of a hill in the very center of Los Angeles, the master will utter not a single word today.
Parents of these first-time students watch -- perplexed -- from the outside, through plate glass. But inside, the stillness of dancer Alfred Desio is no problem for the 4- and 5-year-olds, who stand on the scarred maple floor, their feet clad in glaring patent leather and metal plates.
They will know what to do in this silence.
They will make noise.
Alfred Desio, 71, is among the finest practitioners of tap -- as an instructor, choreographer and performer -- that the dance form has to offer. He teaches all ages and all levels at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, which sits atop the downtown California Plaza next to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Desio could speak volumes about the tradition and technique of tap, but here, during this Saturday morning Pre-Tap class, he prefers show to tell.
Desio starts to stroll. He's moving with a certain cadence, a discernible repetition. Pairs of clattering feet do the same, following him as though he's the Pied Piper. He adds a brush. And so do they. Or a heel.
The music changes. He starts clapping, then stops after three counts. He starts and stops after three counts again. So do they.
For an hour, without words, he demonstrates the physical lexicon of an art that is all sound, though it's also the pulses of quiet between the sounds.
"I probably do it that way to not get too involved with describing things," says Desio, "but to try to sharpen a student's visual skills, to be able to look at something and duplicate it, or listen to something and duplicate it."
Later in the class, he spreads out string instruments, drums, castanets, blocks and keyboards, and lets the children discover musicality -- sometimes with him, sometimes with each other -- while an electronic drum machine cycles through audio patterns.
Desio collects rhythms and oddly related objects. Tap shoes in all sizes are scattered in and on cabinets, a free lending library of sole. Desio also amasses old taps in a box, just for his enjoyment, because you can't get the kind of tap that wraps around the side edge of the shoe anymore. And when did you last see a Morgan tap? At home, his shelves bulge with videos of old hoofers. In his backyard, he's collected street cats, whom he keeps distant from his rhythmic songbirds. And he's got slabs of parquet dance floor in his garage. He also keeps an old Pilates machine, which he uses to stay fitter than his students.
He works with children as young as three. Their parents participate as helpers and fellow learners. "Children, three and four, really are brilliant," he says. "They are open to learning social graces. They're not apt to pick up flaps and shuffles and formal tap combinations, but they bring to the class a very spontaneous energy and a personal kind of dance."
Desio was himself a prodigy in Geneva, New York. He's got a battered newspaper clipping, circa 1936, that displays a girlishly pretty sprite in bow tie, white shoes and long curls. "Someday, Alfred Desio may be widely known," goes the write-up, "and that, at the age of four, is his solemn ambition." The article notes too that at one performance, Desio stopped dancing, to demand that the applauding audience "be quiet" because "I can't hear the music."
Over time, Desio would go on to dance in the original Broadway productions of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha. His recent credits include a dancing/acting role in the German short film Two in Tails, co-starring dancer Sam Weber. Desio sometimes collaborates with his wife, dancer Louise Reichlin, who runs a well-regarded modern-dance company. But Desio's perpetual pet project is his Tap-Tronics, which allows him to play electronic instruments and compositions by tapping. He uses wireless transmitters in his shoes, one matched with each of his four taps. Desio allowed his system to be incorporated into the film Tap. In the film's fictional plot, the character played by Gregory Hines invents electronic tap and then uses it to reinvigorate tap dancing. That scenario never happened in real life, though Desio refines his equipment with relish and shows it off with aplomb at dance concerts.
More enduring perhaps is his technical attention to tap itself, and his skill at making an instrument of the unelectronic human feet. His method frequently relies on letting the foot hang loosely so its movement is driven by the rotation of the hip or the muscles of the thigh. "Your leg can control the motion of the foot and the design of the rhythm your taps make," he says, "similar to a drummer who, with a loose wrist, uses his arms and shoulders to control the motion of the wrist." A straightforward concept -- and maddeningly difficult to achieve.
But his teenagers can do it.
By this point, they've usually grown taller than Desio, who barely stands five feet and looks wispy enough to blow over, except when he's dancing. When Desio moves to music, all eyes draw magnetically to his lithe frame, which exudes strength, endurance and joyfulness.
