Can You Hear Us Now?

Sali Ann Kriegsman

Good afternoon and please join me in giving a huge round of applause to Lynn Dally who, with Gayle Hooks’ invaluable assistance, made this landmark gathering possible — and to all who’ve pitched in. I’m deeply honored to lead things off. I’m humbled by the amazing women who have come here to strengthen our commitments and share our passion, our work, and our knowledge.  In doing so, we are forging new paths for the future — paths that pay homage to the extraordinary legacies of our predecessors and those still among us. We honor the foundations of this great American art by carrying it forward with respect, with love, with the attention that must be paid.

I’ve had the good luck to serve in many different capacities in the dance field — and especially in recent decades in the tap community — as writer, critic, advocate, funder, presenter, producer, archivist and administrator. In a way my path, which has taken many turns and required me to learn new steps, has been emblematic of Women in Tap and that is what I would like, with your indulgence, to focus my remarks on today. My views are those of a generalist and a witness, and I am so looking forward to listening to the diverse perspectives of the tap scholars and practitioners who have come here.

When Lynn first invited me to speak, I began thinking of all the ways in which women have contributed, are contributing, to the art and practice of tap. They are manifold. Women have been IN tap since at least the early days of the last century and likely earlier; I am eager to hear our eminent tap scholars Constance Valis Hill and Ann Kilkelly expand our knowledge of women and issues in tap that have only recently begun to be deeply explored.

When I say “Women in Tap,” I mean in every possible way:  as dancers and choreographers, as teachers and mentors, producers and presenters, writers and critics, scholars and historians, preservationists, documentary makers, photographers, publicists, agents, organizers, managers, company founders and directors, grant writers, funders, supporters, advocates — and let us not forget, as mothers, daughters, sisters, spouses, partners and caregivers. Often one woman may in fact be and do all of these things in her lifetime. We’re talking about multi-tasking BIG time.

I began compiling of list of women in tap for this occasion. I’m going to name these women alphabetically in three groupings during my talk. There are more than 100 names so far, going back to the early part of the 20th Century and including the participants here today. I’ll call out their names, and invite you when we take questions and responses to add others I’ve missed. I feel naming them is an important first step in the 21st Century in acknowledging our debt and our pride, and beginning a process of learning more about each of them.

I’ll start off reading names from A to G: Debbie Allen, Chloe Arnold, Sharon Arslanian, Adele Astaire, Julia Boynton, Terry Brock, Harriet Browne, Brenda Bufalino, Roxanne Butterfly, Sandra Burton, Harriet Butcher, Ayodele Casel, Linda Christensen, Marion Coles,  Lorraine Condos, Gail Conrad, Jan Corbett, Heather Cornell, Carole Davis, Mura Dehn, Michelle Dorrance, Barbara Duffy, Edith “Baby” Edwards, Yvonne Edwards, Vera Ellen, Lynn Dally, Nicola Daval, Mercedes Ellington, Lynn Faule Emery, Carolyn Evans, Anita Feldman, Rusty Frank, Mari Fujibayashi, Judy Garland, Nadine George-Graves, Yvette Glover, Jane Goldberg, Thelma Goldberg, Susan Goldbetter, Rhoda Grauer, and Acia Gray.

I was awakened to tap’s greatness as an original American art in my middle career as a dance historian and critic. As a late convert, I had the impossibly good fortune to come of age as a tap enthusiast through the missionary work of a generation of women tap artists, writers and bridge builders — chief among them, Jane Goldberg, Brenda Bufalino, Lynn Dally, Camden Richman, Dianne Walker and Sally Sommer. They were preceded by a woman named Letitia Jay, who in 1968 and 1969 produced a landmark series of tap happenings in small venues in Manhattan, that brought back to public view some of the great hoofers. Letitia Jay must be remembered by us as a key figure in tap’s revival.

In 1978, Jane Goldberg brought an delightful, intimate tap show she  called “Shoot Me While I’m Happy” to Liz Lerman’s first modern dance studio in Washington, DC. featuring Leslie “Bubba” Gaines and Charles “Cookie” Cook. When Jane turned up in my backyard with these wonderful seasoned performers, I was smitten. And it was no flighty crush; I fell in love for life. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I fell in life for love. I was mortified to learn that one of the greatest jazz tap artists of them all — Baby Laurence — had been performing and living just up the road in Baltimore, but I had never heard of him.  Jane made the vinyl audio record of Baby — still hair raising to listen to today — available at her now legendary “By Word of Foot” gatherings in the early 1980’s in New York City.

