Coles & Atkins: BDC celebrates Black History Month

Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.

Next up we’ve got Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins.

Who are Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins?

Coles & Atkins were tap duo known for their suave style and impeccable unison. Instead of showing off acrobatics and bold tricks, the pair mesmerized audiences with their cool, laid-back vibe and signature “Soft Shoe” dance where they performed a painstakingly slow and hypnotically smooth routine in perfect harmony—a talent that is especially challenging for tap dancers who need to not only match the physical movements of their partner but also the exact sound and quality of the taps.

Before they were a team

Charles “Honi” Coles (1911-1992) grew up in Philadelphia where he learned to tap on the streets, challenging neighborhood kids to dance duels—and usually winning. As a young adult, Coles moved to New York City to perform as part of vaudevillian troupe, “The Three Millers.” But when the other two dancers sought to replace Coles, he decided to prove them wrong by perfecting his technique and amping up his performance. When Coles returned to the NYC dance scene, he was hailed for his graceful style and incredibly fast feet. He performed with “The Lucky Seven Trio” and as a soloist for Cab Calloway’s orchestra before pairing up with Cholly Atkins (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). After their career as a duo, Coles worked as production manager for the Apollo Theater, served as president of the Negro Actors Guild, co-founder of the Copasetics (a tap ensemble honoring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), and won both a Tony and Drama Desk award for his performance in Broadway’s My One and Only. Later in his life, Coles was bestowed a Dance Magazine Award, Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, and National Medal for the Arts to honor his lasting legacy in tap dance.

Honi as Tito, the bandleader, in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing

Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913-2003) was born in Pratt City, Alabama and moved to Buffalo, New York with his family at the age of seven. Atkins grew up performing in his school’s musicals and, as a teenager, worked as a singing waiter. He and coworker, William Porter, partnered up to form the song-and-dance act, “Two Rhythm Pals.” Atkins went on to dance with Dotty Saulters before pairing up with Honi Coles (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). Throughout his performance career, Atkins also choreographed and coached behind-the-scenes. He was named staff choreographer at Motown Records and staged acts for stars like the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes. He also won a Tony Award (shared with Fayard Nicholas, Frankie Manning, and Henry LeTang) for his choreography in the Broadway show, Black and Blue. In 1993, Atkins was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to teach vocal choreography (staging for vocal artists and singing groups) in colleges and universities.

A “class act”

Coles & Atkins won over audiences with their elegance, charm, and no-fail formula—beginning with a fast-paced song-and-dance number, followed by their trademark soft-shoe, and ending with an impressive dance challenge where each performer one-ups the other with their very best moves. The dynamic duo performed throughout the Las Vegas show circuit, with the big bands of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie, and on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coles & Atkins were considered a “class act”–the cream-of-the-crop tap dancers—and their signature style continues to influence and inspire tap dancing today.

Bettye Morrow

BDC’s ‘Remembering Bettye Morrow’ Class: Commemorating an unsung tap heroine 

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.

Tap into your bone density!

Bones are dynamic! Even though they are hard, bones are living and continually changing parts of your body that have cells working on them that are designed specifically to either make new bone or break it down. While it may sound strange that our body would want to break down our own bones, it’s a really important process for keeping the whole entire body healthy! There are a couple of reasons for this, and one is that minerals such as calcium are stored in your bones. Of course, you’ve probably heard this a lot, and heard that calcium is really important for healthy bones. What you may not have heard is that calcium is critically important for many functions taking place in the body, including nervous system activity and muscle contractions, and when your body needs calcium for all of these important things, it is going to have to get it from somewhere. That somewhere is your bones.

“Developing peak bone mass (the most bone mineral possible) in the teenage years through the 30s is the cornerstone of optimal bone health,” says Dr. Dorothy Fink, an endocrinologist and internist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, where she often treats dancers. “There are cells in the body that build bone (osteoblasts) and cells that break it down (osteoclasts). These cells work together every day to keep your bones in the best shape possible.” 

BDC honors National Tap Dance Day

In honor of National Tap Dance Day on May 25, we asked our Tap Faculty to tell us their influences, inspirations and favorite things about tap dance.

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BDC Tap Faculty

What’s your advice for tap dancers in training?

In trying to grow in tap, don’t get caught up in Broadway tap versus rhythm tap. If there’s no rhythm, there’s no tap. Tap technique is the focus and you can get exceptional technique from so many teachers. Take classes with a variety of teachers to reach your full potential. ~Aaron Tolson

Who are some of your favorite tap dancers throughout history? 

The Nicholas Brothers, The Condos Brothers,The Berry Brothers, Vera Ellen, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Honi Coles  ~Doug Shankman

Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Sammy Davis, Jr. ~Lainie Munro

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Lois Miller, Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, Baby Laurence, Bill Bailey, John Bubbles, Gregory Hines, Jeni Le Gon , Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lon Chaney, Ayodele Casel, Chuck Green, Coles & Atkins,  Arthur Duncan, Jimmy Slyde, Bunny Briggs, Buster Brown, and the list goes on and on! ~Jason E. Bernard

MODERN DAY MASTERS & TAP DANCERS CHANGING THE GAME

Savion Glover, Jason Samuels Smith, Randy Skinner, Nicholas Young, Dormeisha Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, Diane Walker, Curtis Holland, Michelle Dorrance, Jared Grimes

BEST TAP SEQUENCES ON FILM

“Begin the Beguine” with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940 

“Challenge Scene” in Tap featuring Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr., Arthur Duncan, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Harold Nicholas and Howard “Sandman” Sims

“Jump N Jive” with the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather

“Pick Yourself Up” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time 

“Prove Me Wrong” with Gregory Hines & Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights 

“Singing in the Rain” with Gene Kelly 

“Too Darn Hot” with Ann Miller in Kiss Me Kate 

For more tap dance footage visit our playlist on our YouTube channel!

 

Founded in 2011 by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient Michelle Dorrance, Dorrance Dance features some of today’s best tap artists, performing alongside co-choreographers of The Blues Project Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant. Award-winning musician and composer Toshi Reagon created the music for The Blues Project, which is performed live by Reagon and members of her band, BIGLovely, on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and violin.

Called “the best kind of party” by Marina Harss of The New Yorker, The Blues Project premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2013 in the Doris Duke Theatre to sold-out houses. A tribute to tap’s historical roots in blues music, the work features a diverse selection of dance styles including tap, zydeco, Appalachian flatfooting, and Lindy Hop, all performed by Dorrance’s collection of topflight, uniquely talented dancers. “One of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today” (Brian Seibert, The New York Times), Michelle Dorrance is among the most respected tap performers and choreographers of her generation.

Read more via Jacob’s Pillow to Welcome Dorrance Dance, Featuring Music by BIGLovely & BODYTRAFFIC.