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 “BABY EDWARDS” HUNT
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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AT THE APOLLO
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.
SPIC AND SPAN
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: 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 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: