Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brenda Bufalino Taps to Town

                                                       Tony Waag photo
by Susan Kepecs
Master of American tap dance Brenda Bufalino, who’s been playing bebop with her feet since before most of you were born, comes to town March 2 – 4, thanks to TAPIT/New Works, the Wisconsin Union Directorate, and Edgewood College.  There’s a for-fee master class at TAPIT’s Winnebago St. studio on March 2 (call for info) and a free, open-to-the-public lec-dem titled “Tap Dance … Made in America: The Rhythm and History of America’s Own Indigenous Art Form,” with Mad City’s very versatile jazz pianist Dave Stoler on keyboards: 7 PM at Edgewood College’s Black Box Theater on March 3 and 7 PM at Great Hall in the UW Memorial Union on March 4.
Tap and jazz go together like toast and jam, but Bufalino’s art is no simple snack.  She’s the kind of free-spirited, eclectic, bohemian all-around artist you don’t see too much any more.  She choreographs, she sings, she teaches, she writes books.  She’s made films. 
And, of course, she taps. Now 76, she got her slinky style in the early ‘50s from her mentor, the late, long, tall Charles “Honi” Coles, who hoofed with Count Basie and Duke Ellington; Coles also was a soloist with Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1940s, and a member of the Original Copasetics, a Harlem hotshot hoofers fraternity formed in 1949.  Coles didn’t believe tap was invented to accompany jazz – on the contrary, he attributed the birth of bebop to tap – take a look.


Taken together, the decline of big-band jazz and the advent of rock n’ roll induced the near-absence of tap dancing in the public eye from the mid-50s through the mid-‘70s, but halfway through the disco decade, Bufalino brought Coles out of retirement.  Ten years later, with Coles and tapper Tony Waag, who I think started out as Bufalino’s student, she founded the American Tap Orchestra, which, when the jazz clubs were all gone, put rhythm hoofing under the proscenium arch and in the spotlight as a full-concert, large ensemble artform:

At the dawn of the new century the ATO became the American Tap Foundation, with a much broader mission, focused, according to its website,, on education, presentation, preservation and creation.   
I managed to catch the very busy Bufalino by phone last week, right before she took off to perform in Europe.  Here’s what she had to say about her life in hoofing.

CulturalOyster: You’ve had a remarkable career.  Did you start out as a little girl taking ballet and tap and knowing dance would be your passion?

Buffalino: I did.  I had a conservatory training, six days a week since I was six or seven, at Professor O’Brien’s Normal School of Dancing in Lynn, Massachusetts.  I studied many different kinds of dance, Egyptian, Spanish, ballet, tap, acrobatics.  My mother was a lyric soprano and my aunt was a coloratura and concert pianist.  We had an act – we were the Strickland Sisters.  In many ways my one-person shows even now include much of what we did then – writing music and monologues, singing, telling stories, dancing – it’s pretty all-encompassing.  I call our curriculuum at the American Tap Dance Foundation conservatory training – it’s not exactly like what I did growing up, it’s mostly about tap, but it’s not just about dance technique – it’s also about music composition, choreography, improvisation, performance – it’s quite a program.  I like the idea of approaching dance from many angles.

CulturalOyster: Your major influence in tap was Charles “Honi” Coles.  You met him in the 1950s, when he must have been in his 40s.  I think of that as a rough time for tap, and for jazz – it was the end of swing and bebop, and before postbop, and even in the ‘60s nobody was tapping to Coltrane anway – as far as I know that only happened later, when Savion Glover decided to do it.  So what was going on in the tap world when you started working with Coles?

Bufalino: It’s interesting – when I was working with Coles in ’54, ’55, bebop was still very much in the New York scene.  The tap dancing I did was to bebop.  There were still a few nightclubs left, but mostly it was jam sessions at peoples’ studios.  Poor Honi, he’d try to send me out to get jobs and they’d hire me as an Afro-Cuban dancer.  I danced a lot at the Palladium. But my influence was really jazz.  [Count] Basie was playing at Birdland; I could go hear the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach – it was all going on simultaneously.  It was quite a time for a seventeen year old girl.  I’d go from club to club.  When I was working I’d leave my Afro-Cuban gig late and go to after-hours clubs. They’d have Monday night jams at his and Pete Nugent’s studio [Nugent was another member of the Original Copasetics; together, Coles and Nugent ran the the Dance Craft Studio, on 52nd St. in Manhattan] and jam with the Copasetics. 

CulturalOyster: What was Coles like, and how did you come to work with him?

