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    Cotton Club show & black female tap dancers

    The woman was moving as masterfully as the men, leaning forward and tapping backwards in steps that had long defined a tradition of dance for African American men.

    As I sat there watching her in the “Cotton Club Parade” show in New York last weekend, I realized that I did not know the names of any black female tap dancers. I’m sure there were some, but why hadn’t I seen or heard of them.

    I’m familiar with the Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson from the old school, and from the new school, Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, who helped to publicly revive the dance 20 or so years ago.

    Black female tap dancers

    A female hoofer and her male partners take turns tapping on steps in "Cotton Club Parade."

    So what happened to the women? It seems that they’ve gotten lost in history.

    “It’s not that women couldn’t tap dance better, it’s just that they weren’t gonna get the opportunity … to over-dance the man. They didn’t want to give them the chance to show a man up, y’ know,” Libby Spencer, a tap dancer and choreographer at the Apollo Theater in the 1940s, said in an exhibition called “Plenty of Good Women Dancers” by the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

    The show by the New York City Center Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center was a re-creation of a Cotton Club revue with the Duke Ellington Band from the 1920s and 1930s. It featured the superb Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars playing Ellington’s music, along with singing, dancing, acrobatics and other antics.

    It was a lively show, with beautiful costumes and enthralling choreography by Warren Carlyle (who also directed). The five men in synchronized lockstep in the routine “Peckin” were one of my favorites, along with Adriane Lenox as a woman with the I-don’t-take-no-mess voice and demeanor that reminded me of my cousin Dot. Thin, tall and raspy, she admonished the women in song: “Women be wise, don’t advertise your man, keep your mouth shet!”

    Black female tap dancers

    Adriane Lenox in "Cotton Club Parade."

    In its day, the Cotton Club was smoking, featuring some of the prettiest dancers and top-notch performers and big bands, but the years took a toll. The club moved several times, and the new Cotton Club is located in a spot far away from the heart of Harlem.

    But on stage last weekend, the heat of Harlem and the energy of the Club were back. There were no chorus girls, but there was plenty of hoofing, including the numbers with the female dancer. I doubt that she would’ve ever tapped on the floors of the Cotton Club.

    “The story of the chorus girl is the untold story of tap because actually we could tap better than some of the acts that came out,” Spencer said in the 2010 book “Tap Dancing: A Cultural History.”

    Black female tap dancers

    The performers in the number "Peckin" from "Cotton Club Parade."

    Mostly, they stayed back in the chorus lines, according to Harriet Browne, who tapped in night clubs in New York in the 1950s and whose career was revived for a time in the 1990s. According to the folklore project, black women choreographed and produced shows, tapped (some solo, some with male partners), were song-and-dance partners, exotic dancers and comedians.

    Being a black dancer meant that you were always broke, Browne said in a New York Times interview. The best tap jobs went to black men (here’s a YouTube compilation of some of them, including Peg Leg Bates and Sammy Davis Jr.) and the best chorus line jobs went to white women, she said. Browne and others like her were always struggling to pay their bills.

    “We looked good, but we didn’t have no money,” she told the newspaper. “Everybody wanted to be famous, but if they had any big parts, they would always call the guys. If they wanted a chorus girl for a movie, the white girls, they got the roles. And so it never happened.”

    Here is a sampling of the women hoofers:

    Alice Whitman and the Whitman Sisters. This was a black-owned dance company that taught some of the major female tap dancers. Alice was considered the queen of tap, the company’s star and the most accomplished female tap dancer of the 1920s and 1930s.

    Black female tap dancers

    Jeni LeGon with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the movie "Hooray for Love." Photo from Tradition in Tap website.

    Jeni LeGon. She danced not in skirts and high heels, but in pants and low heels. She was known for her toe stands. She danced in the chorus line of the Count Basie Orchestra, toured with the Whitman Sisters and performed with Bill Robinson in the 1935 musical “Hooray for Love.” She later worked with Fats Waller and appeared in several black films – sometimes as herself, she said, and not as a maid.

    Lois Bright Miller. She was part of the Miller Brothers and Lois (George, Danny and Lois Bright) team. She was a teen performer with the Whitman Sisters, joining LeGon and Catherine Basie as the Snakehip Queens. They performed in the 1947 movie “Hi-De-Ho” with Cab Calloway.

    Cholly Atkins talked about the difficulty in trying to persuade the Miller Brothers to include Bright, a quick leaner and excellent hoofer, in their act. After Danny finally agreed to see a preview, he was convinced. “You see the only reason he hesitated in the beginning was because she was a woman. … She was just the wrong sex as far has he was concerned,” Atkins said in the 2001 book “Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins.”

    Black female tap dancers

    Edith "Baby Edwards" Hunt performing at the Apollo Theater in the 1930s. Photo from the Philadelphia Dance History Journal website.

    Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt was a child star who in the 1940s partnered with Willie “Span” Joseph to form “Spic and Span.” She was the first black dancer to perform on the all-white “Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour” radio show. She went on to work at the Apollo alongside Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, among others.

    Ludie Jones. She was a member of the Lang Sisters, and danced with Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller in New York in the 1930s. After the group ended, Jones formed her own, The Three Poms, which opened for Cab Calloway and traveled with his band. They also performed for soldiers during World War II.

    Edwina “Salt” Evelyn. She learned how to tap on the streets, which she preferred to attending dance school. She performed with Jewel “Pepper” Welch as Salt and Pepper in theater, night clubs and on USO tours.

     

     

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