Plenty of Good Women Dancers:" African American Women Tap Dancers.
Glamorous film clips, photographs, and dancers' vivid recollections convey a portrait of veteran Philadelphia women hoofers prominent during the golden age of swing and rhythm tap (1930s-1940s). This exhibition focuses on women who "came up" from the 1920s through the present. Restricted to few roles, unnamed in credits, these African American women dancers have remained anonymous within and outside of the entertainment industry and sometimes even in the communities in which they reside. The exhibition offers us a glimpse into an era often viewed only through the perspectives of male tap dancers, agents, and entertainment impresarios. It honors the artistry and rhythmic innovation of these dance pioneers. (1996)
During the "golden age" of rhythm tap dance, legendary African American acts thrilled crowds at the Apollo in New York, the Earle in Philadelphia and the Howard Theater in Washington. Tap dance thrived in great urban theaters as well as in tent shows, nightclubs and bars around the country. Tap was so popular - and there were so many great dancers - that people say "dancers were a dime a dozen" in the 1930s and 1940s. This is a comment on the vitality of this vernacular art and on how it has been chronically undervalued.
For every dancer whose name is widely known today - Bill Robinson or Philadelphia's own Honi Coles or the Nicholas Brothers - there are thousands of others who have faded into obscurity. Very little record remains of the presence and artistry of African American women tap dancers.
Recent revivals and scholarly works have focused on male dancers, some of whom have enjoyed second careers since the resurgence of interest in tap in the late 1970s. This exhibit focuses on some women who performed from the 1920s through the 1980s. Based in Philadelphia for much of their lives, they have worked widely. Their careers span a wide range of tap dance experience. Edith Hunt was a child star as "Baby Edwards" and a "class" tap act for twenty years with her partner as "Spic and Span." Delores McHarris tap danced with her husband as "McHarris and Delores" and played great theaters around the world. Libby Spencer tap danced and choreographed as captain of the "number one" chorus line at the Apollo Theater. Isabelle Fambro gave stylish performances as part of the song and dance team "Billy and Eleanor Byrd." And Hortense Allen Jordan was a producer - the first African American woman to put a chorus line in the Paramount on Broadway - as well as a choreographer and dancer.
Most of these women are retired. They came together with other entertainers to put on "Stepping in Time," a show which they co-produced with the Philadelphia Folklore Project in 1995. Contemporary photographs by Jane Levine are from that performance. Historic photographs, mostly from women's personal collections, give glimpses of their past. Photographs of other African American women tap dancers extend our story.
This is not a sad story. African American women tap dancers never had an easy time. They worked in a glamorous and sometimes brutal industry. But these are not women who lament the past. They are artists and survivors, who look back with pleasure in the performances they created and witnessed. They still want to set the record straight. This exhibition is intended to help do that.
"We had plenty of good women dancers." --Libby Spencer
"It's not that women couldn't tap dance better, it's just that they weren't gonna get the opportunity... to over-dance the man. They didn't want to give them the chance to show a man up, y'know...." --Libby Spencer
"In them days, there was a lot of female tap dancers that never got that recognition.... When they wanted a tap dancer, they never asked for no woman... and a lot of time they never asked if it was man or a woman, they just asked for a tap dancer and automatically it was a man...." --LaVaughn Robinson
African American women choreographed and produced shows. They danced as tap acts, in the chorus line, in novelty acts, as song and dance teams, as exotic dancers, and in comedy acts. They brought talent, drive, and determination.
But show business dealt in types and stereotypes. Women were expected to wear certain kinds of clothes, to take certain roles, and to look a particular way. Women chiefly had chances to tap in top-notch chorus lines. In acts, they usually danced as partners with men where they were expected to supply glamour and style. Despite the tyranny of expectations, some few female solo acts, duos, trios and quartets broke through: the Whitman Sisters, Louise Madison, the Three Poms, the Edwards Sisters, Salt and Pepper, and others.
