Philadelphia Needs to Talk Tap

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by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Philadelphia tap dancer Corinne Karon is a woman on a mission.  She is the Founder and Artistic Director of the local student company Uniting Colleges Through Tap, the Executive Director of Tap Team Two and Company and she also teaches and choreographs for a number of local schools, studios and companies including Men of Tap.  This Sunday, she will present “Philly Needs to Talk Tap,” her second lecture demonstration about the history of tap in Philadelphia, a subject she has been researching for the past several years.

Dance Journal: What are you hoping to impart through Sunday’s event?

Corinne Karon: I am hoping that the presentation leaves people with images of what Market Street and South Street looked like back in the early 1900’s. I am hoping that these images stay with them, so the next time they are walking down these streets they can imagine what was there and how it compares to what is there now. I am hoping that when people think about the history of Philadelphia, they automatically make a connection to the arts and to tap dancing.

DJ: Why do you feel tap history is important?

CK: I believe that history in general is important. […] Regardless of your discipline, you should have some understanding of where it came from and why it exists. Without history, how can you truly understand your discipline inside and out? How can you become inspired to continue being creative? Every basketball player in the world knows who Michael Jordan is, and I believe watching him inspires them. Why shouldn’t tap dancers know who Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is? I love watching a tap dancer, through improvisation, suddenly throw out a rhythm that Gregory Hines did in 1989.  Suddenly the audience begins to commentate: Okay Gregory, we see you.  The only people in the audience who really get to grab that moment are the ones who know their history. […] I feel closer to the person dancing, I feel like I am connected to the other audience members who caught the step and I feel the presence of Gregory Hines, someone who I never got to meet.

DJ: What makes the city of Philadelphia unique in terms of its contributions to tap?

CK: [As noted by Bob Skiba] in the early 1900’s all entertainers knew they had to make it in Philly to succeed on the national circuit.  Philadelphia was what New York is now! South Street served as the beginning of a tap dancer’s career. Going from corner to corner, tap dancers enhanced their technique and their status in the city. The better the dancer, the closer to Broad and South you got and when you made it there, you were known as one of the best tap dancers in town, which really meant you were one of the best tap dancers in the country! Some of the fastest tap dancers in the world came from Philadelphia.  They became known for their speed and high energy. The list of dancers that were from here (or spent a good portion of their career here) is crazy!

DJ: What has your research process been like? 

CK: More than ten years ago, LaVaughn Robinson took some of us on a walking tour of Philadelphia. He showed us where important venues, such as theaters, used to be in the early 1900s. I began my research project in the exact same manor: I took myself on a walking tour.

I started at 7th and Market and walked until I got to 15th and South. I looked up the addresses of some of the old theaters and took pictures of what is standing in place of them now. I compared those pictures to the original pictures of the theaters.  I have also been trying to find out where some of the famous tap dancers, who were from here, actually lived. I have been on the computer a lot, going to libraries and doing a lot of interviews. I have found that most of the research I have gathered is from talking to people.

DJ: How does your research tie into your work as an educator, choreographer and director?

CK: The history of tap inspires me. It makes me want to get up in the morning and dance!

I love watching footage of tap dancers and sharing that footage with my students and peers.

The research I am doing right now makes feel proud to live in Philadelphia. I am expecting this research to continue for the next 10 years and develop into something very solid that can help me lower my physically demanding schedule as I get older.

DJ: What is the most interesting thing you’ve discovered through your research?

CK: I discovered the exact address where Honi Coles and Baby Edwards used to live and that the families of both the Condos Brothers and the Nicolas Brothers worked in establishments right across the street from each other for years.  I am interviewing [a woman] right now whose father owned a pool hall right near the corner of Broad and South.  He had tap dancers in there all the time and she has some really good stories.

DJ: How would you respond to those who say that tap’s heyday has come and gone?

CK: Initially I would have to agree with them, I don’t think tap will ever be as mainstream as it was in the 1920’s and 1930’s but thanks to Gregory Hines and Savion Glover I think it has come back and that we are growing as a community. It would nice if we were respected more as a whole; with respect comes funding [and] with funding comes big projects that the “non-dancer” will hear about and want to support so we still have a long way to go but it’s not gone.  I have been able to tap dance for over 20 years, and it’s the only job I have ever had so it’s definitely not gone.

DJ: So many tap concerts include “tribute” works. Do you think tap dancers can get too hung up on the past? How do you honor those who came before and keep the traditions of tap alive while still innovating and moving the art form forward?

CK: Being someone who gets inspired by the history of tap, I don’t think people get to “hung up on the past.” However, in saying that, I don’t believe that every piece has to be about the past or a tribute. I have seen some amazing work that had nothing to do with “tap history.” You definitely don’t see other genres of dance doing “tribute” pieces, but I think some of that is due to lack of education. When I was younger, people did do tributes to Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and Anna Pavlova. I am not sure if most teenagers would even recognize these names, never mind what genre they were in and I for one think that is horrible. How can you move tap forward while keeping the traditions alive?  Rhythm. I have choreographed pieces that have nothing to do with history but somehow a 2-bar phrase of LaVaughn’s gets thrown in. Maybe the audience doesn’t pick it up but my dancers do and sometimes that is enough.

Philadelphia Talks Tap
Sunday, November 16, 2014
1:30 PM – 03:30 PM
Mt. Airy Learning Tree
Registration: $20
To Register: info@mtairylearningtree.org

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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