New York City Dance Inspiration

Frankie Mannning’s cetennial celebration, Tap teacher training, incredible performers on stage…. The dance teacher of Helsinki Traditional Jazz Dance Society reflects on the inspiration she received while dancing her summer away in New York.

As for several years now, my summer in New York was spent studying, learning, experiencing, exploring and just simply breathing the spirit of dance. I have participated to festivals, workshops, tap teacher training, weekly dance classes with fantastic teachers; I have seen an incredible amount of breathtaking performances; I have danced to the enchanting music of great jazz and Latin bands in parks, concerts and dance parties.

I feel overwhelmed after all of these wonderful experiences, all the inspiration and insights, all the great things I have learnt. But as the master of tap dance, Brenda Bufalino said to me: “It is better to be overwhelmed than underwhelmed”. I agree. And I am happy to say that the dance summer of New York has definitely not left me underwhelmed!

Me and my partner Clyde Wilder came back to New York for attending the Frankie 100 –festival – the centennial celebration of dancer Frankie Manning, the legendary member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Clyde performed in a number called “Swing classics” in the show Swingin’ Frankie’s Way, produced by Chester Whitmore at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. Every night, the greatest big bands of today, such as George Gee, Gordon Webster and Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, played for thousands of swing dancers from literally all over the world. It felt astonishing to realize that all of them had travelled here just out of the pure love of dancing, and for wanting to celebrate the legacy and memory of Frankie. What an incredible uniting power dancing can be!

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1.The performers of the “Swing Classics” –number, choreographed by Chester Whitmore, on the stage of Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York. 2. Joseph and Josette Wiggan tapping to the tune “Broadway” in the show at Apollo Theater 3. The legendary queens of jazz backstage of Apollo Theater: Mable Lee, Norma Miller and Dawn Hampton. 4. Countdown into Frankie Manning’s 100th birthday at Terminal 5, New York City. On the bandstand Gordon Webster’s Big Band is swinging to dancers from all over the world.

While swing dancers were stomping for Frankie at the Terminal 5 in Midtown Manhattan, on the other side of the city a big, old, beautiful theater was filled with traditional African drum rhythms and dance steps. Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted the 37th Dance Africa, a festival produced by Baba Chuck Davis. (Clyde originally started his dancing career in Chuck Davis’ dance company.)

The highlight of this year’s show was Bakomanga, a dance company presenting the traditional dances and songs of Madagaskar. Last year, me, Clyde and our friend Ilse Paakkinen, who is also a board member of Helsinki Traditional Jazz Dance Society, went to this festival together and experienced the absolutely captivating rhythms of traditional Zimbabwean dance, performed by Umkhathi Theater Works:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YN1zKC1_5gA

This summer, I have mostly been devoted to the study of the wonderful art of tap dancing. I have been privileged to work on the rudiments of tap with Charles Godderzt, who has been generously sharing his expertise, gathered through decades of work as a dancer and teacher.

One of the highlights of my summer was the intermediate level adult residency program, taught by the legendary dancer Brenda Bufalino at the Tap City Festival. During the intense week, we worked on her choreography Turnaround (to John Di Martino’s modern jazz tune “Turnaround”), which we got the change to perform at the end of the week in the student-show case Tap Future at Symphony Space.

My learning-experience became even more comprehensive by also, during the same week, reading her book Tapping the Source – Tap Stories, Theory and Practice. Being a philosopher by education, I love how this work opens up the philosophical depth of  tap dancing.

In addition to technique, steps and working on the 6/8 rhythm, I learnt tremendously about the artistry and choreographing of dancing. I am a great admirer of Ms. Bufalino’s choreography, and I particularly enjoy the way she creates counterpoints. As an example of this, I link the choreography Buff Loves Basie Blues, performed by the American Tap Dance Orchestra:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65ZvF6IM194&list=UUaVaVmJr6_doKJI0axhtj8g

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Malin and Clyde Wilder swinging out on the Copasetics Boat Ride. By organizing this boat ride, Tap City Festival continues the tradition of the legendary dance group, the Copasetics, who used to give boat rides with dancing and live music – and hands this tradition down to future generations of dancers.

My intense tap studies continued the next week in the first training period of the Tap Teacher Training Program, organized by the American Dance Foundation. I feel very grateful and privileged for the possibility of participating to this program, which I also knew would be on a very high level (which, at the outset, made me feel somewhat nervous). What makes this program particularly fantastic is that it both offers a very high-level education in the technique and aesthetics of tap dancing and transmits the cultural history and artistic legacy of the great masters of tap.

Teaching children’s dance programs myself (even if not specifically in tap dancing), I was quite inspired by the amount of attention the program paid to the dance pedagogy and questions concerning e.g. how to teach jazz rhythms to children.

