This is a two-part exploration of tap in the United States. Read Part 1 here.
While researching the history of American tap, one of the questions I kept asking myself was “where are the Black women?” Sure, I came across white female tap stars like Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers, and even child star Shirley Temple. But references to Black women tap dancers were few and far between.
And so I dug deeper. Sure enough the names were there, though they’ve never been given the credit they were due.
The good news? A new generation of Black women in tap has risen up. And so let’s celebrate these tap dancing sisters—past and present.
”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music with over 190 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
In 1926, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes published “Dream Variations.”
To fling my arms wide In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!
To fling my arms wide In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening…
A tall, slim tree…
Night coming tenderly Black like me.
During the Renaissance there were fabled Black women dancers who were part of that “me.” A 2004 documentary, “Plenty of Good Women Dancers,” tells the story of many of them in less than an hour.
From the Folkstreams notes on the film:
Plenty of Good Women Dancers features exceptional Philadelphia African American women tap dancers whose active careers spanned the 1920s-1950s. Restricted to few roles, often unnamed and uncredited, these women have largely remained anonymous within (and outside) of the entertainment industry and sometimes even within the communities in which they reside. Historic film clips, photographs, and dancers’ own vivid recollections provide a dynamic portrait of veteran women hoofers prominent during the golden age of swing and rhythm tap. “Plenty” features 1995 performances by Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt, Libby Spencer and Hortense Allen Jordan, with LaVaughn Robinson, Germaine Ingram, Delores and Dave McHarris, Kitty DeChavis, Isabelle Fambro and the cast of “Stepping in Time,” and historic footage of these and other artists. Additional resources include a documentary photography exhibition:
One of the most famous groups on the vaudeville circuit was The Whitman Sisters.
The sisters’ Library of Congress biography aims to help readers imagine a show.
The Whitman Sisters– Mabel Whitman (1880-1942), Essie Whitman (1882-1903), Alberta Whitman (ca. 1887-1963) and “Baby” Alice Whitman (ca. 1900-1969), comprise the family of black female entertainers who owned and produced their own performing company, which traveled across the United States from 1900-1943 to play in all the major cities, becoming the longest running and highest-paid act on the T.O.B.A. circuit and a crucible of dance talent in black vaudeville.[…]
The three girls sang, danced, and played guitar while [their father Reverend Albery Allson Whitman] preached. The syncopated rhythms of some spirituals, with which congregations were familiar with through their own hand clapping, could easily have been translated to tap dance. The kick lines, shimmies, and movements that isolated the lower half of the body were less welcome in religious settings, and would not become part of the Whitman sisters’ repertoire until later in their performance career. Essie sang jubilee songs while Mabel and Alberta played the piano at church socials.
In 1899, Mabel, Essie and Alberta formed the Whitman Sisters Comedy Company and played the Augusta Grand Opera House in Augusta, Georgia; the Burbridge Opera House in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Savannah Theatre in Savannah, Georgia and toured all of the leading southern houses, playing to black and white audiences. When the Reverend Whitman died (29 June 1901), The Whitman Sisters’ Novelty Act Company opened midwinter of 1902 at the Grand Opera House in Augusta, Georgia. With the establishment of the Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours in 1904, Mabel became one of the first black women to manage and continuously book her own company in leading Southern houses. In 1910, she organized Mabel Whitman and the Dixie Boys and toured the country and Europe.
In a reconstruction of a typical performance of the Whitman Sisters during the high point of the early years from 1909 to 1920, Nadine George Graves writes that The Whitman Sisters offered something for everyone: jubilee songs and coon shouts, cakewalks and breakdowns, comedians, midgets, cross-dressers, beautiful dancing girls, pickaninnies, a jazz band. Willie Robinson would probably be featured singing popular songs such as “Is Everybody Happy?”[…]
Then would come the dancers. They had the stage to themselves and did not have to sing or tell jokes as in the prior tent show tradition, but were able to dance as a sole specialty. They would probably prance onto stage with a cakewalk and then move into a Tiller dance, a popular, intricate combination of high kicking on alternating legs in a typical chorus line fashion. Catherine Basie (wife of Will, later Count Basie) described they would “kick to the left, kick to the right, kick straight up, and so one, to the tune of the jazzy ‘Stardust.” Then three of the girls– Alice Whitman, Jeni LeGon, and Catherine Basie– would do a shake dance (something like the shimmy) to the jazz song, ‘Diga Diga Doo.”[…]
Refusing to follow the set pattern of segregating audience by having whites in the auditorium and black in the balcony, the Whitmans insisted upon blacks being allowed in the parquet and dress circle sections of the theater although spectators were probably still grouped together by race.
