Philly on Tap: Part II

July 30, 2012

Baby Edwards – of all the girl dancers . . . she’s the best I’ve seen. But she didn’t get the breaks . . .  Shirley Temple’s good. But she wasn’t as good as Edith. I’m not talking that for color. I’m talking about what I see.

– John Hart

        There are so many African American women dancers who never got the recognition they deserved: Cora La Redd, Harriet Browne, Ludie Jones, Tina Pratt, Lois Miller, Juanita Pitts, Alice Whitman, Libby Spencer, Edwina Evelyn, Mildred Thorpe, Louise Madison, Jeni LeGon and Philadelphia’s Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt. The list could go on and on. These women competed in the traditionally male world of tap and challenged the conventions of what it meant to be a woman dancer.


        Edith Edwards, left, was born the youngest of seven children in South Philadelphia in 1922. She always gave credit to her brother Harry who taught her and other neighborhood kids to tap dance in their kitchen. “I danced more like a boy,” Edith said about her training. By the time she was 3, she was performing as “Baby Edwards,” winning amateur kiddie contests at places like the Standard Theatre on South St. and the Gibson on Broad St. She’d be the first black performer to dance on the Sunday morning “Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour” radio show. She became a regular performer there, singing and dancing on the show for about five years. Below is a photo of performers from the Horn and Hardart Show from 1934. Baby is in the second row from the top, second from the left, the only African-American in a sea of white faces. The photo is from the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

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        It was hard to make it as a solo tap act, but even harder if you were African American and a woman. Despite that, in the ‘30s, Edith performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, above, sharing a stage with Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. She’d do a song and dance solo in front of the chorus. In 1939 she performed on Broadway in  Swingin’ the Dream,  a jitterbug and swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


        In the ‘40s  she teamed up with Willie “Span” Joseph to form an act they called Spic and Span. The duo toured the African American club and theatre circuit and did USO shows in Europe. They’d perform an energetic series of flash and rhythm steps, usually including her specialty – dropping into a front split as Willie did a side or “straddle” split in the air over her, right.

         By the 1960s, “Baby” had largely retired, taking care of her mother in Philadelphia and teaching tap through the Philadelphia Recreation Department. In 1995 she was one of the featured performers in Stepping in Time,  a celebration of the long tradition of Philadelphia African American performers at the Arts Bank on south Broad Street. Edith died in 2000, at the age of 78.

        Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt has been described as a truly charismatic performer. She was a great tap dancer, but it was said that she simply had to appear to get applause; audiences just loved her.


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here:

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge:  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a short clip of “Baby” performing. The clip is undated, but it’s probably at “Stepping in Time” in Philadelphia, in 1995, when she was 73:

Philly on Tap: Part I

July 19, 2012

Did they just do it faster in Philly? To be sure, there is an impressive short list of tap dancers hailed as having “the fastest feet in the business” who had come from Philadelphia. They include Honi Coles, Earl “Groundhog” Basie, Teddy Hale, Charlie Rice, Henry Meadows, LaVaughn Robinson, Steve Condos and the Condos Brothers, the Clark Brothers and (if you count their five-year residency in Philly when their parents directed the pit orchestra band at the Standard Theatre) the Nicholas Brothers.

 – Constance Vallis Hill, from “Tap Dancing in America.”


        No city in America could beat Philly for tap dancing talent in the 1920s and ’30s. It seemed that every street corner along South St. and in South Philly was alive with rhythm. Dancers would show off their tap skills trying to outdo each other with “over-the-tops,”” barrel turns” and “wings” on street corners for an appreciative audience that would shower them with money. Everyone staked out and fought for their own spaces, the best dancers claiming the corners nearest to Broad St. Local black tappers could find plent of inspiration on the stages of Philadelphia’s venues for African-Americans: the Standard Theatre (right) at 1124 South St. and the Royal at 1524 South St., or the Gibson at Lombard and Broad Sts. Philadelphia would generously send out all that talent to fill the stages of New York and to light up the silver screen in Hollywood.

