At one time, tap dancing was so popular in Philadelphia, it was a hit on radio. The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, the toe-tapping rages of their day, were stars of
The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour
in the 1930s.
Like many great African American acts, the Nicholas Brothers spawned imitators, innovators and admirers, and from the Depression until at least the 1980s, Philadelphia was a tap-dance mecca.
Now, Jaye Allison wants both to remember those times and to revive what she believes is a Philadelphia street art with the Philly Tap Challenge: On Fire!, a convention and performance weekend she believes will set people tapping, and thus smiling, all around town.
"I knew when I was 7 years old that I wanted to tap, when I went to a recital and saw some glow-in-the-dark tap shoes and a guy came out with a top hat and cane," said Allison, a teacher and performer in Philadelphia for the last two decades through her New Leja Dances company. "It is one of the great Philadelphia art forms and it is time that it is honored and revived."
So tonight and Saturday, the Philly Tap Challenge will offer workshops, master classes, performances, competitions and a reception ball, all devoted to tap. As part of the ceremonies, the Nicholas Brothers will be honored with the Philly Master of Tap Award. Harold died in 2000 and Fayard died last year, but two of Fayard's granddaughters, Nicole and Cathie, tour as the Nicholas Sisters, and will collect the honor.
The Legends for Legends Ball tonight launches the festivities. It will be from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Broad and Fitzwater Streets. Among the guests will be the Silver Belles, women now in their 80s and 90s who were once dancers at the great New York dance clubs and the Apollo Theater, and dancer Maurice Hines.
Allison said there would be a mini-videofest at the ball, with excerpts showing Hines dancing in the movie The Cotton Club, footage of the Nicholas Brothers, and a piece on the Silver Belles, "Been Rich All My Life."
Alfie Pollitt and the All-Star Band will be playing Philadelphia-sound music for those wanting to tap, or dance in their chosen fashion.
The Nicholas Sisters will be among those giving workshops during the day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of the Arts Terra Building and the Kimmel Center. The Nicholas Brothers were famous for including acrobatics with their tap, with perhaps their most stunning routine coming in the 1943 Lena Horne film Stormy Weather, where they leapfrogged each other coming down a staircase, doing splits on almost every step.
Marion Coles, wife of the late Honi Coles, another tap legend who grew up in South Philadelphia, will hold a class on the Coles Stroll, a circling tap dance that Honi Coles developed for a TV performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It became a standard opening dance for tap performances in the 1950s and 1960s.
There will also be classes in contemporary moves like Philadelphia step dancing, classics like flamenco, and old-timey routines like the Lindy Hop and what Allison calls the national anthem of tap, the Shim Sham Shimmy.
"Everyone should learn a little tap. It really is something lively that anyone can do, at least a little," Allison said. Her inspiration is her professor at the University of the Arts, LaVaughn Robinson, who at 80 is still an adjunct in dance at the university and will be among those honored this weekend.
"I was a formal dancer, but he expanded my repertoire to street hoofing," she said. "That's the great joy of tap, that it is really a dance for all people."
The culmination of the weekend is the only somewhat formal Philly Tap Idol Competition, a square-off kind of performance in which a contestant does his or her routine and then another performer, onstage nearby, comes up right on his or her heels, so to speak, hoping to outdance the predecessor. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Iron Gate Theatre, 3700 Chestnut St.
"It's like in the Cotton Club movie, where someone goes on and the next person says, 'Get out of the way. This is my step,' and tries to outdo him," Allison said. "Whoever the audience likes, whoever gets the most cheers, that's the winner. It should be all great fun, which is what tap celebrates."
If You Go
Friday: Legends for Legends Ball, 6 to 10 p.m., Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, 736-38 S. Broad St. Maurice Hines, the Silver Belles, Alfie Pollitt and the All-Star Band, video tribute to tap and its Philadelphia roots. $25 online (www.behinddoors.biz) and $30 at the door. Phone: 215-747-5352.
Saturday: Workshops and dance classes, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Innovations Studio, 260 S. Broad St. Nicholas Sisters teaching Nicholas Brothers routines; Marion Coles teaching the Honi Coles Stroll; the Philly Paddle and Roll with Jaye Allison; Broadway Tap with Delphine T. Mantz.
Also at the University of the Arts Terra Building, 211 S. Broad St. The Shim Sham Shimmy with Corinne Karon; Flamenco with Anna Castellanos; the Gregory Hines routine from the movie Tap with Tim Yue; the Lindy Hop with Delphine T. Mantz; Tap Turns with Pam Hetherington; Enhanced Classical Tap with Mary Gee; Improvisation and Challenge Workshop with David Pershica and Robert Burden; Original Philly Step with Rennie Harris.
Classes from $10 to $30. Go to Web site www.behinddoors.biz or call 215-747-5352 for times and registration.
Philly Tap Idol Competition and Philly Master of Tap Award to Nicholas Brothers, 7 p.m., Iron Gate Theatre, 3700 Chestnut St. Tickets: $30 in advance or $35 at the door. Registration and information: www.behinddoors.biz or 215-747-5352.