TAP DANCE HALL OF FAME

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Charles “Honi” Coles (2 April 1911-12 November 1992)
2003 Inductee

Charles “Honi” Coles, tap dancer, raconteur, and veteran performer of the stage, vaudeville, television, and the concert world, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George and Isabel Coles. He learned to tap dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time step "cutting" contests, and made his New York City debut at the Lafayette Theatre in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique. He returned to New York City in 1934, confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music. Performing at the Harlem Opera House and Apollo Theatre, he was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business. And at the Hoofer's Club, where only the most serious tap dancers gathered to compete, he was hailed as one of the most graceful dancers ever seen.

From 1936 to 1939 Coles performed with the Lucky Seven Trio, who tapped on large cubes that looked like dice; the group went through ten costume changes in the course of their act. Touring with the big swing bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the 6’2” Coles polished his style, melding high-speed tapping with an elegant yet close-to-the-floor style where the legs and feet did the work. In 1940, as a soloist with Cab Calloway's orchestra, Coles met Charles "Cholly" Atkins, a jazz tap dancer who would later choreograph for the best rhythm-and-blues singing groups of the 1960s. Atkins was an expert wing dancer, while Coles's specialty was precision.

They combined their talents after the War by forming the class act of Coles & Atkins. Wearing handsomely tailored suits, the duo opened with a fast-paced song-and-tap number, then moved into a precision swing dance and soft-shoe, finishing with a tap challenge in which each showcased his specialty. Their classic soft-shoe, danced to "Taking a Chance on Love" and played at an extremely slow tempo, was a nonchalant tossing off of smooth slides and gliding turns in crystal-cut precision. Coles performed speedy, swinging and rhythmically complex combinations in his solos, which anticipated the prolonged cadences of bebop that extended the duration of steps past the usual eight-bar phrase.

In 1944 Coles married Marion Evelyn Edwards, a dancer in the Number One chorus at the Apollo Theatre; they had two children. Through the 1940s, Coles & Atkins appeared with the big bands of Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie. In 1949, at the Ziegfeld Theatre in the Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, they stopped the show with the Jule Styne number, "Mamie is Mimi," to which choreographer Agnes De Mille had added a ballet dancer. By the time the show closed in 1952 the big-band era was drawing to a close and a new style of ballet Broadway dance that integrated choreography into the musical plot became the popular form over tap dance.

Though Coles in 1954-1955 opened the Dance Craft studio on fifty-second Street in New York City with tap dancer Pete Nugent, there was a steady decrease in the interest of tap dance in the 1950s. "No work, no money. Tap had dropped dead," Coles remembered of that decade. Coles and Atkins broke up in 1960; and for the next sixteen years, Coles worked as production stage manager for the Apollo Theatre with duties that included introducing other acts. He served as president of the Negro Actors Guild and continued his association with the Copasetics, a tapping fraternity named in honor of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, which he had helped to found in 1949. At the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962 Coles was in the forefront of the tap revival that brought veteran members of the Copasetics back to the stage. In the early 1970s, he joined Brenda Bufalino in their duet concert of the Morton Gould Tap Concerto and toured the United States and England in their collaboration concert of Singin’ Swingin’ and Wingin’ where each contributed original musical compositions, monologs, and choreography. He joined the touring company of Bubblin' Brown Sugar performing the role of John Sage in 1976, and regained his stride as a soloist, performing at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. After receiving a standing ovation for his performance in the Joffrey Ballet production of Agnes De Mille's "Conversations on the Dance", in 1978, Coles firmly placed tap dance in the world of concert dance. In 1983 at age seventy-two, he received the Tony Award, Fred Astaire Award, and Drama Desk Award for best featured actor and dancer in a musical for the Broadway hit, My One and Only, starring Tommy Tune. Jack Kroll in Newsweek called Coles "Brilliant!" in that musical, adding that his feet had "the delicacy and power of a master pianist's hands."

Coles was a tap dancer of extraordinary elegance whose personal style and technical precision epitomized the class-act dancer. "Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire," the singer Lena Horne said of Coles. The historian Sally Sommer wrote that Coles was "a supreme illusionist he appeared to float and do nothing at all while his feet chattered complex rhythms below." He was also a master teacher who preached, "If you can walk, you can tap." As an untiring advocate of tap dance, Coles often claimed that tap dance was the only dance art form that America could claim as its own. He was awarded the Dance Magazine Award in 1985, the Capezio Award for lifetime achievement in dance in 1988, and the National Medal of the Arts in 1991. Coles last appeared as master of ceremonies at the Colorado Tap Festival with former partner Atkins, performing up to the end of a long and rhythmically brilliant career. He died in New York City.

Coles has appeared in the films The Cotton Club and Dirty Dancing and the documentaries Great Feats of Feet, Charles “Honi” Coles - The Class Act of Tap, and Milt and Honi. Television shows include "The Tap Dance Kid," "Mr. Griffin and Me," "Conversations in Dance," "Charleston," "Archives of a Master" and Dance in America's "Tap Dance in America" for PBS.

Coles & Atkins' classic Soft Shoe can be seen in the 1963 Camera Three television program, "Over the Top with Bebop," narrated by jazz historian Marshall Stearns. The most descriptive material on Coles & Atkins includes Marshall and Jean Stearns' Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Macmillan, 1968); and Jaqui Malone, "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime: The Vocal Choreography of Cholly Atkins" in Steppin' On The Blues (University of Illinois Press, 1996).

Constance Valis Hill

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