TAP LEGENDS AND TRAILBLAZERS
During this month of Black History Celebration, NJTAP is proud to honor some of our countries greatest tap dancers, performing artists and entertainers. The following is a glimpse at some of their historical and biographical information
SAMMY DAVIS JR. 1925-1990
Sammy Davis, Jr. born in Harlem, NYC, was a singer, dancer, actor, and was often billed as the "greatest living entertainer in the world". His mother, the Puerto-Rican-born Elvera "Baby" Sanchez, was a tap dancer. His father, Sammy Davis, Sr., was an African-American vaudevillian. As a child, "little Sammy" learned to dance from his father and his adopted "Uncle" Will, who led the dance troupe. In 1929 at the age of four, Davis joined the act, which was renamed the Will Mastin Trio, and toured the vaudeville circuit, accompanying his elders with flash tap dance routines. He was reportedly tutored by his idol Bill Robinson, from whom he took tap dance lessons. He starred in the Broadway musical "Golden Boy" in the 1960s. Initially a success, internal tensions, production problems and bad reviews--many of them directed at Davis for playing a role originally written for a white man, resulted in its closing fairly quickly. His film and nightclub career were in full swing, however, and he became even more famous as one of the "Rat Pack", a group of free-wheeling entertainers that included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
JAMES TITUS GODBOLT 1927 - 2008
James Titus Godbolt known professionally as Jimmy Slyde was an American tap dancer known for his innovative tap style mixed with jazz. He was born in Atlanta and moved to Boston at the age of three. As a child, his mother encouraged him to play the violin, and he enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music to advance as a violinist. However, the Conservatory was across the street from Stanley Brown's dance studio, which he would visit to watch great tap dancers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Charles "Honi" Coles, and Derby Wilson. At the age of twelve, Jimmy quit violin lessons at the Conservatory and began tap lessons at Brown's studio where he studied under Brown himself and a student teacher, Eddie "Schoolboy" Ford, who taught Jimmy the slide. Jimmy connected with another dancer known for slides, Jimmy "Sir Slyde" Mitchell, and they put together an act to take on the road. In the 1940s, Mitchell and Jimmy started performing at local clubs and on the burlesque circuit calling themselves the Slyde Brothers. In the 50's when rock and roll terminated work for the Big Bands and great tap acts, he moved to Paris in the 1970s, where he worked intensively with Sarah Petronio. Petronio nurtured the expatriated Slyde out from self-imposed retirement. She became his dancing partner in Tap and Jazz concerts accompanied by some of Europe's finest jazz musicians. After living, teaching, and performing in Paris, he appeared in the production Black and Blue (1985), which was later reset in New York on Broadway in 1989, in which he also performed. As part of the Broadway cast, he was nominated for a Tony Award for this performance. He was part of the 1980s tap revival, which led him to stay in the United States and performed in films The Cotton Club, Round Midnight and Tap. In the 1990s, Slyde started holding jam sessions every week at a jazz nightclub in New York called La Cave. This became an education-based practice where up-and-coming tappers would come and improvise, while older and experienced tappers would mentor them.
HENRY LETANG 1915-2007
Henry LeTang, the Broadway tap dancer and choreographer who taught and created routines for countless entertainers, was born Henri Christian LeTang in Harlem, New York City. He was the fourth of five children born into a West Indian family. His father was Clarence LeTang and his mother, Marie Martin was from St. Croix.
In 1937, at the age of seventeen and having polished his own technique, LeTang opened his own studio off Broadway and quickly became known as the "teacher of stars." One of the first stars to emerge from those he taught was Betty Hutton. LeTang taught the Hines Kids (Gregory and Maurice), Lena Horne, Billy Holiday, Joey Heatherton, Lola Falana, Flip Wilson, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Bette Midler, Milton Berle, former boxing champions Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Frazier, Hinton Battle, Debbie Allen, Peter Gennaro, and Chita Rivera. As one of three choreographers who shaped the dancing in the Broadway hit Sophisticated Ladies, LeTang earned two Tony Award nominations, a Drama Critics Award and Outer Circle Award. Other Broadway musicals included Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along, My Dear Public, Dream With Music and the Tin Man's dance in the musical, The Wiz. In 1989, LeTang became one of four choreographers of the Broadway hit Black and Blue along with Fayard Nicholas, Frankie Manning, and Cholly Atkins winning the Tony Award for Best Choreography of a Musical. On film, LeTang choreographed Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club, Tap, and Bojangles. His fine work has been represented on Broadway by his students and stars of Bubbling Brown Sugar, Guys and Dolls, My One and Only and The Tap Dance Kid.
