How To Get Rhythm. Mr. Rhythm also holds individual and group tap-dancing classes. For further information on the seminar series and tap lessons, call All Souls' Church Music Program at 332-5266.
At 10 o'clock on Sunday morning, the intersection of 18th Street and columbia Road is quiet. Most people are still in bed, tired from Saturday night. A few early risers file by Eddie's newsstand to buy the papers and line up sleepily for coffee at McDonald's.
Around the corner, the staccato sound of tap dancing rings out from Jan Van Dyke's studio. The door is open and three teen-age boys on bicycles stop to listen. Inside, two dancers pace themselves through a time step. The boys on the street imitate them, adding their own flourishes.
Mr. Rhythm sits by the door in a beige suit and white open-collared shirt, fluttering his feet in time with the dancers, gazing intently at the mirror reflecting their motion. "That's not bad," he says, getting slowly to his feet. "Now, try that half-break I showed you last time."
Humming "Just One of Those Things," he leads his students through the steps with a casual elegance. "Now try this for a finishing step," he calls out, launching into a complicated series of taps, jumps and shuffles and closing out with a sharply executed double-wing step.
Applause breaks out from the kids on the street. The two young dancers shake their heads in amazement at the agility of their middle-aged mentor. After months of practice, they still haven't mastered the steps that Mr. Rhythm has just made look easy.
This scene is part of a tradition through which America's only vernacular dance form has developed. Jazz dancing, with roots in Africa, originated in this country at the end of the Civil War. "Black people had a tradition of communicating with their hands and feet," says Mr. Rhythm."Different people hear different rhythms and they would speak to each other this way."
The dancing was a vital part of New Orleans' funeral parades. Then, minstrel shows and vaudeville revues featuring tap dancers (first whites in blackface then real black dancers) spread the styles throughout the South. With the Harlem renaissance, jazz dancing moved into Manhattan and onto Broadway. By the 1930s, jazz dancers were the toast of the town on stage and screen throughout America.
Born in Washington in 1922, Mr. Rhythm started tapping as a teenager and went on to trade steps with the likes of "Baby" Laurence and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. In the 1930s and 1940s, he toured the United states and Canada with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Noble Sissle.
Now he teaches tap dancing. His students include 19-year-old Michael from Baltimore who catches an early bus to D.C. each Sunday morning and Senator S.I. Hayakawa from California who takes private lessons in his Capitol Hill office.
Beginning this weekend, with grant assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Rhythm will offer a series of Saturday afternoon tap-dancing demonstrations, and seminars on the history of jazz dance at All Souls' Church, 16th and Harvard Streets NW.
This is not the shuffle-ball-chain your little sister learned in second grade. Mr. Rhythm's art now is being recognized as a classical dance form and an essential element in the evolution of jazz. Done well, jazz dancing turns the feet into percussion instruments. Big Band hoofers could alternate solos with drummers, recreating and changing rhythms. "There is no right or wrong way of doing it," says Mr. Rhythm. "Each dancer develops new things. You keep doing the same dance but you're always doing something different. Each dancer had his own way of doing the step."
Jazz dancing lit up Broadway in the 1920s in shows like Eubie Blake's "Shuffle Along" and the annual editions of "Blackbirds." In the 1930s and 1940s, the style peaked in popularity: Every band had its chorus of dancers. The Cotton Club and The Hoofers' Club were the places to go in Manhattan in those days and Mr. Rhythm was there for all of it.
"Those cats used to make you dance even if you din't want to," he says, remembering the contests at The Hoofers' Club where dancers would swap steps and show off new variations. The competition was out front and part of a support system that kept young dancers doing their best. New routines were constantly being created, expanding on basic steps with names like "Falling Off a Log," "Off to Buffalo," "Through the Trenches" and "Over the Top."
Mr Rhythm started dancing on street corners in Washington's LeDroit Park neighborhood where he grew up. "There was a very versatile guy named Freddie James," he recalls. "He played trumpet and drums and he was a singer and a dancer. One day we were standing out on T Street and Freddie started to dance. He said, 'Go ahead, man try it!' So I went on and tried it and I've been dancing every since. He put a spell on me or something. I kept on dancing every chance I'd get."
The practice paid off. When he was 15, Mr. Rhythm moved to New York and landed a spot in Noble Sissle's chorus line. "We played the Royal Theater in Baltimore, Fays Theater in Philly, the Apollo in New York, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Bohemian Caverns and the Howard in Washington," he recalls.
It was at the Bohemian Caverns one night that Rhythm got his nickname. ;I was in a revue there and I was dancing when the M.C. hollered out, 'God, that boy has a lot of rhythm,' He named me 'Mr. Rhythm' and it stuck."
Later, rhythm toured the circuit with Duke Ellington's band. "I met the Duke in Boston," he says, "and since we were both from Washington, we hit it off. Bill Bailey, Pearl's brother, used to dance with the Duke, too, and I learned some steps from him. In those days, Pearl was a dancer, too, but at that time, Bill was making more money than Pearl."
In the 1930s and 1940s, theaters were segregated. "In Washington," says Mr. Rhythm, "the Howard and the Lincoln were where the blacks went for stage shows. White people went to the Palace and the Fox. The Duke played the Fox Theater one night -- don't ask me which year -- and black people couldn't go to hear him. I went behind the stage to catch the show. That's right."
Tap dancers and other jazz musicians worked hard to break down racial barriers during those years, acting as ambassadors from the black community to the white world. "Bojangles, Duke, Pearl, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Ella -- they all opened doors for blacks," Rhythm says.
In the 1950s, jazz dancing fell from favor. New steps came in -- the lindy, the jitterbug -- and while these dances directly descended from the jazz dancing, the older forms faded out of popularity. Rock 'n' roll replaced the Big Band Sound and television captured live theater's audience. Hoofers were out of work.
Mr. Rhythm found a few jobs dancing and landed a few appearances on television. He was featured on the Ted Mack Show three times and once appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show as part of a dance team called "The Three Businessmen of Rhythm."
Since the 1950s, Mr. Rhythm has lived in Washington. He's taught tap dancing in the D.C. public schools, through the Department of Recreation and at Howard University. He's been a guest on the Harambee Show and appeared in a Barbara Walters interview with Senator Hayakawa. Local jazz buffs know him as part of the crowd which supports the music at clubs like the One Step Down.Many times, the musicians who come to town are old friends of his.
"They save ballet and all that junk. They need to save tap, too," says Mr. Rhythm succinctly. And this is what his series at All Soul's Church is about. Jazz dance is an indigenous black American art form and part of an oral tradition which is threatened as the dancers grow older without passing on their stories to young people.
For those who envision themselves doing flips and splits or mastering the Bojangles Stair Dance, Mr. Rhythm offers a word of caution: "Some people are natural dancers. Other people, you can show them everything you know and they'll never learn. You've got to have the knack."