01. Philadelphia tap dancer Dottie Saulters was a child star. She danced solo, and in the 1940s, as a duo with her husband Chollie Atkins. Here she starred in the production number in the movie "Vogues of 1938." Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
02. Marie Bryant was a chorus girl, soubrette and tap dancer. She danced solo and partnered Harold Nicholas in the "Mr. Bee-Bee" production number in the movie "Carolina Blues." Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
03. The Miller Brothers and Lois were a top tap team. Their act included spectacular dancing on platform letters spelling "MILLER." Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
04. Jeni LeGon was the only African American woman to dance with Bill Robinson in films. She learned a great deal touring with the Whitman Sisters, and could do both flash and solid rhythm tap. Here she appears in "Fools for Scandal," 1938, with the Les Hite band and the Three Brown Sisters. Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
05. The Brown Buddies Chorus in "Hot from Harlem." Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
06. This chorus line appeared with Duke Ellington and his orchestra in "Murder at the Vanities," 1934. Photo courtesy Ernie Smith collection
07. Hoofer Libby Spencer danced in the chorus for the 1945 Broadway production of "Memphis Bound" with Bill Robinson. In this detail from a clipping in her possession, she is in the center, with her arms raised. Photo courtesy Libby Spencer.
"Baby Edwards was the most outstanding girl dancer in show business." --Libby Spencer
Edith "Baby" Edwards was tap dancing and winning amateur contests at age three. She was a star by the time she was five. In the 1920s, she was among the talented African American child performers who were regularly featured in contests and kiddie shows at such places as the Standard and Lincoln Theaters in Philadelphia. She was the first African American performer to be invited to dance on the Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour, a live radio show broadcast.
Agents weren't always interested in African American women dancers when they grew up, but Edwards continued to successfully work as a solo act. She occasionally teamed with men, and appeared widely and in top slots. Still in her teens, she was already closing shows at the Apollo - a major accomplishment. When she was about twenty, she teamed with Willie Joseph, and performed with him, as Spic and Span, for twenty years until the early 1960s, when her mother became ill. Edwards stopped traveling to stay home and care for her. She taught tap dance in city recreation department programs for sixteen years.
08. Baby Edwards, c. 1928. "How I started was on the Kiddie Hour. My mother used to take me around. . ." --Edith Edwards Hunt
09. "Taps and Baby" with Pete Diggs' band at a club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, early 1940s. "This was the first time I worked with Redd Foxx." --Edith Edwards Hunt
10 &12. New York, C. 1940s. "We danced in USO shows in Japan and the Philippines, for the soldiers, you know." --Edith Edwards Hunt
13. In Detroit at Club 6 with comic Willie Ashcan Jones and others, 1940s-50s.
14. Spic and Span, 1950s-60s
15. Spic and Span, 1950s-60s. "It was never thought of a woman doing the hard stuff. Only Spic and Span was when a girl out-danced the fellow, and he had to overcome it with how he dressed and flash." --Libby Spencer
16. "I'd just go out there and dance. I loved to dance. When I go out there, it's something that I feel." --Edith Edwards Hunt. Photo: Jane Levine, courtesy Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, 1994.
"During those years, you had to dance, sing and do it all. . ." --Libby Spencer
"The agents expected us to do the same act all over the world, wherever they booked us... Hotel owners and theater owners would come and see you and buy you right off the stage. They wanted to see what they were buying." --Isabel Fambro
"Most of the time when the women joined the act, the men were already in the business. And to tell you the truth, we had to supply the glamour." --Delores McHarris
How much creative freedom did dancers have? Dance acts had more autonomy than women dancing in the chorus line, but agents, audiences, show producers and a wide range of others all had an impact on which acts "sold." To "keep the work coming," some dancers learned to modify their acts - altering costumes, changing music, adding props, comedy, flashy steps, and more. There were as many ways of negotiating the business as there were individual dancers. But underneath the stereotypes and pressures, a whole lot of good dancing was going on. And a far wider range of dance skills, routines, personae, and costume existed than one would think from the record preserved by Hollywood, which further limited, exaggerated and stereotyped African American women's tap dance.