         It would be easy to devote an entire blog to the incredible array of tap dancers that Philadelphia gave birth to in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll write about more of them over the next few weeks, but this post is devoted to Charles “Honi” Coles.


          Charles “Honi” Coles (left), was born in Philadelphia on April 2, 1911, the son of George and Isabel Coles. It was on the music-filled streets of Philadelphia that he learned to tap dance. He was also influenced by performers he saw on Philly stages, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. In 1931, at age 20, he’d leave for New York, performing there as one of the Three Millers. When he discovered his partners had replaced him, he returned to Philadelphia for a while to hone his technique, practicing for long  hours to add speed and complexity to his steps. He returned to New York in 1934, and at the Apollo Theatre and the Harlem Opera House, he gained a reputation for being one of the fast tappers in the business. At 6’2”, he was tall, lanky, precise and elegant.

        He then toured the country with the best  ‘30s big bands like those of Count Basie, Cab Calloway  and Duke Ellington. While with Calloway, he met and partnered with Charles “Cholly” Atkins. They’d perform everything from exquisitely slow soft shoe to precision high-speed tapping, (right). Through the 1940s, they appeared with almost every band in America, as well as on the Broadway stage. Their partnership would last 19 years.

         In the 1950s, even as tap was declining in popularity, Honi Coles opened a dance studio in  New York. He survived by working as a stage manager at the Apollo Theatre and also served as president of the Negro Actors Guild. In the 1970s, when America was rediscovering tap, Coles would help lead that revival, partnering with tap exponent Brenda Bufalino, (below). He’d go on to teach master classes at Yale, Cornell and Duke Universites. In the ’70s and ’80s, he’d appear on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” impersonating the legendary Bert Williams and in “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune and Twiggy.

         In 1988, Charles “Honi” Coles was given the Capezio Award for lifetime achievement and in 1991, a year before he died, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 2003,  he was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame.

It was Lena Horne who said of Coles: “Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire.”


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here:

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge:  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a 1949 clip of Coles and Atkins about the time they were performing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”:

Her step so light–her brow so fair,
She boundeth like a thing of air;–
Or fairy in her wanton play,–
Or naiad on the moonlight spray.
Like gossamer on wings of light,
She floats before our tranced sight.
Let’s gaze no more–nor speak–nor stir–
Lest we fall down and worship her.

Memoir of Fanny Elssler, 1840

In the late 1830s, all of Europe was caught up in the intense rivalry between two star ballerinas, Swedish born Marie Taglioniand the Austrian, Fanny Elssler. Taglioni, left, embodied the early romantic balletic ideal of the ethereal, spiritual and sylph-like female, while Elssler was fiery, earthy and sexy.  If Taglioni became associated with La Sylphide, Elssler took as her signature dance the exotic Spanish cachucha, which she executed with spirit and attack, below, right. Even from these romantic-era lithographs, it’s easy to see the difference in temperament and style of the two. This period was the beginning of the nineteenth century “cult of the ballerina”  when male dancers were relegated to character roles and female dancers were idolized.  It was not unusual for ballet  stages to be so strewn with flowers and bouquets by audiences that dancers could scarcely proceed.

By 1838, Philadelphia newspapers, keen to keep up with European gossip,  avidly reported on the state of the Taglioni-Elssler rivalry.  Incidents at theatres reached a fevered pitch which would be shocking today. For instance, when Elssler appeared for the first time at the Paris Opéra as Ondine, la Fille du Danube, The Philadelphia National Gazette reported:

“At length, when the Elsslerites were so bold as to call for an encore in the last act, the Taglionites rose in a body, and poured in a volley of hisses . . .  the claquers of her (Elssler’s) party pummelled without mercy some of the refractory of the opposite party, and the police coming to their aid, the most prominent unfortunate Taglionites were hauled out of the pit by main force. Fanny Elssler remains mistress of the field, or rather of the flood, and she is now the Daughter of the Danube.”