What irks me is that there is zero film footage of their act.
As Dale Ricardo Shields at IForColor wrote:
So completely has evidence of the Whitman Sisters disappeared that it’s almost as if someone had deliberately cut them out of the pages of show business history. Yet for forty years from the late 1890s to the late 1930s, the Whitman Sisters shows were the biggest, fastest, flashiest shows in black vaudeville. Their annual touring show became an incubator for talent—especially dancers. The kids who started in their shows or joined them later became some of America’s favorite comics, dancers, and musicians a few years later: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Count Basie, Trixie Smith, Moms Mabley, Jeni LeGon, Reed & Bryant. Pine Top Smith, Lonnie Johnson, and Mary Lou Williams.”
A nine-minute “womanica” podcast explores the Whitman Sisters’ history in comedy.
Hollywood produced quite a few “race films” for segregated audiences, and they used the talents of Black dancers to do it. One such films was 1939’s Double Deal, with Jeni LeGon.
Jeni LeGon, one of the first African-American women in tap dance to develop a career as a soloist, was born Jennie Bell, the youngest of four children. Her father, Hector Legon, was a chef and railway porter; her mother, Harriet, was a housewife. Not a high-heeled dancer in pretty skirts, she was a low-heeled dancer performing toe-stand in pants, and her rigorous combination of flash, acrobatics, and rhythm dancing proved you didn’t have to be a man to dance like a hoofer. Born and raised near the south side of Chicago, her musical talents were developed on the street, in neighborhood bands and musical groups.[…]
By the age of thirteen, buoyed by her brother who got a job touring as a singer and exhibition ballroom dancer, she landed her first job in musical theatre, dancing as a soubrette in pants, not pretty skirts.
By the age of sixteen, she was dancing in a chorus line backed by Count Basie Orchestra, and soon after touring as a chorus line dancer with Whitman Sisters, the highest paid act on the TOBA circuit. This all black, woman-managed company was successful in booking themselves continually in leading southern houses, and had the reputation for giving hundreds of dancers their first performing break. The Whitman Sisters’ chorus line, she remembers, “had all the colors that our race is known for. All the pretty shading– from the darkest to the palest of the pale. Each one of us was a distinct-looking kid. It was a rainbow of beautiful girls.”[…]
After dancing specialty acts in Detroit nightclubs, she headed for Los Angeles with a children’s unit, stopping the show with her flips, double spins, and knee drops. It was there that RKO discovered her talent and cast her to appear with Bill Robinson and Fats Waller in the 1935 film Hooray for Love. Dubbed by the press as the “Chocolate Princess,” MGM was impressed enough with her dancing to sign her to a long-term contract, paying the teenager $1250 a week. For her first film on contract with MGM, LeGon was assigned to work on Broadway Melody of 1936, the first of MGM’s Melody musicals, which was to star the tap-dancing Eleanor Powell. Given the music, LeGon began rehearsals, and at a cast dinner party to promote the show, even performed before Powell and stopped the show. By the next morning, LeGon was informed through her agent that MGM executives had decided that since Powell was already cast as the star soloist, two female tap dancers were not needed for the production. “They didn’t want to have two [female solo] dancers,” said LeGon, “and because I was the brown one, they just let me go.”
This eight-minute video covers LeGon’s career.
Another star performer from that era was Cora LaRedd.
From LaRedd’s Library of Congress biography
Cora LaRedd, the brilliant Harlem singer and dancer of the 1920s and 1930s, known for her hard-hitting rhythm-tap style, was often announced as the “Terpsichorean riot.” The rhythmic brilliance, athleticism, and open sexuality her dancing made her not only the most noted female soloist at the Cotton Club in the 1920s and 1930s, but also one of the most extraordinary jazz tap dancers in those decades. First recognized as a brilliant Harlem singer and dancer when she became the lead dancer for arranger and bandleader Charlie Dixon (of the Fletcher Henderson band), La Redd received her first Broadway notices in the musical comedy Say When (1928), in which she was singled out as “a sepia-tinted Zora O’Neal who combined limber-legged dancing with wah-wah singing.” Another reviewer reported that the one and only highlight of the “intimate musical” was when “a young colored girl called Cora La Redd became galvanized with electricity in full view of the audience, and to the barely concealed chagrin of white actors and actresses who were forced to grin while the Negress bowed.”