17. Isabelle Fambro and Billy Byrd (as Billy and Eleanor Byrd), 1940s. "Billy and I were billed as song and dance dignitaries, and honey, we had to act like it. We spent almost half of our salary on wardrobe... " - Isabelle Fambro
18. "Baby Edwards, now she was the dancer. But she had to keep herself toned down so he could work!" -- Libby Spencer. Edith "Baby Edwards" Hunt and Willie "Span" Josephs, c. 1960s.
19. Delores and Dave McHarris, 1960s.
20. Delores and Dave McHarris at the Palace, 1970s. "We always did a full dance act. I did some Russian steps and Dave jumped over me into a split... We danced our way around the world and we kept dancing, too - from the 1940s all the way up to today. We never really retired." --Delores McHarris (view photo).
21. Delores and Dave McHarris, as The Multon Steppers, 1940s."I could do a time step and an over-the-top, my Uncle Billy had taught me that. But I learned to tap dance to go on the road with Dave." --Delores McHarris. Photo courtesy Theatre Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.
22. McHarris and Delores have been dancing together for fifty years. Their act has incorporated solid rhythm tap, flash, drum sets, and comic patter. They danced on stairs, chairs and skates. They could do any length act a show needed.
23. Isabelle Fambro: "You had to make a living and that was it - but I enjoyed every minute of it. And I'm still enjoying it." Photo courtesy Isabelle Fambro
24. Isabelle Fambro:"I used to wear a dress at the opening of the act and rip it off when I started to dance. That's what we called rippin,' because they always wanted to see your legs." Photo courtesy Isabelle Fambro
"The story of chorus girls is the real untold story." --Libby Spencer
"An act will do their solid act, year in, year out, right down the line, but a chorus girl, every two weeks, you don't know what you're going to be. They may tell you, go out dancing with trays, sand dance, Spanish dancing, Corsican dancing, Hawaiian, cowboy number - we had to learn to tap in that rope, time step in that rope, wing in that rope and all that... you have to learn all kinds of dancing. You didn't have just one particular thing. . .that was required for a week's salary." --Hortense Allen Jordan
Chorus lines made a show. They added beauty and were critical to the pacing. Chorus girls opened each act and did a production number - three routines every show. At a place like the Apollo, there were at least four shows every day - as many as eight shows when the big, hot bands were in - and women might be dancing as many as twenty-four numbers every day. Between their own performances, they were expected to watch the acts, to pick up new steps and styles, and to rehearse the next week's numbers. (And, as Libby Spencer puts it, "we had to buy our own shoes, too!")
The line at the Apollo consisted of six "tall girls" (also called "show girls") and six "small girls" (called "ponies"). The tall girls were the ones who tap danced. Libby Spencer was a tall girl and captain of the chorus line there from about 1939-1948. Like other women before and after her, she choreographed the routines, translating the producers' concepts into dance. Then, she danced in front of the line to top it off. It was hard work, with little recognition, but chorus girls prided themselves on their versatility. Women emerged out of various lines for show business careers - Cora LaRedd, Marie Bryant, Nina Mae McKinny, Lena Horne and many others.
25. Libby Spencer, 1995. photo: Jane Levine. "Libby Spencer was always a great teacher. She could really teach anyone how to dance." --Edith 'Baby Edwards' Hunt
26. Chorus line, Club Harlem, late 1950s: the tall girls - Libby Spencer, second from left. All four of these photographs are from a single show produced by Hortense Allen, who created the routines shown here, and sewed all of the costumes.