When Stephen Price, the manager of the Park Theatre in New York decided it might be good business to take advantage of all this media attention and engage Elssler to perform in the U.S., he enlisted the aid of Henry Wikoff, left, a Philadelphian who was living in Paris at the time. Wikoff has been called, at times, a gossip, a globe-trotting rogue and a philanderer. Wikoff was, however,  able to make the dancer’s acquaintance and talked Elssler into signing a contract. When Price’s partner at the Park Theatre decided not to honor the contract, Wikoff stepped in and took over the role of impresario, bringing her to America himself.

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When she arrived in New York, on May 3, 1840, the anti-Elssler forces were already at work. The French had assured her that she would not be received well here. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers were often seen as “loose women” at this time, not much better than actresses or chorus girls. The fact that Wikoff and Elssler had adjoining rooms when travelling scandalized Philadelphia matrons staying at their Coney Island hotel.  All the gossip and the efforts of the anti-Elssler faction were a dismal failure, however; the Park Theater in New York where she performed sold out every night.

In June, she moved on to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Street, above. The French diplomat the Chevalier de Bacourt, who was passing through Philadelphia at the time, complained about the railroads, the rudeness of servants here and the uncomfortableness of the hotels, but had this memory of Fanny:

“All Philadelphia was astir to see Fanny Elssler, who danced this evening. She is staying at the same hotel as me. I was very much pleased with her dancing, but what amused me as much was to see the hall crowded, and to hear the furious applause, far exceeding London or Paris, and that applause at Philadelphia, the chief city of the Quakers–Quakers wildly excited over the dancer Fanny elssler. The theater is neither large nor well arranged; on the first row were many very pretty women, all young, and dressed so exactly alike, that one would have taken them for sisters had there not been so many of them.”

The National Gazette proclaimed: “Every dance was encored and she was twice called for to receive bouquets and wreaths by the bushel.” Just as would happen in Baltimore, below, after the performance, cheering Philadelphia dandies unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it themselves back to the City Hotel on 3rd Street. The North American, just short of calling them asses, quipped: “The two legged donkeys engaged in this enterprise were, we hope, well fed and curried after their laborious duties were performed.”

For her 10 performances in Philadelphia that summer, Elssler received $6,386. This was at a time when most laborers earned about $3 a week!

* * *


Elssler had come to America with her dancing partner and ballet master, James Sylvain. They had difficult finding adequate stages, orchestras and corps de ballet to work with in the U.S. While in Philadelphia, they hired and trained both Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, right. Both of them would accompany Elssler and Sylvain on their American tour and both would become important dancers in their own right.

Elssler would return to Philadelphia a few times. Her six month leave of absence from the Paris Opéra extended into a two year tour of America and Cuba. She would not return to Paris until July of 1842, having earned an astounding $100,000 in the U.S.

Fanny was more than just the first European superstar, dance or otherwise, to enthrall the American public. Her impact on the popularity of romantic ballet in America was phenomenal, directly inspiring Philadelphia dancers Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, who later formed their own successful touring company. Lee retired at 24, but Smith would have a long career and later founded one of the first classical ballet schools in Philadelphia. In 1858, he paid a great tribute to the divine Austrian ballerina by naming his daughter, Fanny Elssler Smith, after her.

■ Below is a video of Yulia Makhalina dancing a reconstruction of Fanny Elssler’s Cachucha at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I think Makhalina beautifully captured the energy, precision and spirit of Elssler’s dancing:

* * *

Between 1710 and 1776, at least 27 dance masters taught, hosted balls  and performed here in Philadelphia. That’s a good number for a city where Quaker objections to frivolous amusements still had an effect on both legislation and social life.  In the early party of the 18th century, most of these dance masters came from England or English-dominated Ireland. Some were schoolteachers who boarded pupils, some were down on their luck gentlemen who came to America for the economic opportunities that England couldn’t afford them, and some were skilled professional dancers who had performed all over Europe.

* * *


One of the first recorded dance masters in Philadelphia was George Brownell, who was probably one of the first in the American colonies as well. Born in London, he appeared in Charleston, South Carolina in 1703. By 1712, he was running a boarding school in Boston with his wife, where they taught “Writing, Cyphering, Dancing, Treble Violin, Flute, Spinnet &c. Also English and French Quilting, Imbroidery, Florishing, Plain Work, marking in several sorts of Stiches and several other works, where Scholars may board.” His most illustrious boarder, it would turn out, was our own Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalled:

“My father . . . sent me to a school for writing and arithmetic, kept by a then famous man, George Brownell, very successful in his profession generally, and that by mild, encouraging  methods. Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon,, but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.”