THE SILVER BELLES 1985-2017
The Silver Belles was a performing dance company founded in 1985 that featured five former Harlem chorus girls from 1930's and 19040's. The group members included Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Fay Ray, Bertye Lou Wood and managed by Geraldine Kennedy. They made appearances in Atlantic City, Dan Rather’s "48 Hours" and were profiled and featured in the 2006 documentary film directed by Heather Lynn MacDonald that was entitled "Been Rich All My Life".
Marion Coles 1915-2009 Burlington, Vermont, became a dance teacher of rhythm dance, black chorus line style, and taught tap seminars across the country. In 2002, Coles was awarded an honorary degree from Queens College for her dedication to her students. She was also the dance director of the Silver Belles.
Elaine Ellis 1917-2013, Panama, Central America, started dancing in response to an advertisement searching for Spanish dancers. She danced in The Cotton Club, Café Zanzibar, Club Mimo, The Lenox Lounge and the Apollo Theater. After she gave up dancing, she raised two children, and worked as a bartender and bar manager.
Cleo Hayes 1914 –2012) Greenville, Mississippi moved to Chicago with the hopes of becoming a star and landed her first job at the Grand Terrace with Earl Hines. In New York, she worked at Small's Paradise which, unlike most clubs, catered to Black people. When someone from the newly opened Apollo Theater asked her to join the chorus line, she became an 'Apollo Theater Rocketett.
Fay Ray 1919 –2013) was born in Louisiana and wanted to be a dancer from a young age. At age 12, she jumped on a freight train dressed as a boy and left her hard childhood of picking cotton. At 16, she ventured out with a solo act. At 18, she tried out an act in front of Leonard Reed who hired her. In the 1940s, she moved to New York where she worked at the Café Zanzibar and Club Ebony. After theaters in the United States closed, she went abroad where she produced shows. She danced and told jokes with USO tours in the 1960s in Paris.
Bertye Lou Wood 1905-2002, Newark, NJ, was known as one of the great dancers of the Harlem Renaissance. She helped other dancers by teaching them new steps, including fellow member and director of the Silver Belles, Marion Coles. Coles said, "She taught me how to dance. Everything I know I owe to Bertye." Wood filmed the documentary Been Rich All My Life at age 95. From Newark, she started dancing in 1922 at the Lafayette Theater all the while raising her three boys.
Geraldine "Geri" Rhodes Kennedy 1930 –201) was born in Monroe Township, North Carolina and was the manager of The Silver Belles. Working as a barmaid in Harlem, Kennedy became interested in the chorus girls after hearing stories from former dancers and was inspired to form the group while she was working as a road manager for the rhythm and blues group Sister Sledge. Kennedy wanted to make sure chorus girls received their due recognition and were able to continue to use their talents until they no longer could. The Silver Belles performed to raise awareness of the long history of black women dancers and raise money for charity, particularly children and senior citizens.
TOMMY SUTTON 1918-1995
Tommy Sutton was Founder of Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts, Chicago, Ill and had a professional and teaching career that spanned over 50 years making him an expert and a leading authority on the art of Tap Dancing. Prior to entering a teaching career, Tommy experienced a full professional career as a performer and choreographer. He performed with such notables as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole and many others. He performed in numerous nightclubs, cabaret and theater revues across the country, Canada and Europe. As a choreographer he produced many revues and was the dance director for the legendary Mike Todd in his "Theater Cafe" and his production of "Gay New Orleans" starring Gyspy Rose Lee. One of his greatest performing thrills was working with Bill 'Bojangles "Robinson in the Broadway show, "The Red Hot Mikado". Tommy's reputation as a performer grew and he soon became known and in high demand for his private instruction and unique teaching skills. He then opened a studio in downtown Chicago and it was at this point that Tommy realized that his own children and the children of his community were being neglected of dance training and education. Consequently, he established Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts on Chicago's south side. Mayfair Academy became one of the finest schools in the city dedicated to the best dance instruction for the children of his community. It has become one of the largest and best-known private dance schools, which still flourishes today under the direction of his daughter, Peggy Sutton. Over the years Tommy has taught thousands of students and Mayfair Academy continues to prosper today as his legacy, his teaching methods and techniques are still influencing thousands of students across the country and abroad.
RAYMOND WINFIELD 1912-1967
Raymond Winfield was Toe of the famous trio Tip, Tap, and Toe. This extraordinary trio danced in vaudeville and on Broadway with Eddie Cantor and in George White's "Scandals". However, they didn't appear in the film versions of those shows. The members were Samuel Green (Tip), Ted Fraser (Tap) and 'Ray Winfield" (Toe, seen here on the piano). They often danced on tabletops or other small spaces. Ray Winfield is considered the innovator of the sliding style of tap, which later was copied by many other dancers.