27. Chorus line, Club Harlem, late 1950s: the tall girls - Libby Spencer, second from left. "Chorus girls were the ones that set the people up to get a hand. They would liven the people up, open them up to receive the show." --Libby Spencer
28. Chorus line, Club Harlem, late 1950s
29. Chorus line, Club Harlem, late 1950s: the ponies. "You couldn't be but so brown. Dark brown-skinned girls - they were out. Lighter complexion, that was the thing. That was true mostly every place." --Libby Spencer
30. Libby Spencer at the Ebony Show Lounge, Philadelphia, c. 1952-3. "The hard steps of tap, the acts had that. And that's what I wanted to learn - what the acts had. Because I knew how to tap, you, know. So the acts that would come in, I'd learn everything they had." --Libby Spencer
31. Libby Spencer, Hortense Allen Jordan and Mickey Adams at the Bandbox, c. 1960s "I would take steps apart and make four or five steps out of one. . .that's how we built up our standard of tap." --Libby Spencer
"I was the first Black woman to put a line in the Paramount on Broadway." --Hortense Allen Jordan
"I just let 'em call me as a chorus girl and choreographer, because it was hard, really hard, for a woman, in my time, to be a woman producer, to come up. Because they wouldn't take you." --Hortense Allen Jordan
Hortense Allen Jordan is often remembered for her act. Dressed as half snake and half woman, she opened shows by dancing long-legged on top of a drum, mesmerizing audiences. But her main role in Larry Steele's shows, which she had just joined in 1949, was as producer. That was why Steele had hired her to come East. This was never acknowledged publicly. Her visible and public identity was exclusively that of a dancer.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri and dancing from the age of 14, Hortense Allen was producing shows at the Plantation, the largest club in town, with a revue and her own chorus line by the time she was twenty. She produced and danced in Steele's shows at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, choreographing hundreds of shows, dancing every style of dance, sewing costumes for her lines, traveling in road shows, playing all the major houses, teaching thousands of younger women. She fought the color prejudice that effectively barred any but the lightest African American women from dancing in chorus lines. She eventually left Larry Steele over this issue and continued producing shows headlined by Sugar Ray Robinson, Louis Jordan and James Brown.
When other people thought stage shows were dead, in the 1960s and 1970s, Hortense Allen Jordan was still actively producing them at the Philadelphia's Robin Hood Dell, making work for women she had trained and bringing top-notch entertainers to large crowds.
32. Photo: Jane Levine. Hortense Allen Jordan during the finale she created for "Stepping in Time," 1995
33. In front of the line, for the Marva Louis show, which she produced and brought to the Paramount, c. 1955-56. "The majority of times, if you didn't have no money to go to college with - what were you thinking of doing? Run the elevator or dance! Well, you be a chorus girl and you'd travel all over." --Hortense Allen Jordan
34. Producing traveling shows for Louis Jordan. "That's the way show business was. The only way I could make a name was to be a soubrette worker, choreographer, dancer." --Hortense Allen Jordan
35. Dancing in front of the line with the Louis Jordan show. "I knew how to do all kinds of dances, I was an acrobatic dancer, tap dancer, toe dancer - any kind of dancing you need to do, I know how to do it." --Hortense Allen Jordan
36. With her chorus line at the Robin Hood Dell, c. 1970s.
37. Instructing the band, in rehearsal for "Stepping in Time", 1995. Photo: Thomas B. Morton. "I learned from Leonard Reed and the older ones that were there how to be a producer before I come East - the time of shows, how to put shows together.... I was interested in learning. --Hortense Allen Jordan
38. In costume for her act, "Gumbo", c. 1940s. "I got the name 'the Body' through Peg Leg Bates. The majority of exotic dancers, they have the name Princess So-and-So and So-and-So. I said, 'No, my name is Hortense, and I ain't no Princess So-and-So. Now, they just coming to see an act.' So Peg Leg Bates started calling me, 'Be Hortense 'the Body' Allen.' So I picked up the name." --Hortense Allen Jordan
