TAP DANCE HALL OF FAME
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Bunny Briggs (February 26, 1922- )
Dubbed by Duke Ellington as "the most superleviathonic, rhythmaturgically-syncopated tapsthamaticianisamist,” Bunny Briggs says he was born dancing: “When I finally faced the world my legs were kickin’. They let me loose, and I just started dancin’ . Just started right out dancin’. And been dancing ever since.” He was born on Lenox Avenue and 138th Street in Harlem, New York. At the age of three his mother took him to the Lincoln Theatre to see his aunt Gladys, who was a chorus girl. After seeing the dapper Bill Robinson perform at the Lincoln he rushed home to say, “Mamma, I want to be a tap dancer,” and proceeded to show her the steps from the routine that Robinson performed. Absorbing tap dance on the streets of his neighborhood, he was soon organized into Porkchops, Navy, Rice, and Beans, a kiddie dance group that performed in ballrooms around the city to such tunes as “Bugle Call Blues.” In the early 1930s, after being discovered by pianist and orchestra leader Luckey Roberts, he joined Roberts’ Society Entertainers and by the age of eight began performing in the homes and mansions of some of America’s wealthiest people, performing for New York's Four Hundred: the Astors, Wanamakers and Vanderbilts. When he was twenty in the early foreties he began touring with the big swing bands of Earl Hines, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charley Barnet and Count Basie, able migrate from band to band because he was musically versatile and could improvise. With the influence and help of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Briggs adapted his style to bebop. He also created his own style of paddle-and-roll tapping that combined pantomime. “I was always an improvisation dancer,” he told Rusty Frank. “ I never danced to the same tune more than two or three times. My style is carefree. It’s carefree and hard, but I try to make it look easy.” Writes Brenda Bufalino about Briggs, “There was never any problem keeping Bunny on stage. He kept dancing his riff- walks and quick turns, flipping his head, and whipping his hair. He stopped short to give the audience a chance to applaud in the middle of his solo, and finally, when he brought the whole house to its feet, he would walk over to the microphone and tell them how much he loved them.”
After appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1960 with the Duke Ellington band, Briggs became known as "Duke's dancer" was the chosen soloist in Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Dance, in “David Danced Before the Lord,” which premiered at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (September 16, 1965); he was also the soloist for the East Coast premiere of Concert of Sacred Music at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (December 26, 1966) in New York. Briggs also took part, along with along with Baby Laurence, Honi Coles, Pete Nugent, and Cholly Atkins, in the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival in a landmark concert which marked the ascendancy of tap dance in popularity. Jazz critic Whitney Balliett described Briggs in that concert as an “airborne dancer whose steps and motions are an exquisite balance of comic exaggeration and almost fussy precision. In the paddle-and-roll, he began with a long sequence of abrupt, irregular heel beats, punctuated by silences and quick, stiff head-and-arm motions, broke into a barrage of military-type flam strokes, and settled into soft, dizzying heel-and-toe beats (his torso and head now motionless) that carried him smoothly all over the seemingly ice-coated stage.”
On television in the 1950s Briggs appeared on Cavalcade of Bands; in 1960s he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show; and in the 1970s Johnny Carson shows, as well as such TV specials as Apollo Uptown and Monk's Time. During the 1970s and 1980s he danced aboard tour ships; and toured Europe in the 1980s with The Hoofers (which included Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Sandman Sims, Chuck Green) In 1989 he was one of he featured dancers in PBS/Great Performance’s Tap Dance in America, and was one of three hoofers (Briggs, Howard “Sandman” Sims and Chuck Green) whose biographies are documented in the film No Maps On My Taps (1979). He also appeared with such tap veterans as Sammy Davis, Jr., Harold Nicholas, Arthur Duncan, Jimmy Slyde, and Sandman Sims, presented in the 1989 film, Tap, starring Gregory Hines. In the last half of the 1980s, Briggs performed in Europe with Sweet Saturday Night, and on Broadway in My One and Only (1983) and Black and Blue (1989), also appearing in the 1992 television documentary about Black and Blue, directed by Robert Altman.
“Some people ask me about my sound,” Briggs explained to Rusty Frank. “And I’ve been blessed in so many ways, because I danced in the streets, I danced in hallways, I danced in hot-dog stands, and I danced for society. When I would work for the society people, they would have a good time, but soft. . . they’d have a beautiful time.” One of Briggs’ most significant moments of accomplishment was in a small nightclub in Staten Island called the Moulin Rouge, when he asked couples in the audience to put their arms around each other as he tap-danced. Dimming the lights in the club, he said to the audience, “This is the first and last time I’ll ask for this. I don’t want no applause. Just stay like that.” He danced two choruses of a soft-shoe to “I’ll Be Loving You, Always,” and when he finished he just walked off the stage, leaving the lights low as the men continued kissin’ and hugging their partners. “And that to me was the greatest compliment I’ve ever had. It was just beautiful.”
In 2002, Briggs received an honorary doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance by the Oklahoma City University (2002).
Constance Valis Hill
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