Broadway saw much of LaRedd in the late 1920s.[…]
Audiences were also dazzled by LaRedd at the Cotton Club, where she was regularly featured as the leading song-and-dance diva.
Things have changed for women tappers since the days of race films. Tap dancer Dianne Walker wrote about the “new generation” for Dance Magazine in 2022.
I have been asked, “Is tap dancing a male or female dance form?” My answer: Tap dance is a form of dance once dominated by men. However, today it is dominated by women. It’s all good.
I come from a long line of Black dancers who have shaped the history of tap dance, despite being rendered virtually invisible. When I put my tap shoes back on in 1977 at age 26 and entered what we now refer to as “the resurgence of tap dance,” I was fortunate to meet many of the legendary dancers who created the history I was so desperately trying to understand. Through Willie Spencer I met Leon Collins, who became my teacher and mentor, and through Leon I met all the other players. At first, they were mostly men, such as Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Honi Coles, Steve Condos, Eddie Brown, Cholly Atkins and Gregory Hines, to name a few.
Then, in 1982, I saw Debbie Allen and Gregory Hines tap dance on the telecast of the 54th Academy Awards, and that opened my eyes to the possibility of a Black woman as a professional tap dancer—wow.
Walker introduces tap dancers like Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who’s pictured above, as well as Chloe Arnold and Ayodele Casel. But before we get to them, we need to meet Dianne “Lady Di” Walker!
In 1978, Walker was a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two, living in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, and working as a staff psychologist at Boston City Hospital when she attended a social affair at Prince Hall Masonic Temple. There, she met the black vaudeville tap dancer Willie Spencer, who sent her the very next day to the studio of Leon Collins. “I walked into the studio and I see this little man sitting at his desk with a screw driver adjusting his shoes, and in the background his Baby Laurence album was playing, and he looks up at me and he says, ‘Hi dumplin’, I’ve been waiting for you– Willie called me and told me you wanted to learn to tap dance.” Collins began his teachings with his Routine #1, which Walker learned in increments, progressing to Routines 2, 3, and 4, which altogether comprised the core of his teachings. Eager, talented, and mature, Walker soon found herself teaching tap to Collins’s Saturday children’s class. She soon became his protégé.[…]
In 1989 Walker was featured in Great Performances: Tap Dance in America, hosted by Gregory Hines, dancing a solo to the swinging up-tempo Latin “Perdido.” She snapped into her elegant arms-open-wrists-dropped pose and sailed into her one-chorus solo– tapping the first A section with double-time stomps lifted onto the tips of the toes; then a scatting scissor-steps; and matching her murmuring cascade of rhythms, in the stop-time bridge, to the screeching accents of brass instruments, she finished with light-skipping trench steps. Looking insouciantly over her shoulder as luscious rhythms spilled from her feet, Walker was both demure and debonair– at thirty-eight years old, she had the radiant, authoritative ease and expertise of a veteran hoofer double her age.[…]
Walker is considered by many female black tap dance artists as the transitional figure between the young generation of female dancers– such as Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Germaine Ingram, Ayodele Casel– and the “forgotten black mothers of tap,” such as Edith “Baby” Edwards, Jeni LeGon, Lois Miller, and Florence Covan. The opportunities (for service to the field) that opened in the mid-1980s positioned Walker as the link from the old to the young, the “transitor” in passing on the rhythms and musicality of the old generation. She was also considered the griot, the holder of the classical black rhythm “canon,” bestowed on her when she worked as principal dancer in the Paris production of Black and Blue, as well as principal and assistant choreographer in the Broadway production. That show is today considered the quintessential black-rhythm tap musical of the century.
Watch Walker perform “Perdido”:
I got a real kick out of this video of her at the 11th Annual DC Tap Fest Concert. She’s demonstrating you don’t have to be a youngster to tap!
