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.”

DANCIN’ IN THE STREETS

        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.

HE MADE BUTTERFLIES LOOK CLUMSY

          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.

COLES & ATKINS
        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.”

REFERENCES:

■ “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: http://www.folkloreproject.org/folkarts/resources/documentaries/plenty/plenty.php

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge: http://www.phillytapchallenge.com/  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”:

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