Tapping into his experience
Late summer is tap festival season, so it’s been a busy time for vaudeville legend Ernest “Brownie” Brown, who, at 89, is still making the circuit -- helping teach historic routines at Tap City in New York City, the St. Louis Tap Festival, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and, this week, the LA Tap Festival held at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City.
Brown was one of the many tap dancing greats -- Dick Van Dyke, Arthur Duncan and Fayard Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers, among them -- who helped draw in about 250 students from across the country for the festival that began Monday and ends tonight.
Brown, who began performing at 11, and his dance partner, Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin, instructed a group of about 50 students on the chair dance, the signature routine of Brown’s legendary tap fraternity called the Copasetics. The group, of which Brown is the last living member of its performing arm, was formed in 1949 in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. When asked how things were going, Robinson always responded, “It’s copacetic.” “That was his way of saying, ‘It’s cool,’ ” McLaughlin explained earlier in the week in a history of tap class.
The chair dance was inspired by another group of tap dancers, who used to hang out in the back room of an East Harlem pool hall called the Hoofers. The proprietor welcomed them there anytime, but if they were found sleeping they would get kicked out. “Some of the guys who didn’t have anywhere else to go would try to take a catnap [while seated], but they would keep their feet tapping so it looked like they were dancing,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin began dancing with Brown 12 years ago, after he convinced the then-retired Brown to teach him the old routines. The pair worked on the complicated steps in the basement of Brown’s Chicago home on an indoor/outdoor carpet, with no tap shoes.
In class, the students sat in black plastic folding chairs in long rows in front of a mirrored wall. In the first row, to the far left, was a group of teenagers -- three boys and a girl -- who had already taken the class at previous tap festivals. “Some of them are following us,” said McLaughlin. “They’re like chair dance groupies.”
The students applauded when Brown, dressed in stone gray pants and a black short-sleeved, button-down shirt walked into the room. Though generally reserved, Brown has a reputation as something of a party boy in the tap world.
Hank Smith, a tap dancer and video editor who helps run the Tap Extravaganza in New York City, says whenever Brown rolls into town nobody gets any sleep. “He always wants to go out and hear music, see what’s going on,” said Smith. “Whenever we go to swing clubs everybody wants to dance with him, all ages, because he can do that too.”
Thin and under 5 feet tall, Brown is also inclined to make a song out of anything he sees. “There they go, the pretty dancers ... " he croons when a group of 14-year-olds click past him in their tap shoes.
As McLaughlin began teaching the first steps, Brown took a seat in front of the mirror and quietly looked on. Though there is a technical language for tap, McLaughlin seemed to teach in skat. “Ba, ba-ba, ba,” he said, addressing the students and demonstrating the steps in red-and-white spats with taps on the bottom. “OK? So Ba, ba-ba, ba.” Brown nodded his head in approval.
McLaughlin put on the music -- a simple, repetitive piano tune -- and he and Brown did the first several bars of the dance together. McLaughlin’s tap shoes pounded the floor hard, while Brown’s tiny feet, clad in gray leather slippers, moved delicately, silently hitting all the intricate steps.
Brown dangled his arms at chest height and he occasionally pointed to the left or the right to accent the movement of his feet. A dreamy smile was on his face. The students moved their feet along with the duo, gently and quietly -- a tap dancer’s equivalent of mouthing the words.
“OK, everybody” said McLaughlin, and then came the thunder of 100 feet clad in black tap shoes. The floor shook. McLaughlin screamed above it all: “And five, six, seven, eight, Ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, bee boo BAH BAH.”
Brown just kept moving his feet and smiling.