39. Line at the Underground Rathskellar, Libby Spencer, fourth from left, Hortense Allen, fourth from right.
"Nobody was born knowing how to dance. Everybody had to learn from someone." --Hortense Allen Jordan
Most successful show business careers depended on a mix of talent, an ability to put the act "across", some good "breaks" or opportunities, connections, luck, and a great deal of savvy about the business itself. A dancer developed her knowledge of the business from experience, but she was helped by watching other dancers, and telling (and hearing) stories. In the early morning hours after the show was over and the curtain was down, women shared the tricks of the trade - evaluating routines, costumes and make-up, talking about where to get overnight lodging in the segregated South, about how to feel at home on strings of one-night stands, about other dancers, nefarious booking agents and great performances, about friendships and rivalries going back years and years.
Some of the African American women dancers who had major performance careers in the 1930s and 1940s began to teach aspiring dancers in the 1970s. They taught younger dancers both an approach to rhythm tap and something of the traditions and heritage of this occupation. Few of these women's names are in history books, movies or research collections; oral traditions have kept their memories and achievements alive.
40. Dee McHarris (right) with Jeanne Bristow-Pinkham and Ruth Mobley (left), 1995. Photo: Jane Levine
41. "Mike" Webster, Barbara Thomas and "Artie" Riley, 1995. Photo: Jane Levine. "If you do a step, I could sit and tell you where it come from... and that's why I teach my girls...." --Hortense Allen Jordan
42. Some of the same women of the chorus line, more than twenty years earlier: (l-r) "Artie" Riley, "Mike" Webster, Penny, Barbara Thomas.
43. Some of Libby Spencer's Hoofers: Barbara Clayton, Pearl Jackson-Bolvin and Joan Miller. Photo: Jane Levine.
44. Libby Spencer, Kitty deChavis and Hortense Allen Jordan in the front of the rest of the cast and chorus frm the "Stepping in Time" production. Photo: Jane Levine.
Original exhibition credits:
Curated by Debora Kodish
Original traveling exhibition designed by Steven Tucker
Contemporary photographs by Jane Levine and Thomas B. Morton
Photographs courtesy of Isabelle Fambro, The Free Library of Philadelphia-Theatre Collection, Edith Hunt, Hortense Allen Jordan, Delores and Dave McHarris, Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, The Ernie Smith Collection, and Libby Spencer.
Exhibition texts from audiotaped and videotaped interviews recorded by Germaine Ingram, Debora Kodish, and Barry Dornfeld; additional interviews and information can be found in a documentary videotape as well as a publication, "Stepping in Time" both produced by the Philadelphia Folklore Project. Additional resources are Cheryl Willis, "Tap Dance: Memories and Issues of African-American Women who Performed between 1930 and 1950." Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1991. Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, 1968 and Rusty E. Frank, Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955, 1990.
Philadelphia Folklore Project programs on African American women tap dancers were initiated by Germaine Ingram. For more information, call us: 215.726.1106.
For their assistance with research, thanks to Geraldine Duclow, Robert Eskind, Isabelle Fambro, John Hart, Edith Hunt, Germaine Ingram, Teresa Jaynes, Ludie Jones, Hortense Allen Jordan, Dave and Delores McHarris, Henry Meadows, Ruth Mobley, LaVaughn Robinson, Dottie Smith, Ernie Smith, Libby Spencer, and Cheryl Willis.
The Philadelphia Folklore Project gratefully acknowledges the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund for support of programs to expand audiences for folk arts. PFP programs occur thanks to the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the William Penn Foundation, the Independence Foundation, Philadelphia Cultural Fund, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, CoreStates Bank, and PFP members.
"Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia" is one in a series of traveling folklife photo exhibitions organized by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, an independent agency that works to preserve and support the folk arts of Philadelphia. For information on touring exhibitions, resources and publications on Philadelphia folk arts, or on our other programs and services, please call us: Philadelphia Folklore Project, 735 South 50th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-726.1106.^ top
Last update: April 12, 2009
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