Tapping into Maryland's rich dance history

Coppin State faculty member Quynn Johnson will be performing next Friday as part of Buster, Baby and Hawk: Masters of Maryland Tap.
Coppin State faculty member Quynn Johnson will be performing next Friday as part of Buster, Baby and Hawk: Masters of Maryland Tap. (Lawrence Luk, Handout photo)

Who knew that Baltimore had such happy feet?

Three icons of tap dance who were famous nationwide — known colloquially as Baby Laurence, Buster Brown and Hawk — were born in Charm City and first perfected the "shim sham" and "cramp roll" and performed for spare change on local street corners.

The late hoofers will be honored Saturday during Buster, Baby and Hawk: Masters of Maryland Tap, a concert produced jointly by Coppin State University and the Creative Alliance at the Patterson that will mix local talent and national stars.

"Tap is an indigenous American art form that has deep roots in Baltimore," says Megan Hamilton, the Creative Alliance's program director. "Three of the giants of tap are from here, and we've been wanting to pay them tribute for a long time."

The program, which is being funded by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, will be hosted by Baltimore actress and dancer Maria Broom, who is perhaps best known for her role as Baltimore City Council member Marla Daniels on HBO's "The Wire."

The show will be headlined by Jason Samuels Smith, an Emmy Award-winning choreographer and dancer. It will feature a performance by Coppin faculty member Quynn Johnson, who has performed with tap phenomenon Savion Glover.

There will be a nod to the past in the form of film clips of the masters, whose birth certificate names were Laurence Jackson, James Brown and Louis Hawkins.

And there will be a nod to the future in the form of performances by tap's up-and-coming stars.

"It's important that people here in Baltimore know how important jazz music and jazz dance is to the city," says Michael "Toes" Tiranoff, the concert's artistic director and Hawk's longtime performance partner. "I would hope that people who come to the concert will become aware of the rich tradition of jazz tap dancing in Baltimore, learn about various styles and realize that the tradition is ongoing."

Among the local schools to offer professional instruction in tap is Coppin State, which in 2010 became just the second traditionally black college in the United States (along with Washington's Howard University) to offer an academic major in dance.

"We're trying to do away with the old stigma in the black community against making a career in the arts," says assistant professor Vanessa Coles, the program's director.

According to Tiranoff, tap flourished around the turn of the 20th century, when performers attending dance competitions began to mix African rhythms with Irish step and English clog dancing, and to adapt their movements to the syncopations of the hot new musical style, jazz.

"That's why tap is truly an American art form," he says. "It mixes all these different influences."

If tap rooted itself so firmly in Baltimore, perhaps that's because a remarkable group of talented artists all attended Frederick Douglass High School in the first half of the 20th century, from jazz great Cab Calloway to tap pioneers Baby Laurence and Buster Brown.

"They all knew each other, and they learned from one another," Tiranoff says.

The most innovative of the three dancers was Baby Laurence; Hamilton says dance fans debate among themselves whether Baby or Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the greatest tap artist of all time.

As Tiranoff puts it: "Some people argue that Baby Laurence created the bebop rhythm that Charlie Parker incorporated into his music later on."

Brown was known for an effortless style that almost made the dancer look as though he were floating.

Audiences watched him perform with Duke Ellington early in his career, and later on Broadway in the musical "Bubbling Brown Sugar" as well as in the 1984 film, "The Cotton Club." Glover paid him public homage as one of his four favorite tap dancers.

And Hawk, who shared bills with the likes of Count Basie, Redd Foxx, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, was a comic master. His trademark was his "chair dance," in which he would beat out fast and complex rhythms first while standing on a chair, then while sitting, and finally, lying on the floor on his back.

"Hawk never missed a beat," Tiranoff says. "The chair dance always brought the house down."


If you go

"Buster, Baby and Hawk: Masters of Maryland Tap" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Coppin State University's Weldom Johnson Auditorium, 2500 W. North Ave. $5-$20. Call 410-276-1651 or go to creativealliance.org.

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