Since working in an intimate connection to the history and cultural tradition of jazz is one of the most important foundations of my work as a dance teacher, I was thrilled to learn dances of the Copasetic canon: a dance repertory handed down by such legendary dancers as Honi Coles and other members of the dance group Copasetics. Their dance choreographies were handed down to us by Barbara Duffy. I also have to mention that as little of an early-morning-person as I am, I really enjoyed starting each day at 9 AM with Ms. Duffy’s technique classes. The energy and intensity of her classes are a great source of inspiration!

Here’s a link to Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins performing their classic shoft shoe choreography Taking a Change on Love on an TV interview with jazz historian Marshall Stearns:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6f6ewUdHcQ

In Ms. Bufalino’s master classes, we entered the depths of the artistry of creating dance choreography, as well as of performing with live musicians. In this context she also reminded of the importance of “seeing work”: watching performances and exploring the possibilities of what has been done and what can be done in the dance.

This summer, me and Clyde have definitely seen work. And not only any work, but dance as its peak, performed by many of the greatest dancers of today. We have seen work on extremely high level of creativity and originality, work of tremendous depth and meaning.

We saw Savion Glover entering the spiritual realm of mediation and prayer through the rhythms of his feet in his latest production Om at the Joyce Theater.

We saw the uplifting and dynamic Broadway show After Midnight, produced by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, accompanying great singers and wonderful jazz tunes from particularly my favorite composer Duke Ellington. The show received the Tony Award for its great choreography – but for our shock and surprise, it was taken off from Broadway right after the Tony Awards. We only got the change to see this show once – some of our dancer friends liked it so much that went to see it more than ten times!

When we spent a week in New York with dancer Chazz Young, an old friend of Clyde’s back from the days of performing with Norma Miller’s Jazz Dancers, we spent a lot of time looking and discussing dance and music films. (Films, of course, are essential for seeing and celebrating the work of the great performers of the past.) We also went to see Audra McDonald’s phenomenal presentations of Billie Holiday’s music and life story in the show Lady Day at the Circle in the Square Theater. All of us were captured both by McDonald’s singing and the narrative that painted a vivid picture of how it felt to be a black female performer on tour through a segregated country where one could, for example, be denied the right to use the toilet, just for being black (and a woman).

When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater played two weeks at the Metropolitan ballet, we saw three different programs. We will never get tired of seeing the masterpiece Revelations over and over again, but this year’s highlight for us was The Ostrich – the original choreography of Asadata Dafora from 1932, restaged by Charles Moore. When pursuing my archival research in the history of African American dance at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, I saw old footage of Asadata Dafora himself personifying the ancestral spirit of the great bird. Here’s one version of The Ostrich I found online:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yzkyqYZsFs

Another great book I read this summer, and can warmly recommend, is Alvin Ailey’s autobiography, fittingly named Revelations. This book opened new dimensions for my understanding of the pieces we saw onstage.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has great material on their Youtube channel; check out e.g. this video of Uptown, choreographed by Matthew Rushing for AAADT’s 2009–2010 season (Clyde was the swing consultant of this piece):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mARDDW61i0Y

Finally, we have been extremely encouraged by just how bright the future of tap dancing looks like. One of the greatest inspirations for us, from the point of view of spectators of dance, was the show Tap & Song produced by Tony Waag. This show (part of the program of Tap City Festival) included outstanding performances by both new and more established tap dance companies, mixing the vernacular of the tap with other cultural influences such as Brazilian rhythms and capoeira. All of the performances were spellbinding, and many received a standing ovation, but the class act Tap and Tray by the German duo Kurt & Klaus (disciples of “Mr. Magic Feet” Carnell Lyons) really brought the house down.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIs64-FCGiM

I will return to Finland with lots of new ideas and inspiration, as well as lots of technical homework and the mentioned dances of the Copasetic repertory to work on. My dance classes of this Fall will be connected to my tap teacher training, and I look forward to communicating about my work in a long-distance collaboration with my appointed mentor. I very much look forward sharing the inspiration, insights and skills that I have acquired with my students!

I am thrilled and encouraged by the fact that attending ATDF’s tap teacher training program felt like a beautiful affirmation of many of the central concepts that me and Clyde are already working with in our dance classes, both with our child and adult students. We feel that our work is essentially about transmitting the vernacular of jazz and introducing the philosophy and history together with the steps, rhythms and movements. With our work, we also want to hand down the legacy of the great dancers of the past. We feel that the ancestors of this dance tradition are very proud that their legacy is being continued, as the ATDF so wonderfully does in their programs, shows and festivals, as Clyde has been doing throughout his long career as a dancer, and as we are doing together through the work we do at the Helsinki Traditional Jazz Dance Society.

We look forward continuing our work in the Fall, in all of the many classes and workshops we are about to teach, all the shows we are going to perform in and the events we are going to produce!

©

Malin Grahn-Wilder

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