Offstage, to his teens, he's transitioned from Pied Piper to purposeful tyrant. When they turn on that surly 14-year-old glare, he glowers right back. "I won't give them an inch," he says, especially if they want to join the Colburn Kids, who've performed in prestigious venues all over Southern California. "They say. 'I want to be in this group,' because it's a special group. I say, 'Of course I'll let you in. But if you want to stay in, you have to design yourself a little bit differently than you're currently designed.'
"To the girls, it's 'Knock it off with the bare midriff.' To the boys, it's 'No belts hanging off in front of your pants.' If I see a nose ring and multiple earrings, I'm going to comment on it, and say, 'Is this really how you see yourself developing?'"
You see, Desio is teaching more than dance: "I want to give them a semblance of maturity and reality. It's incredible the social peer-pressure junk that teenagers are faced with," he says with a sympathy he never reveals to them. He gives them extra training free of charge, but also insists on absolute precision. His frustrations over lax attitudes and imperfect results sometimes leak through in bursts of temper. Some students -- children and adults alike -- respond by storming off or they just leave for good, because they don't have to put up with this.
But not Nancy Brakensiek, a 56-year-old art collector, who both respects and avoids the master's lesser moods. "We know when not to say anything," she says, "because if you do, you're going to get yelled at." She marvels at the artistry he imparts and adds that, for the most part, Desio practices patience. 200 S. Grand Ave., downtown, (213) 621-2200.
August 14, 2003
A Great Soul of Tap Gregory Hines,
By Howard Blume
The essence of a live Gregory Hines performance was not his rich, sensuous baritone, his palpable charm or even his percussive, hard-driving tap improvisations. It was that moment when he turned up the house lights, looked out, and told people to take out their tap shoes, come up onstage and “show me what you got.”
And up they came — whether the gig was a Bakersfield arena or a glitzy performing-arts center. They'd been waiting to pull tap shoes out of purses and from under overcoats, whether they were sitting in $5 rows or $500 seats. Up they came like invited friends and equals — white-haired dames ready for walkers who'd really been something once, 5-year-olds with two lessons under their belts and young studs determined to take him down, to knock the king off the hill.
Cancer took down Gregory Hines last weekend at age 57, just months after local concerts where he displayed his range of skills as well as his trademark virtuosity and stamina.
The call-up portion of the show was essential Hines — welcoming, inclusive, bridging the gap between generations and talents and styles. Sometimes he put the studs in their place — forcefully but also graciously and inspirationally. Sometimes he pretended to collapse in grief or stalk off the stage in mock dismay.
“He was always interested in what you had to show him, and he'd be right up there saying, ‘I like that,' no matter what level or the complexity of the step,” recalls Paula Broussard, a writer who knew Hines for years. “And he was always interested in sharing.”
Hines became the biggest mainstream star who tapped since Gene Kelly or Sammy Davis Jr. As a boy, Hines idolized Davis — who'd been a child tap star of an earlier era — and tried to dance and even look like him. Hines turned pro at 5, dancing with his older brother Maurice; often their musician father would join them on drums.
“They were exciting,” remembers Leonard Reed, a 96-year-old tap impresario. Reed produced shows at New York City's famed Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, where the black tap masters tried to outdo each other in friendly competition on and off stage. “Gregory used to be at the Apollo every week watching somebody,” says Reed.
Tap was already nearly dying out as Hines was developing his own style. “He started to bend over, stomping louder with his feet and doing more taps,” says Reed. “He got more taps out of his feet.”
In the 1989 film Tap, Hines helped re-create a flavor of the masters he used to idolize at the Apollo. The film starred Hines but also featured surviving old-schoolers Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde and even Sammy Davis Jr., who all were, to some degree, replaying their own lives. “I saw the camaraderie,” says Francine Saperstein, Hines' longtime manager and friend. “I saw how the elder dancers were so generous with their steps and teaching. I saw Gregory carry that on. He took that torch.”
Hines served as a vital bridge to the funky, floor-smashing hoofers of today, headlined by Savion Glover, who considers Hines a mentor. It also was Hines who made the mainstream public most aware that tap was an art form of black Americans, whose stars never had a chance to achieve fame and prosperity during tap's golden age. Hines well knew that black tappers such as John Bubbles could have been as big as Fred Astaire.
Hines helped revive tap in part because his good looks, acting skills, wit and singing voice transcended hardcore hoofing. But it took time. In his 20s, he was virtually penniless and headlining a jazz-rock band in Venice, while also working in a guitar shop and waiting tables. For about five years, he said later, he didn't own a pair of tap shoes.