Bufalino: I studied with Stanley Brown [Brown, originally from the West Indies, taught the famous hoofer Jimmy Slyde, who was one of Savion Glover’s main mentors] in Boston before I left for New York.  In my early teens I was working with the Bobby Clark Dancers, a group that came out of Brown’s studio.  It was an unbelievable show, one of the first interracial shows – we got run out of a lot of towns.  Pete Nugent had taught at Brown’s and that’s how I found Honi when I came to New York.  I was already a pro, but Nugent scared me – instead I went with Honi, who seemed very sweet, but of the two he was probably the dangerous one.
In those days you were taught one-on-one.  There were no classes.  Honi would show me something and then leave the room and you were left there to figure it out.  It was an interesting kind of training – however you figured it out was fine.  It never came back the way Honi taught it – he didn’t remember how he taught it.  But there was a lotta hanging out and a lotta listening and stories.  After 14 years we disappeared from each others’ lives – I was doing avant garde performances and he went on to manage the Apollo.  Eventually I started using tap in my avant garde shows and I ended up making a documentary film about Honi and the Copasetics – Great Feats of Feet.  That was 1975.  It was the beginning of the tap revival.  Honi got back into tap then, they all did.  And Honi and I started working together as a duo.  That’s when I really absorbed so much of what he did, his theories as well as his dancing – I was old enough then to be involved in the process.  So he was my mentor till he died.    

CulturalOyster: What kind of avant garde work were you doing during the years you weren’t working with Coles?

Bufalino: That was the ‘60s, the period of John Cage and the Judson Memorial Church [where the postmodern dance movement was born].  I was writing poetry and doing total improvisation and I worked with [pioneering liturgical and avant garde jazz saxman] Ed Summerlin, in a group supported by the National Council of Churches.  There were a lot of happenings.  It was a great experience.  I’m happy I was part of that.  I learned to break away from form, which informed my later work a lot – when I came back to form I had a predilection for freedom, so I wasn’t handicapped by form, and could play with it instead.

CulturalOyster: In your song and dance routine “Too Tall, Too Small,” which I just watched on YouTube, you joke that tap dancing is a man’s game.  There’ve been some great women tap dancers, but most of the really famous ones really were men – or at least, that’s how it used to be.  What did it take to break that glass ceiling?

Bufalino: Withstanding humiliation, and being able to tolerate being humiliated!  A resistance to being told “you can’t do that!”  And working really hard.  A lotta, lotta practice.  We were told we couldn’t be strong or fast or sophisticated enough.  That’s what led me to go into flat shoes.  Oh, that was a travesty!  The flat shoes – there’s a limit to how much you can practice in heels.  The girls are dancing in heels again, but that’s not how they practice – they got good before they went into the heels.  It’s a totally different sound.  I don’t like the sound of the heel – it’s tic-tic-tic, like a rim shot rather than a bass drum.  I like the bass drum sound. I was also dancing in men’s suits, so I’d be taken seriously.  The guys had a fit.  Honi thought it was so unfeminine! It was tough, but finally he came around – he’d say women in heels weren’t serious.  There’s a story in my book [Tapping the Source: Tap Dance Stories, Theory and Practice, Codhill Press 2004] about my white tuxedo – that chapter is the breakthrough moment for me and for women later – nobody says women can’t tap any more! Women are really able to use their strength now – that’s required.  I am so happy – we won!  But it took forever. 

CulturalOyster: Wikipedia tells me you were born in 1937.  The old tap masters, including Honi Coles, pretty much danced till they dropped.  You’re still performing, and that’s an inspiration for us all.  But as an aging dancer myself, I’m wondering – have you slowed down at all, or do you just keep on going?

Bufalino: In terms of actually creating and performing work, as long as I can do it at a level that’s not degraded energetically, I’m OK with it.  But I suspect another year or so might be it, mainly because putting a show together involves working long hours by myself.  It’s not that my body won’t do it, it’s that I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm for all that practice.  If I don’t put in the work my technique will suffer and if that happens, I’m not interested in performing. It’s lovely to be older and feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do and you no longer have to prove yourself or make a statement.  So about performing, I just say, so what?  I did it and these youngsters today are so good – we have a youth group at the foundation that’s my favorite – I love to teach them, and you would die if you saw these young kids, they’re doing unbelievable things.  The students are interested in nuance and subtlety again – there was a time when it was just about dancing fast. 
I’m very interested in what the young people are doing, and I still care very much about what happens to tap.  I suspect I’ll keep teaching.  And I’m happy to do these lecture-demonstrations, which are an opportunity to talk about the history of the artform and just demonstrate some steps.  I’d feel pretty selfish to keep all this knowledge to myself.

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