Dancers Over 40 TAP! The Tapping Continues - Honoring the Rockettes and the June Taylor Dancers
Dancers Over 40 is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that celebrates the lives and legacies of dancers and choreographers. "DO40 was created as a not-for-profit organization to provide a community of support in response to the fiscal - as well as physical - needs of mature dancers, choreographers and related artists. Its goals are to seek educational opportunities, present seminars, showcases, film nights, socials and panel discussions on topics important to mature dancers concerned about their ability to live and work in a creative environment and continue the legacy to those dancers about to begin their journey." On March 4th DO40 hosted "TAP! The Tapping Continues" at New York City's St. Luke's Theatre. The evening honored the toe-tapping legacies: the Radio City Rockettes and June Taylor Dancers.
In the early 1930s, June Taylor was a talented young dancer touring in clubs through the US and Europe. The real reason Taylor transitioned into choreography, however, was due to poor endurance caused by a collapsed lung from tuberculosis. This may have been a blessing in disguise, though, because it prompted Taylor to form her own dance troupe, the legendary June Taylor Dancers. The team of leggy lovelies began dancing as an opening act for such stars as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. Gleason loved Taylor and her dancers so much that he hired the troupe to perform on his weekly variety show. Taylor would choreograph a fresh, new routine every week and incorporated all kinds of dance from tap to ballroom. In 1955, Taylor won the first Emmy award for choreography and founded The June Taylor School of Dance in midtown Manhattan.
Act I of TAP! began with a panel discussion with Craig Horwich, June Taylor's nephew and President of Jackie Gleason Enterprises, Mercedes Ellington, the granddaughter of Duke Ellington and the first African-American girl in the June Taylor Dancers, as well as other June Taylor veterans including Diana Baffa-Brill, Gene Foote, Karen Prunzik.
The panelists highlighted June Taylor as a strict taskmaster and a true pioneer for women in the male-dominated television industry. Taylor had to be tough in order to both manage a line of twenty dancers and to stand her ground amongst TV executives.
In a filmed interview from before her death, June Taylor confessed (rather blatantly) to borrowing signature kaleidoscopic formations of Busy Berkeley and kick lines of the Radio City Rockettes. Taylor described how she brought Berkeley's kaleidoscopic choreography from black-and-white film to full-color, national television by attaching a slanted mirror to the horizontal camera lens in order to capture the girls' shapes while lying on the stage. "But what made us different from The Rockettes," said Mercedes Ellington, "was the speed of our kick lines. We didn't perform five shows a day like The Rockettes, but our kicks were fast!"
Act II featured the world-famous Radio City Rockettes. The troupe was originally founded in St. Louis, MO in 1925 as the "Missouri Rockets." Founder, Russell Markert, was inspired by the John Tiller Girls in the Ziegfeld Follies and wanted to create a team of talented precision dancers with even longer legs. The "Missouri Rockets" relocated to perform in the Roxy Theatre in New York as the "Roxyettes" but then took on their current name, the "Rockettes," when they moved to Radio City Music Hall in 1932.
DO40 hosted a panel of former Rockettes: Mary Six Rupert, Jean Preece, Jennifer Jiles, Joyce Nolen, Maryellen Scilla, Sandy Scilla, Lillian Colon (the first Latina Rockette), Eileen Woods, Judy Little, Dottie Bell, and Ann Murphy, followed by a Rockette-style tap routine by Rockette veterans: Katherine Corp, Kimberly Corp, Madeline Jaye, Mary Lilygren Kane, Setsuko Maruhashi (the first Asian Rockette), and Eileen Woods. Dottie Bell talked about how The Rockettes would approach tourists in Rockefeller Center to petition against the closing of Radio City Music Hall in the 1970s. And Joyce Nolen told a funny audition story where she thought the director told the dancers to kick "thigh high" instead of "eye high!"
In addition to the Rockette panel, TAP! included "Spanish Tap" with Linda Rose Iennaco, Cathy Conry, and Barbara Massey and "Go into Your Dance" from 42nd Street, choreographed by Karen Prunzik of the original cast. The evening concluded with a surprise performance by the insanely talented 9-year old Luke Spring (last seen in Broadway's "A Christmas Story"). Spring brought the audience to their feet with his rapid and rhythmic tapping. TAP! was not only a night of celebrating the history of tap dancers but also about looking towards future generations of talented young tappers.
To learn more or to get involved with Dancers Over 40, visit their website: www.dancersover40.org.
More On: St. Luke, June Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Mercedes Ellington.