Later, as a celebrity, he'd patiently greet lines of well-wishers and autograph seekers who descended after a show. “He never said no,” says Saperstein, “he never turned anyone away.” As recently as March, Hines danced and sang through at least eight concerts, and he performed in Hawaii in April. But one friend, Carolyn Clarke, recalls how thin and tired he looked after one, a noticeable change in an artist who had always seemed so strong and ageless.
Hines had always been there, gratis, to teach master classes to all ages, genders and races. And to emcee tributes to older tappers. Who would have imagined that he would not live to be old?
Hines always said that he'd dance as long as he could. Despite rapidly failing health, he was scheduled to teach and perform at this week's Los Angeles Tap Festival. This Saturday's performance at the Hamilton High School auditorium is destined to become a celebration of his life. At some point, there's bound to be a jam session — to thank Hines and show him what they've got.
March 20, 2002
Dancing Through Life
By Howard Blume
In the end, Paul Kennedy -- a community force as a tap teacher and choreographer -- suffered the cruelest of fates for a hoofer: He lost his feet. That would be akin to taking the hands of Oscar Peterson, denying poetry to Shakespeare or stripping Martin Luther King Jr. of his pulpit.
Doctors sacrificed Kennedy's feet and then took much of his legs in attempts to save him. Kennedy finally succumbed March 16 at the age of 61 to an army of ailments, leaving a legacy of dancing feet all over the world, through students he trained across a lifetime, the last 20 years at the no-frills, no-nonsense Universal Dance Designs, the school he ran with his sister Arlene at the intersection of San Vicente and Olympic boulevards.
His students have tapped lead roles on Broadway; his troupe of teens amazed locals for years with their energy and technique. In 1998, ballet master Alicia Alonso invited the Kennedy Tap Dance Company to Cuba after it performed for her in Los Angeles. The trip marked the first time in at least 17 years that a group of American children traveled to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange; they were the only children to perform in a festival that included the Bolshoi Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble.
Kennedy could not go along. He missed other star turns as well because of dialysis that required eight-hour-a-day treatments, which he endured for six years. But you wouldn't know that, to see him teach or laugh; he embodied a cheerful robustness and vitality that defied medical reports.
"He never considered himself a sick man," said his brother Lenardo Bradic. "He would never use the word sick. He might say he felt a little weak on some days."
Besides, he was too busy sharing dance steps and dance history. It was typical Paul Kennedy on a day in 1992, when he graciously took charge of a loosely organized memorial to fellow tapper Eddie Brown at the Ebony Showcase Theater. Kennedy transformed instantly from fellow mourner to respectful master of ceremonies, overseeing an event that rightly displayed more taps than tears.
The old black tappers, such as Brown, noted Kennedy, "knew they were good. They got jobs, but they didn't get what they should have for being as good as they were."
The same would apply to Kennedy, who began as the proud protégé of his mother, Mildred Kennedy Bradic, who taught dance for more than 50 years. With his younger sister Arlene, Kennedy took over their mother's Boston studio in 1966. Twelve years later, Kennedy came to Hollywood to choreograph for Gladys Knight and the Pips, where he also staged other dancy Motown acts, including Marvin Gaye.
But tap dancing hasn't been a ä sound career choice for 50 years or so, and for nearly all black artists it never offered fame or financial security. Kennedy persisted because it was in his genes and his heart. "Instead of being the star, he is the star maker," said his brother Lenardo. "He was in the studio seven days a week."
His youngest charges were called the diaper crew, because they started literally in Pampers. Former student Derick Grant grew up to perform in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, eventually replacing Savion Glover in the lead role. "Since Derick could walk, Paul was shuffling Derick's feet," said Arlene Kennedy.
In the late 1990s, tap enjoyed a limited renaissance through Glover, a remarkable jazz-tap improvisator, who combines blistering speed, hard stomping and hip-hop attitude. Kennedy loved Glover's Noise/Funk, whose small cast included three former students. "I like the freeness and the soul-searching, the style and the improvisation," said Kennedy, while also expressing one caveat: "This is what they do, and there is a sense, a message, that this is what everybody should do from now on, and I don't agree with that part of it. I don't believe you can or should get away entirely from choreographed routines and show pieces."
