I’ll be honest. As I’ve learned more about the research some of my CR cohort colleagues are up to, I’ve sometimes felt that my research topic is a little light on significance. Fellows are researching the history of abolitionism in Philadelphia, treatment of LGBTQ people and acts of resistance to homophobia, community-based strategies for healthy food as activism…. Sometimes it feels like my fixation on an early 20th century Black woman tap dancer pales, relatively, in significance to today’s social challenges. And then I have an encounter like I did on March 28th, that bolsters my confidence in the weight and relevance of my investigation of the life and career of Louise Madison.
I was asked to give a virtual Women’s History Month presentation for Tapology, a program out of Flint, Michigan that uses tap dance as the fulcrum for teaching young people cultural history and offering them a fun way to build physical and artistic discipline. Alexandria Bradley, a master tap artist whose family founded and nurtured Tapology these past 23 years, invited me to share some of my recent research on Louise Madison in celebration of women’s contributions to the form. My presentation traced my journey from my 1980s/90s oral history project on senior African American tap dancers in the Philadelphia region through my early explorations, sparked by a riveting story about Louise from my tap dance mentor and partner LaVaughn Robinson, into my research with Louise’s granddaughter, down to my reframing of my research inquiry as a result of reading Saidiya Hartman’s monumental Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. We looked at footage of the fabulous Philly-based tap dancer Lois Bright (included in a previous blog post), and the only two photos I’ve found of Louise, as well as some posters from stage revues in which she performed. I shared my premise that Louise, while doing what may have been necessary to survive financially, represents an example of Black women channeling resistance to racism and gender bias by choosing unconventional careers and lifestyles.
For me, the highlight of the afternoon was the conversation that followed my 40-minute talk. The presentation was attended by some of the most recognized names in tap performance and cultural preservation today—tap masters Jason Samuels-Smith and Diane “Lady Di” Walker, Black dance scholar and author Jacqui Malone, tap historian Hank Smith, award-winning photographer and African Diaspora historian Daniel Dawson, and Tapology founder Bruce Bradley and his master hoofer daughters Alexandria and Frances, to name a few. The conversation traveled in various directions, but gravitated to a discussion of the contributions that Black women have made to the tap genre, and the sacrifices that they’ve had to make in order to balance a career and family. Lady Di Walker dished on which of the male dancers were most supportive of women’s place in tap history. She recalled how my dance partner LaVaughn regaled a group of dancers with stories at the Colorado Dance Festival back in the mid-1980s. LaVaughn reported how it was Louise Madison who taught legendary hoofer Charles “Honi” Coles his first 5-tap wing step. Honi was in the room, and when Diane rushed over to him to repeat what LaVaughn had said, Honi told Diane, “You go back over there and tell LaVaughn that he’s absolutely right.” The late, great Gregory Hines was another male dancer who had no problem giving women dancers their props. And Diane included Jason Samuels-Smith in that category.
But for every story about women— especially Black women— being given their due, there were two about women being held back by male counterparts, spouses or bosses. For instance, Edith “Baby” Edwards was a hit from the time she started dancing at the age of 5 on Philadelphia’s Horn & Hardart Kiddie Hour. As an adult, she became part of the male/female duo “Spic & Baby Span.” Spic was not near as accomplished or popular with audiences as she was, but he was able to exercise authority due to Baby’s reliance on having a male partner for protection when traveling the performance circuit. Zeke, the man who became Baby’s husband, told me that he fell in love with her the first time he saw her singing and dancing on stage. But after they were married, he disapproved of her performing, so she hung up her shoes and became a housewife. She was delighted to escape housewifery to perform for—and steal the show at—our 1994 revue, Stepping In Time, celebrating veteran African American artists of the popular stage.
Black dance historian Jacqui Malone is among those who tell the story of the chorus girls’ strike against Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1940 to protest low pay and oppressive work conditions. The Apollo’s manager, Frank Schiffman, threatened to shut the theater down rather than negotiate with the women of the #1 Chorus Line—all of whom were black—-and other regulars over wage hikes and limitations on number and hours of rehearsals. But when the women walked out on strike, it only took a day for Schiffman to agree to raise the salaries from $25/week to $30/week, and to limit the number of shows to 30 per week (that’s right, 30) and hours of rehearsal to 14 per week. Here’s an article and photo from the front page of the Amsterdam News of March 2, 1940, announcing the success of the strike.
With women tap dancers of color being headlined at the Joyce Theater, Jacob’s Pillow, and other major dance venues these days, some might think that we’re well past the constraints of Louise’s and Baby Edwards’ time. But women tap dancers in the zoom gathering spoke about their own challenges today to be respected by male dancers, musicians and presenters. They spoke about the times that they felt pressed by the demands of childrearing or pressures from partners to give up their dance career. They also credited men who have supported their passion and talent and their drive to bring new stories, inflections, values, and perspectives to the tap genre. Whether or not Louise saw herself as an activist and trailblazer, the folks on that zoom call were happy and proud to see themselves as part of her lineage. And I felt affirmed in my decision to spend time and attention to moving Louise from the footnotes of books on tap and jazz dance into a broader conversation about how Black women, for eons, have crafted life and living in defiance of the narrow, airless existences prescribed for them.