In 1728, just about the time Franklin was beginning to establish himself as a printer here, Brownell and his wife began teaching in Philadelphia at a school room on Second Street near Chestnut, see map, left, where about a half dozen successive Philadelphia dance masters would eventually teach. The 1930s WPA U.S. Custom House stands there today. In this small city of about 10,000, did Franklin know of  and perhaps visit his old school master?

The Brownells taught there three years, then, in April of 1731, announced that they were leaving for New York. They stayed there a few years, went back to Boston for a short time, then sold their Boston house and returned to Philadelphia in 1736. They remained here until Mrs. Brownell died in 1738 and  George left Philadelphia for good. From the mid-1740s he taught in Charleston, until his death in 1750. An interesting part of his legacy in Charleston was his having taught an African-American carpenter named Noko to play the violin.

Brownell’s constant moving among the largest American cities; Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, every few years was not at all unusual for early American dance masters. Many Philadelphia masters  taught in the city during the winter, then made the rounds of smaller, rural towns in the summer. They’d rent spaces in schoolhouses, as the Brownells did, or Masonic lodge halls, more easily done if they were Masons themselves. Women are less often  mentioned as dance teachers in the 18th century, but it is likely that Mrs. Brownell also taught dancing and music as well as needlework. The fact that Brownell, who was primarily an educator, included dancing in his curriculum in each city shows what an integral part dancing was to a genteel 18th century education.

* * *


In 1738, Robert Bolton, who had settled in Philadelphia in 1718,  occupied Brownell’s old schoolroom.  He gave dancing classes for children and adults and hosted balls, assemblies and concerts there. The diary of Bolton’s wife, the widow Ann Curtis Clay, gives us a rare look into the life of an early Philadelphia dance master and helps explain to us why some English and Irish immigrants turned to dance teaching:

“Robert Bolton was born in the same year that my husband, Mr. Robert Clay, was (that is, in 1688), in Yorkshire, of religious and godly parents. His father dying young, left his son Robert and only one daughter, named Ann, to the care of his wife, who was a woman of exemplary piety and prudence; so she carefully educated her two children in all manner of ingenious and skilful learning and knowledge; but much more careful she was in teaching and having them taught and brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

Bolton was apprenticed to a rich relative who taught him his business. Unfortunately, he became ill with a lingering consumption and at the age of 21 his physicians concluded that he was beyond recovery. He was at the point of death for almost a year. He was then advised to go to Ireland, when, after a few months some he showed some signs of recovery.

He lived in Dublin for a while and recovered his health in that city “through the kindness of friends, the skill of his physicians and the blessings of God.” But his long illness had drained his family’s purse and the future looked bleak. This situation drove him into a melancholy, which was perceived by a grave old gentleman, a dancing-master, who offered to teach him the art of dancing. This offer was accepted and “besides this, he learned the art of embroidery in gold and silver, for which he was beholden to his own sister.”

Sickly all his life, Robert Bolton struggled to provide for his family.  When his attempts at business in Philadelphia failed, he turned to the skills his genteel education had given him and resorted to teaching dance. From  newspaper articles like those above, it seemed like the community was ready to support him. Soon after he opened his school, however, he became involved with the evangelical Rev. George Whitefield who preached here in Philadelphia against the evils of cursing, drinking and dancing; see illustration, right. In a highly publicized event, Whitefield’s followers shut up the dancing and concert room, claiming they had “saved” sinful Philadelphia.  It was later revealed that, in fact,  the room had simply been re-opened the next day. Bolton himself, however, was converted to the gospel by Whitefield and gave up “retailing amusements,” so even his dance teaching career was now cut short by his religious convictions. Robert Bolton closed his school and died impoverished in Philadelphia in 1742 at the age of 54.

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