After all, Kennedy's mother had directed students to make their arms "look just like the Nicholas Brothers'," the dance team that combined gymnastic athleticism with elegant styling. Kennedy took issue with Noise/Funk's portrayal of the Nicholas Brothers and the legendary Bill Robinson as sellouts: "They got to Hollywood on their talent."
Again, the same could be said of Kennedy, despite some disappointments -- he never got the musical that he co-wrote to Broadway and he could never quite make his renowned studio financially secure. A fund-raiser for the studio and dance company is being planned. Near the end, Kennedy was busily scribbling down a syllabus to guide future teachers and students. He planned to keep teaching, but he also understood that even without him, the show must go on.
April 8, 1998
'Da Noise By Howard Blume
Like most in the audience, I rose to my feet to applaud the virtuoso cast of Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. But I also was struck by a question: Just how new was this much-touted reinvention of tap dancing?
The answer: not as much as advertised, though it was well worth the ride.
At their most original, producer George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, 24, have echoed the rhythms and style of rap music and hip-hop in the feet, dress and in-your-face attitude of the dancers. It's a heart-pounding, sometimes breathtaking updating of the art form. It makes for great entertainment and will spur at least a temporary surge of interest in tap.
This show is also meaningful in another way: With the venue of a hit Broadway show, Glover and his dancers have mainstreamed jazz tap, the art of improvising tap percussion as you go.
At the same time, Noise/Funk serves up a compelling, disturbing dose of African-American history. But the show's take on tap itself, while also compelling, is less accurate, quietly dismissive of women tappers and unfair to certain black performers of the past.
In Wolfe and Glover's vision, tap originates as a uniquely soulful and African-American response to oppression. And that's pretty much where it remains for the show's two hours — from the depiction of a lynching to the futile efforts of four black men trying to hail a cab in New York City. It's no mean feat to make tap represent something other than "happy" in scene after scene, but Noise/Funk pulls it off (even without Glover, who's not in the L.A. cast).
The show also pays homage to black performers who were relegated to a Jim Crow–enforced obscurity — Jimmy Slyde, James "Buster" Brown, and the late Isaiah "Lon" Chaney and Chuck Green.
Noise/Funk falls short, however, in positioning tap as the intellectual creation and rightful historical property of black Americans alone. That's a forgivable sin in context, but less acceptable is the virtual exclusion of women dancers, who also made a contribution to the art and who have been overlooked here.
Perhaps even more troubling is the show's portrayal of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, who happened to achieve more Hollywood (i.e., Anglo) recognition than Glover's particular heroes.
At the opening of Act 2, Bill Robinson appears as Uncle Huck-A-Buck, who dances next to a giant rag doll named Lil' Dahlin', a send-up of Shirley Temple. "Who de hell cares if I acts de fool when I takes me a swim in my swimming pool," croons Huck-A-Buck.
Meanwhile, the Nicholas Brothers are re-created as Grin & Flash, tuxedoed shallows who distort rhythm tap into a showy but simplistic Hollywood perversion called "flash tap." It's powerful theater, and a just drubbing of Tinseltown, but it is not how these performers should be remembered.
After the performance, I thought back to conversations I had with Eddie Brown, a black rhythm tapper who died in 1992 after a lifetime of near poverty. Brown was every bit as shunned by show business as any of Glover's mentors. Yet Brown harbored no animosity toward "successful" black performers. Brown knew Bill Robinson, so he knew better.
So does tapper and choreographer Leonard Reed, 91, who produced shows for black and white audiences (usually separately) starring Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
"The cleanest dancer I've ever known," Reed says of Robinson, who made it to Hollywood only as an older man, after years of starring in live theater, on and off Broadway. "He had more imitators than anybody. And he wasn't a rich man. I don't understand this stuff about being a sellout." Reed, who is black, and others not only mention Robinson's skill, but also his generosity to other performers.
As for the Nicholas Brothers, "they got to Hollywood on their talent," says veteran tap instructor Paul Kennedy, whose alums include three Noise/Funk cast members. Kennedy loves the show, but, he adds, "No one told the Nicholas Brothers to grin and flash. Harold Nicholas should have been in the same roles as any leading man in Hollywood." Instead, he and his older brother Fayard had to settle for dance cameos — without a line of dialogue — in star vehicles for white performers.
Adds Reed, "The biggest hand they got is when they did the flips and splits. They were good tappers, but they found that the acrobatics stopped shows, and that's what show business is all about. No one in that era or this era is comparable to them."
