During this year’s Black History Month, members of the Vancouver Tap Dance Society have been reflecting on the importance of remembering the black artists who helped create the art form.
Tosh Sutherland is the director of a specialized group of tap dancers at the society called Tap Artistry. Sutherland says that while all students in the society receive some education on the formative influences of black artists in the world of tap dance, the six semi-professional students in Tap Artistry have unique opportunities to speak with living tap legends.
Dianne Walker is one of those living legends Tap Artistry students recently spoke with over a video call at their studio on East Hastings. Walker is an American tap dancer with a 30-year career on Broadway to film and TV. For the students, Walker serves as a link to an older tap history having studied with hugely influential black tap dancers like Leon Collins, Jimmy Mitchell and Jimmy Slyde.
The best dancers you’ve never heard of
Those tap dancing greats in turn studied with some of the first artists to popularize the American style of tap dance we know today. Jimmy Slyde for example was known to watch and learn from Bill Robinson -- otherwise known as Bojangles, the most highly paid Black American entertainer in America during the first half of the 20th century.
Sutherland explains these historical ties and relationships are crucial to the record-keeping of tap dancing history as moves and routines are passed down via oral tradition.
"Before the beautiful internet age, you would have had to have gone and worked with these individuals. So you would have had to study under them in sort of a mentor/mentee kind of relationship," Sutherland said. "We learn the stories of these people and the history behind all of the moves through that kind of relationship.”
Sutherland added that while passing down steps and routines is important, more so is the transfer of stories to better understand the history of tap as a whole. Sutherland, who has performed a routine created by Collins under the direction of Walker, knows this importance firsthand.
"Knowing that you've learned it from someone who's directly connected to it, really adds that extra layer of understanding and connectedness," he said. "It's about feeling what it's like to dance in those shoes even for a brief amount of time to kind of see how it connects with you."
Vancouver’s close ties to early tap history
Joel Hanna, a professional dancer who works closely with the Vancouver Tap Society has personally known some of the tap greats to perform and live in Vancouver. In a recent interview with Vancouver Is Awesome Hanna expressed his concerns that tap history goes largely untalked about.
"Most people end up thinking about Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers and they're amazing but it makes me a little sad sometimes like you don't think of Jimmy Slyde, Cholly Atkins, the Nicholas brothers, Robert Reed," Hanna said. “One of my dear favourites, that it makes me a little sad that people don't know about her and people that did you don't hear her name anymore is Jeni LeGon."
Born in 1916, LeGon became the first African-American woman to establish a solo career in tap dance. She danced with the likes of Astaire and Bojangles, becoming the first African-American woman to do so on film. She was also the first African-American woman to secure a long-term contract with MGM.
In 1969, LeGon moved to Vancouver where she carved out her own niche in the local dance scene. In the early 2000s, she taught dance and voice lessons privately and would regularly perform at the La Botte nightclub. LeGon died in Vancouver at the age of 96.
‘Paying tribute to one of the hoofers or one of the masters'
Hanna says if a dancer doesn’t know the history behind the art form, every time they dance they become part of that legacy.
"Every time a child puts on a pair of tap shoes, whether they're dancing a candy-cane piece or whether they're hittin' a jazz suite or doing Broadway tap, they're paying tribute to one of the hoofers or one of the masters," Hanna said. "That is a thing that is beautiful and binding and I think to not acknowledge that is to not hear the music that brings everybody together."