Part of what drew me to tap was the revelation that there were still a handful — perhaps more — of veteran tap masters (those that I knew about at that point were men, and most of them were African-American) — dancers who had been weaned on vaudeville and variety and tours with the big jazz orchestras. They were griots of a magnificent storehouse of percussive rhythms and musics through which they told deep stories — serious and witty, intensely musical, authentic and inimitable, and ineffably moving. And they were eager to share their art, the wisdom in their feet, and their joy in this great forged-in-America entertainment.

I use the word “entertainment” carefully because it was through my exposure to tap artists that I became obsessed with the false and pejorative dichotomy that has been at the root of so much misunderstanding between the so-called “serious arts” and popular entertainment.  Talking with Marda Kirn recently about how these distinctions have muddied our understandings of art and entertainment, she offered this penetrating insight (and I quote Marda with gratitude): “Art and entertainment are often juxtaposed as two distinctly different entities. At their extremes, entertainment helps us to forget; art helps us to remember. Entertainment helps us to lose ourselves; art helps us to find ourselves or what was lost. At their best, each contains both. Great art is also entertaining; great entertainment is also art.”

The art of these tap masters indeed helped us to find ourselves and what was lost; and it was also great entertainment. I wanted to awaken the public and my colleagues in the concert dance field to the art of rhythm tap, as exemplified by the masters who were largely African-American and male and who had been bypassed in written histories and in history writ large. It seemed to me they were caught in the impossible bind of having their art form be deemed outmoded, or at best a nostalgic throwback, and also, within the African-American social and political context of the times, being tainted with an “Uncle Tom” label.

I was reminded that every revolution has unintended victims, those who are left on the curb, and this seemed to be their fate. (Negative connotations of tap dance continue to this day in other contexts: how many times have you have heard or read that a public figure is “tap dancing” around an issue?  The implication is that she or he is not being honest, or is trying to avoid responsibility.) I recognized during the seventies and eighties, that it was a generation of women dancers, choreographers, presenters and dance sleuths and writers, who had brought these elders back into the public eye.

The seventies and eighties were also decades of intense scientific and cultural research in the concert dance world.  The one I was most familiar and involved with — the “post-modern” world following the Judson explosion of the sixties — was one in which aspects of performance, pedestrian movement, culture and political and social change were being investigated by “modern” dancers who were stripping away theatrical elements and exploring and breaking down the essence of movement and the liberating processes of improvisation. There were major shifts in popular tastes, and a fabled dance boom (within the precincts of concert dance.)

Nostalgia for old forms and works was peaking alongside an acceleration of innovation and creativity. The currents and countercurrents were swift and tap was swept up in them. Modern dancers were borrowing from popular entertainment, and tap was resurfacing and being transplanted from whatever was left of commercial venues to the concert stage.  Arts presenters (a new term for impresarios) across the country began to program tap along with modern and ballet and perhaps a smattering of staged ethnic forms and the newly flowering art of performance. There was support from the National Endowment for the Arts and other public agencies. The cachet of presenting tap in high culture venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music was another milestone. Back then, in the seventies and early eighties, we were still experiencing aftershocks of the social consciousness revolutions — Women’s liberation and Gay rights, the rise of Black Power in the wake of the tragically aborted journeys of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the Peace movement — and also the desire to find new possibilities in the old and to make visible the invisible. Access to anything and everything was encouraged. It was a raucously democratic time. Nothing was off-limits. Appropriation, borrowing, and exploring the possibilities of innovation within traditional forms were exciting new frontiers for artists. People with various physical disabilities were beginning to claim their rights to equal opportunity and access, and their “handicaps” were becoming sources of inspiration and research for dancers looking to explore our human potential and break down presumed limitations.