(A hobbled but still spirited Fayard Nicholas attended the Los Angeles opening of Noise/Funk days after the death of his wife. Like an old pro, he refused to complain about the portrayal.)
The much-maligned style of "flash tap," by the way, was not some racist Hollywood confection, but a legitimate, difficult tap form that emphasized wings and fast dancing to up-tempo music. In its own way, it was great stuff. As is the modern, more subtle rhythm tap of locally based troupes such as Rhapsody in Taps and the Jazz Tap Ensemble, or the youthful exuberance of Al Desio's Colburn Kids Tap L.A.
Savion Glover's floor-pounding percussion has rightfully claimed its own place of honor. But contrary to the hype, Glover's style doesn't deserve to supplant performers of today or yesterday who may hoof to a different beat.
Associate news editor Blume is also a tap dancer and instructor.
Los Angeles Times
Feb. 3, 1989
Memory Comes Tapping Back for Obit Writer
by Howard Blume
I was working on an asbestos story one day recently when an editor's message beeped into my computer terminal:
I think we may need an obit on dance teacher etc. Ted Howard. Can you please see if library has anything in files on him?
I checked. The Times library found nothing. Howard appeared in no reference book or dance publication the librarian could find. And The Times had never set this man's name in type.
I made a hasty check of available dance professionals. They didn't know the old tap dancer. Nor would Howard's personal files, untouched since his long illness, assist my attempt to measure the man. Howard's friend and landlord said the lanky, Canadian-born dancer penciled in only the first names of students. Thus, his friend couldn't contact them about the funeral, and I couldn't ask them about Howard.
Realistically, I had to forget about writing anything on him--except for one thing.
I remembered Ted Howard. One of the man's untraceable students was I.
On a trip to Los Angeles, at least 10 years ago, I took a series of classes with Howard, then nearing 70 years old. The memory of that brief contact rushed back as I listened to his friend, Barbara Perry.
Perry had called The Times about Howard's death, saying there was more to him than a paid death notice could impart. He deserved to be remembered, she said, echoing the sentiment of anyone who has lost someone they care about.
Perry, with her mother, had owned one of Hollywood's most important dance studios and rehearsal halls in years past. People like Jimmy Cagney and Agnes DeMille rehearsed or taught there. Ted Howard, she said, had managed Perry's studios and taught tap there for about 25 years.
"That was his entire life. He taught all day long," she said, describing someone who elected to train stars, not be one.
"He wouldn't go on auditions to Broadway shows. He preferred the safety of the rehearsal hall."
Still, she emphasized, "he was a beautiful, gorgeous dancer." She recalled when members of the visiting Kirov Ballet, rehearsing at Perry's, would pause outside Howard's studio to watch him dance and teach.
Years later, during my lessons, I remembered Howard laughing as he talked of going to movie studios and letting directors film him dancing--from the waist down. The film editors would then intersperse shots of his feet with takes of the lead actor's face. No moviegoers need ever know. And it wouldn't be Howard's light feet that made their imprint in the Chinese Theatre's cement.
It's a story Howard would not have remembered himself these last few years. For not long after that lesson series, Alzheimer's disease began its death crawl over his mind.
Howard stopped teaching. A new generation of students learned elsewhere. And even his many friends either lost track of him or stopped visiting when he evidenced no memory of them. The tangible recollections also disintegrated. The site of Perry's Studios is now a parking lot at the Hollywood Holiday Inn.
But some remember.
Ralph Hadsell, who owns Capezio's in Hollywood, recalls Howard's special-order tap shoes. The finest black character oxfords with maple heels and Morgan taps.
Actress Meg Wilson remembers that Howard played the vaudeville circuit in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas with a partner named Larry before settling on teaching. "Ted and Larry had one of the most spectacular acts," she said, "lots of taps, flips, splits and slides, extremely high kicks. His style was ballet-style actually, with close floor taps."
As an instructor, Wilson said, "I can't believe what a generous, giving person he was. He'd help you with a step. He'd give you a routine. You never could quite pay him back. He didn't want anything."
A man who lived and worked near the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, Howard never stepped across his own name.
There would be no star for Ted Howard. And no headlines. But I remembered him. Picking up the paper, I turned to the death notices--to read the names I didn't recognize.
Blume recently completed an internship with The Times.