We all remember the names of tap greats – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Copasetics, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Looking more deeply and broadly, we see that far more dancemakers were influential and accomplished in their own ways. Sometimes it’s up to people who learned from them and worked with them to honor their legacy.
That’s what Justin Boccitto and Germaine Salsberg, BDC tap teachers, recently did in memory of tap icon Bettye Morrow, who passed away in 2016. Boccitto studied with Morrow extensively. Salsberg took Morrow’s class when she was still teaching at BDC, and “saw it as a fun challenge”. On Friday, June 29, they held an Advanced Beginner tap masterclass with Morrow’s material and in her teaching style.
Morrow began performing at nine years of age in USO shows, and continued with extensive performing credits on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall, in film and New York City nightclubs. She worked with choreographer greats such as Hanya Holm, Eugene Loring and Robert Alton, as well as infamous performers Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr.
She toured as a performer and choreographer across the U.S., and internationally in Japan and England. Morrow was honored in a tribute to her presented by noted tap club Swing 46 in NYC, and she was also the first tap dancer since 1938 to be featured at Mana Leone’s in Broadway Nights, an honor previously held by “Bubba” Gaines. Morrow was on faculty at BDC for over 25 years, as well as at New Dance Group.
Salsberg explains how Morrow didn’t prefer to teach one-time workshops because she wanted students to study her style more deeply. “She didn’t like the one-offs,”Boccitto adds, “because she wanted you to make an investment in her style, and she would make an investment in you.” Salsberg and Boccitto give the clear sense that she held these ideas out of care for students’ deeper longterm learning, as well as for the love of tap dancing.
So, what was that style she invested in students to learn? “She had a delicateness with the floor, never stomping or ‘hard hitting’,” explains Salsberg. Even in time steps, for instance, the stomp was replaced by a lighter and quicker step. Her routines were “quick, difficultand just a lot of material,” Boccittodescribes, adding that she really pushed students to learn and grow as artists.
Salsberg and Boccitto describe how her classes didn’t include traditional technique exercises that isolate particular steps, such as running flaps and Irishes across the floor or pick ups and cramp rolls in center. She would do a few shorter combinations, such as her time step variation without stomps. Then, she’d move on to a longer combination to finish out class.
Even in this teaching style, she would break down things within combinations, such as “how to flap with the whole foot” to make a stomp-like sound without stomping, Boccitto recalls. Salsberg and Boccitto taught their class in this format, with her material – with anecdotes on, and fond words about, Morrow here and there.
To honor her wishes of students truly taking in and learning class content, they videotaped the class to share it with participants afterward – in the hopes that they would use it to continue practicing the material. Salsberg describes a lot of this material as “fun, learnable and usable.” Ideally, students will carry it forth to grow as artists.
Also memorable about Morrow was her lively personality. “She was quite a character,” says Salsberg with a chuckle. Boccitto describes her as a “Southern belle”, offering lemon drops to all those around her. She would even encourage students to drink wine during water breaks.
“She was a tough cookie,” chuckles Boccitto, “but if you saw what she had to offer, and loved her, she loved right back and offered all she had.”
Let us remember that those short of household name-fame have a whole lot to give. Thanks to devoted students and teachers like Salsberg and Boccitto, what they gave can keep on giving through the passing down of their legacy.
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.