I had drunk a heady potion by falling in love with this older generation of tap masters from whom I learned not only about dance but about life. I was determined to try to extend the life and creative potential of this great art and the contributions of these masters. I believed that tap’s past flowering was no fluke of cultural history but rather a prelude to its future. I was drawn into the circle of the tap world and embraced by a family of tap dancers. For that I shall always be grateful.

All of this is mere background to my focus on tap over the past almost 30 years. From various perches, I have been able to see its astonishing rebirth through the efforts of many of the women and some of the men who are with us this weekend.

I want to say a word or two about the first tap festival in Colorado, the one Marda Kirn and I co-produced in 1986. When Gregory Hines called out from the all-male stage “Where are the women? Get your shoes and come on up,” it challenged not only the women but the two of us. But the buck stopped with me, for I was mostly responsible for those choices and I was committed to showcasing the elders we brought out there. Gregory was their heir and a star who would galvanize public awareness.

These men were part of a generation bypassed and brought back and onto the concert stage largely through a generation of younger women who studied with them, got them to teach and pass along their steps, stories, experiences. Their contributions needed to be heard and seen and recorded and shared. Danced from a storehouse of life and performance experience, they were wise and witty and deep. And these survivors were concerned that their tradition not die out because young children, especially African-American children, weren’t into tap, and there was little or no work anyway for tap dancers.

The necessity of peeling back the mask and make-up of embedded racism to see what was authentic behind it, to really listen to the rhythms and sounds … was so compelling. It was what got all of us hooked.

The women dancers of tap’s heyday in the 1930’s and 40’s, were largely out of sight and their histories were not known. Many were tending to households, children, aging parents. The jazz and tap film collector, Ernie Smith, looked in vain for films of the women dancers he had read or heard about and found very little, except for Jeni LeGon, most likely film clips that had been preserved because she danced with Bill Robinson. Ernie had been told that the women knew all the steps and flash moves the men were doing, and some could do them as well or better than the men. But the film clips that he shared were of necessity at the time, overwhelmingly of men. This omission reinforces what Nadine George-Graves in her study of the Whitman Sisters calls “institutionalized silencing” of the Whitman Sisters and other black women.

Well I, too, was guilty as charged, of omission, and it was partly due to the fact that the women’s contributions had not been documented, preserved and passed along. (It’s only in the past several years that we’ve had several documentaries made about the women from those vintage years.)

I was also overwhelmed by the artistic mettle of the surviving men, which, through decades of polishing their craft and styles on the boards of show business, had been honed to perfection. Their dancing was shaped by the duress of the times they lived in, the knocks they endured, by hot competition, by the need to innovate and surpass, and by their uncompromising standards of excellence. The women who sought them out and brought them back into public view: Letitia Jay, Brenda Bufalino, Linda Sohl-Ellison, Jane Goldberg, Lynn Dally, Dianne Walker, Pamela Raff and Joan Hill, put their own “agency” in service to these elders.

Continuing with the next alphabetical batch of Women in Tap, letters H through P: Constance Valis Hill, Jeannie Hill, Joan Hill, Pamela Koslow Hines, Gayle Hooks, Melba Huber, Germaine Ingram, Delilah Jackson, Letitia Jay, Doris Jones, Ruby Keeler, Arlene Kennedy, Ann Kilkelly, Marda Kirn, Deborah Kodish, Kathy Kramer, Renee Kreithen, Sharon Leahy, Mable Lee, Jeni LeGon, Michaela Marino Lerman, Toni Lombre, Andrea Levine, Billy Mahoney, Jacqui Malone, Ann Miller, Marilyn Miller, Florence Mills, Deborah Mitchell, Margaret Morrison, “Cobi” Nabuko Narita, Frances Nealy, Miriam Nelson, Nancy Newell, Madeleine Nichols, Shelly Oliver, Drika Overton, Leela Petronio, Sarah Petronio, Juanita Pitts, Delno Polk Bailey, Eleanor Powell, Jane Powell, and Tina Pratt.

Lynn Dally and her contemporaries are true tap warriors.  They must be acknowledged for their creative and organizational contributions, for their teaching and choreography and performing — as well as for nurturing and providing the foundations of what we are here to witness.