Back to those dancers mentioned by Lady Di! From Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ Library of Congress bio:
Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, tap dancer, choreographer, teacher who is regarded as the mastress of her generation, “had the rhythm in her” when at the age of three, she remembered watching her teenage sister dance and “being all in the way, getting right behind her and doing her steps.” Her mother wondered what would happen if she put her in a dance class and so enrolled her in Paul and Arlene Kennedy’s dancing school in Los Angeles. There, her extremely shy and unsmiling little girl picked up every step– and repeated it exactly as shown. In the summer of 1984, the year the summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles, the eight-year-old Sumbry and Cyd Glover were the two girls chosen to perform at the Tip Tap Festival in Rome, Italy; it was there that the eight-year-old Sumbry, tap dancing thousands of miles from home before an enraptured audience, realized her future as a tap dancer. While she made a brief appearance in the film Tap! (1989),starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr., as one of the young dancers in the studio taking a class with Savion Glover, her first big break came in 1989 when at the age of twelve, she made her Broadway debut in Black and Blue, representing The Young Generation with Cyd Glover and Savion Glover. Wearing low-heeled shoes, all three performed a stair dance; as a member of the chorus, she also performed Henry LeTang’s rhythmically complex tap routines in two-and-a-half-inch heels. In the 1990s, after graduating from high school, Sumbry became a soloist with Lynn Dally’s Los Angeles-based Jazz Tap Ensemble, making appearances in New York, Ohio, Hong Kong, and Alaska. She made visually engaging designs in such works as All Blues and Oracle, a quintet in which she and Derick Grant skated effortlessly across the stage with crossed-arms, turning under each other’s arms, dancing as one and in counterpoint to each other.
In 1999, Sumbry joined the cast of the Tony Award-winning Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk as the first female performer in the show. As Melba Huber wrote, “Because she could dance like a guy, nothing had to be changed and both Savion [Glover] and Derick[Grant] believed she could do it. But it is believed that she was cast as the first female in Noise/Funk in spite of being a girl, not because of it. She earned it, every step of it.” Iris Fanger writing about the performance of Noise/Funk in the Boston Globe wrote: “Although Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards is an engaging addition to the line-up, Glover’s unisex choreography makes no room for a statement on gender.” It was during this period that Sumbry began hearing comments about her dancing like a man: “First they would just kinda say, ‘Wow, you were really keeping up with those guys.’ And I’m like, ‘Is that what you want to say to me? Really?’ I’m the only girl up there and that’s what you want to say?”
Here she is in a breathtaking performance at the 2013 Stockholm Tap Festival:
The “Michael Jackson Vibe” site just posted an update on what Sumbry-Edwards is doing now, in addition to her history as the late King of Pop’s tap trainer and instructor.
Next up, meet Ayodele Casel:
Ayodele Casel, tap dancer, choreographer, and teacher noted for representing the new generation of high-heeled and low-heeled women in tap, was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1975, and [is] of Puerto Rican heritage. Raised by her mother, Aida Tirado, her father, Tayari Casel, was a renowned martial artist from Chicago. She spent her formative years in Rincon, Puerto Rico, where she attended school from fourth to ninth grade. There, listening to the Puerto Rican Salsa orchestra El Gran Combo and singers Hector LaVoe and Celia Cruz, her rhythmic sensibilities were etched by the music of Salsa– a mixture of Spanish and African music based on the son, and Afro-Cuban Latin jazz, which includes meringue, songo, son, mambo, Timba, bolero, charanga, and cha cha cha. She returned to New York City in 1990 and in the Fall of 1995, in her sophomore year in the Undergraduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she begin the study of tap dance with Charles Goddertz. One year later, she met and befriended Baakari Wilder, an undergraduate theatre major at NYU who was also a principal dancer in Savion Glover’s Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, which had opened at the Public Theatre and was being prepared for its Broadway opening.
