Bob Carroll dies at 48; a lauded improvisational tap dancer

Bob Carroll, beloved improvisational tap dancer, dies at 48

Some local Home Depot customers might remember Bob Carroll as that affable, prematurely balding guy in carpentry — never realizing that Carroll was among the most respected tap dancers of his generation.

The quirky, beloved Carroll, 48, who had been in declining health, died Oct. 13 in a single-vehicle traffic accident in Pueblo, Colo.

Carroll was best known as a performer for 18 years with the Southern California company Rhapsody in Taps, where he danced featured roles in choreographed pieces and unleashed memorable solo improvisations.

"Some improvisers, you can tell they're ending a pattern they worked up and moving into another pattern," said company artistic director Linda Sohl-Ellison. "He just seamlessly flowed right through the dance from beginning to end with all kinds of in-the-moment inspirations."

At 16th-note speed he could create footwork that was "poetic, introspective and playful," she added, "but inevitably pushed along like a sweeping current."

Carroll was nominated numerous times for L.A.'s Lester Horton Dance Award for best male soloist, Sohl-Ellison said. He also worked as a tap coach/advisor for 20th Century Fox Studios and with noted choreographers including Twyla Tharp, Don Crichton and Debbie Allen. He also starred with other dance companies and was part of the original cast of "Caution, Men at Work: TAP."

Carroll was born Sept. 28, 1966, in Hibbing, Minn. The large family moved 22 times in 15 years to follow the construction jobs of Matthew Carroll, who married Bob's mother, Frances, and adopted Bob.

They were living in Everett, Wash., when the smallish 10-year-old, who had bailed out of karate, watched his older sister take a tap class. He wanted to try it, remembered his mother, Frances Pratt. Afterward, the boy asked the teacher, in earnest: "Do I have what it takes to be an entertainer?"

After six months of incessant practice, he joined the teacher's dance company. After three years, the teacher insisted that Bob, who also was acting, go to Los Angeles.

The family landed randomly in a San Fernando Valley hotel. The manager, who happened to be a musician, learned of the boy's obsession to absorb tap and advised: "Don't try anybody until you try Louis DaPron," his mother recalled.

The renowned teacher had a studio down the street, and Carroll quickly became DaPron's protege. The boy soon landed a role as a featured child performer on "The Tim Conway Show."

As a teenager, Carroll achieved some acclaim and regular work. Gregory Hines nicknamed Carroll "white lightning" after Carroll's white shoes and fleet feet.

But the 1980s were difficult times for a child performer who was growing up and wanting mainly to tap before live audiences.

"I'm not that cute little kid anymore," he told his mother.

He put tap on hiatus for seven years, working in Alaska fisheries, among other places, and traveling widely.

Sohl-Ellison saw him dance at a potluck picnic and invited him to join her company. He always proved a crowd favorite because his talent transmitted through regular-guy humility. Peers and students described a quiet, generous teacher with a zany streak.

Carroll was "the easiest guy to work with," said drummer Chris Blondal, but added: "I was intimidated to play off him because he was so fast. Half the time I'd give up because I can't play so soft and fast at the same time."

Carroll worked various jobs to get by, including at home-improvement stores. He always was handy, making perfectly balanced kites for his sisters from discarded scraps and artisan-quality drums from wood he salvaged from the destruction of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Also an avid outdoorsman, he once tried to persuade his sisters — only half in jest — to try his concoction of fresh cattails mixed with instant oatmeal.

But a lifelong diabetic condition increasingly took a toll. His feet began to swell painfully after he danced. He suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He quietly retired from dancing three years ago and moved to Colorado.

Investigators suspect that a medical issue may have caused him to lose control of his truck on a mountain road, resulting in the fatal crash.

One of Carroll's final improvised performances with Rhapsody in Taps can be viewed online at the dance company's website.

In addition to his mother, Carroll is survived by six of his seven siblings: Roger Pride, Jacquie Carroll, Franee Carroll, Cassidy Hooker, Ty King and Rhonda Anderson.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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