We have with us here today, at least four and perhaps five or even six generations of women IN tap, including some of the most brilliant young dancers the world has ever seen. The Whitman Sisters were among the earliest women tap artists to break down walls and barriers and assert their artistic and human rights. You young dancers and tap workers here today are the beneficiaries of downed barriers and rich legacies from your elders and it is now incumbent on you to honor those who have paved your way by empowering tap’s future. You must decide what you have to add that matters, for we are living in a world in which there is a lot of noise and information to cut through.

Think about what it is you have to say that deserves to be heard above the fray. What do you as a human, as a woman, need and want to contribute? What you have to say will ripen and deepen as you grow older.  You can be technically brilliant but there is more to being an artist. We see it in the older dancers. Most ballet and modern dancers mature artistically just when their bodies begin to give out. Tap dancers can look forward to a long dancing life, one that will become more about your interior life than your outward flash.

I’m looking forward to our conversations over the next few days, to listening and learning from many views and perspectives, to challenging ourselves in new ways and strengthening our bonds. To that end, permit me to pose a few questions and challenges: Are we, as women, still judging ourselves and each other (as well as being judged by our mothers and fathers and the men in our lives) by how we dress — in skirts or trousers, in high heels or low, by how much we weigh, by our age, how loudly or softly we speak, by all the other measures — questions that men somehow are immune to?  (Question: When was the last time anyone remarked on a male dancer’s external appearance?) Are we working at finding and claiming our own voices?  Can we let go of our need to compete with each other for the very slim pickings out there? And instead find common ground which may advance us all — women and men — in the days ahead?

Are we taking the gifts we have received from our elders and contemporaries and passing them on with attribution and credit to those coming up now? Are we working to include rather than exclude? And are we practicing and inspiring in others high standards of craft and artistic practices and professional behavior?

Can we look beyond gender and race and ethnicity and class and high/low culture dividers to the unifying attributes of meaningful practice, meaningful performance, meaningful relationships, meaningful work, meaningful contributions?

And, as we are here at a major university, can we insist that tap — a truly original American art form — be accorded as serious attention in institutions of higher learning as modern dance, ballet, and other arts disciplines? And that tap histories and scholarship include women and men, black and white, old and young? And that tap’s history, literature and libraries be preserved and made accessible?

Now that we can see more clearly how many ways women have contributed to our ability to be here today, can we honor these many ways of being women in tap — for ourselves and those who follow us, and for all of the women who have paved the way? It was three women who did the impossible — Carol Vaughn, Nicola Daval and Linda Christiansen — in Washington, DC.  They pushed through a proclamation for National Tap Dance Day that was passed by the Congress on May 25, 1989.  They said it couldn’t be done.

It was Marda Kirn who took hold of the need for an international tap association and founded and administered the ITA and has kept it going through thick and mostly thin for more than 20 years. It was a half dozen women who are here today who founded and led distinctive national and international touring tap dance companies — Lynn Dally, Brenda Bufalino, Heather Cornell, Linda Sohl-Ellison and Jane Goldberg — companies that nurtured and produced new choreographies, wonderful dancers and deepened appreciation of tap’s rich hues and colors.

Now on to the last third of this list of extraordinary women in tap: Pamela Raff, Jackie Raven, Idella Reed-Davis, Debbie Reynolds, Camden Richman, Ginger Rogers, Olivia Rosencranz, Jo Rowan, Peggy Ryan, Germaine Salsberg, Fran Saperstein, Sara Savelli, Ellie Sciarra, Mikki Sheppard, The Silver Belles, Linda Sohl-Ellison, Sally Sommer, Peggy Spina, Jean Stearns, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, June Taylor, Shirley Temple, Carol Vaughn, Dianne Walke, Dorothy Wasserman, Alice Whitman and her Sister, Josette Wiggan, Karen Callaway Williams, Cheryl Willis, Marion Hanna Winter, and Karen Zebulon.

Let us look to this time, this conference, to each other, as an opportunity to make visible and strengthen our commitment to the art of tap and its living heritage, to honoring the women — and the men — who have prepared and led the way.

And let us make the days we spend here together the prelude to a brilliant future.

c 2008 by Sali Ann Kriegsman. All rights Reserved. Permission required from the author to reproduce or reprint by any means. Reprinted with permission.