PREVIEW : Hoofing It Back Through the History of Black Dance

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Even a plot twist-crazy soap opera writer couldn’t have dreamed up this one: teen-ager Chester Whitmore, while pedaling his bike home from dance class (which he didn’t like much) stops to help a man stranded by the side of the road. The grateful stranger, who just happens to be Fayard Nicholas of the world-famous tap team the Nicholas Brothers, spots the tap shoes dangling from the bike’s handlebars and offers to give the young man a few tapping lessons. Now critics call Whitmore the best young hoofer of his generation.

Whitmore dazzles audiences around the world with his speed and finesse, but he’s much more than a happy hoofer. As artistic director and star of the Black Ballet Jazz Troupe, he is most concerned with preserving the many dances of black America.

“Kids think they were the first ones to come up with moonwalking and poplocking,” Whitmore said. “They don’t know that those dances came from people with names like Rubber Legs, Snakey and Bubbles, and go all the way back to slave days.”


Whitmore’s group shows usually take the audience through a foot-blurring history of black dance, from the dances of New Orleans’ Congo Square to the Cotton Club-era dances of the late ‘20s and the fad dances of the ‘40s, to the street dances of the ‘70s and ‘80s. (“We do 24 numbers in two hours,” Whitmore says.)

It’s a strict adherence to historical accuracy that makes Black Ballet Jazz different from other black dance groups.

“A lot of companies do ballet, or modern or jazz dance,” Whitmore said. “We include the true form of American dance, which is tap, with jazz, the true form of American music. You might see one or two of these dances in a Broadway show or a Hollywood movie, but it’s always watered down.”

While the group isn’t well known in Los Angeles, its hometown, it has received invitations from around the world to perform; it was the only official U. S. entry in the recent Edinburgh Festival. This summer, the troupe will travel to Iceland, East and West Germany, Italy and Yugoslavia, and it has received an invitation from the Soviet Union.

Hometown rooters can catch Whitmore’s act this Sunday at the University of Judaism or at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 5 for the International Folk Dance Festival.

Black Ballet Jazz, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. University of Judaism, Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.