Wilder began showing Casel tap steps in the NYU dorms and took her to tap jams at Fazils and the Lower East Side club Deanna’s, where she met Roxane Butterfly, Max Pollak, and Herbin Van Cayseele (Tamango) and learned to improvise. Wilder then recommended she study with American Tap Dance Orchestra principal dancer Barbara Duffy, whose class consisted of professional tap dancers.” Wilder also introduced Casel to Savion Glover, backstage at the Ambassador Theatre when Noise/Funk moved to Broadway. Glover continued to hear about the young female dancer hanging with the guys backstage and learning the choreography. Then he saw her dance one night, at the Nuyorican Poets Café (the New York Puerto Rican performance space at 236 East 3rd Street), where she was one of only a very few women who would get up and jam. Impressed with her tap dancing, Glover invited Casel to a taping of a performance that would serve as the opening credits to the 1997 ABC-TV Monday Night Football, a live television broadcast of the National Football League. Glover then invited Casel to be the only female dancer in his fledgling company Not Your Ordinary Tappers (NYOT).
Casel was interviewed last April on “CBS Morning News”:
Casel dances and pays tribute to those women in tap who came before her in “While I Have The Floor”
Listen to Casel tell her story in a 2021 episode of the “How I Made It” podcast from Latino USA:
Next up, let’s meet Chloe Arnold:
Her white French mother was a modern dancer and educator; her father, an African-American jazz enthusiast who played serious jazz and bebop. Her mother enrolled her at the age of six, as the only student of color, in the Wheaton Studio of Dance in Silver Spring, Maryland. At age nine, she auditioned for the National Tap Ensemble’s junior company, Flying Feet (directed by Chris Baker) and was soon taken into the company, where she learned the rudiments and took master classes with Eddie Brown, Harriet Brown, LaVaughan Robinson, and Dorothy Wassermann. In 1990, Savion Glover auditioned and accepted the ten-year-old Arnold into his resident program at NTE, with Barbara Duffy as rehearsal director. She was accepted into Glover’s workshop three years in a row and in 1991 was taken to New York City to perform in “The Real Deal” in Frank Hatchet’s Olympic Fever Showcase; and saw the Broadway production of Jelly’s Last Jam, starring Gregory Hines and Glover. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., she began study with Toni Lombre, her first black female teacher who was the artistic director of Taps & Company. Lombre, who had performed on Broadway in Maurice Hines’s Uptown…It’s Hot!, and with Mercedes Ellington’s company DancEllington, demanded that her dancers study ballet, jazz, and modern dance, as well as tap. Arnold joined Lombre’s all-black female tap company and recalled, “It was one of my most important developmental periods. Toni took me from a young girl to a young woman. She turned me into a well-versed dancer. I progressed as a performer and developed self-confidence.”
Enjoy this short video from Elle magazine about Arnold’s journey, which also includes a performance.
Flashes of footwork and a flurry of sound filled the Debbie Allen Dance Academy as tap dancers gathered for their weekly improvisational jam session. Dancing on and in between the beat, dancers spoke with their feet — expressed themselves without inhibition.
But on this particular evening in 2003, dancer Chloe Arnold noticed something unusual about the makeup of the group. Instead of a room full of men, this group consisted of mostly women. It was a rare sight for Arnold, who for years had participated in jam sessions in New York, working her way up the ranks of what was tap dancing’s boys club.
“Women are taught to follow the rules, to be quiet, to ask permission,” Arnold said, referring to the deep cultural norms that help to explain why so many aspiring female dancers did not see a place for themselves in tap. “When you’re dealing with improvisation and freestyle, there is no asking permission.”
It requires courage, she said. “A lot of courage.”
But seeing the group of women dancing without confines, inspiration struck.“I thought these are sisters I need to bring together to create something,” she said. So Arnold, along with her sister and fellow tap dancer Maud Arnold, recruited tappers for an all-women group called the Syncopated Ladies.
The Ladies are drawing a younger generation into the world of tap by tapping to tunes by contemporary artists like Beyoncé. It’s an approach Natalie Rivera covered for Pop Sugar in 2018.
Syncopated Ladies — who are famous for their tap dancing covers of pop hits, including some Beyoncé songs — released a tap dance tribute to OT Genasis’s “Everybody Mad,” which Beyoncé performed with a marching band at the festival. Directed by Becca Nelson, a tap dancer in the crew, the video shows the Syncopated Ladies tap dancing to the 2017 single that includes Queen Bey’s vocals.
I’ll close here, but I have so much more tap to share! join me in the comments and be sure to share your favorites!