At a lanky 6-foot-2, with a grin that could charm a tax assessor, and, dressed in black pumps, checked trousers, an open sport shirt and a jaunty blazer, Honi Coles looks to be a walking definition of "dapper." It's a quality he inherits from a long line of "class act" dancers, starting perhaps with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the patron saint of the tap dance fraternity known as the Copasetics, which Coles now unofficially heads. But you'd never guess by looking that Honi is in his 60s, or that he suffered a heart attack this past spring, or for that matter, that he can still whip out taps like a string of jiving firecrackers.
He'll erase any lingering doubts about the latter tonight at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, where he'll be appearing with five confreres from the Copasetics -- Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Charles "Cookie" Cook, Leslie "Bubba" Gaines and Henry "Phace" roberts -- in a program of all-out, unadulterated, old-time, non-stop hoofing.
The heart attack, Coles avers, was "a mild one. I needed a rest anyway. I was in the hospital a month, but since then, I've done a show in Macon, Georgia, with Burgess Meredith and Gloria Grahame, a TV flick that'll be on the air in the fall, and 19 concert dates -- and I'm still goin' strong."
And so he is. The last time he was in Washington, in 1977, he was the lead dancer in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" at the National. Last year, he toured with the Joffrey Ballet as the tap soloist in Agnes de Mille's "Conversations About Dance." He was also the subject of a two-part profile by Dick Cavett.
Not bad for "a dumb kid from some hole in the ground in Philadelphia," as Coles describes his scruffy beginnings. He got started dancing the same way most of the classic hoofers did -- as a back alley pastime. "I danced on the street corners, for sheer pleasure, not a thought of the theater -- I didn't even know what that was -- in my head. Then, a couple of neighborhood amateur shows, getting acquainted with some guys, forming a partnership -- all of a sudden it was a different thing."
He picked up what was to be his stage name about this time. "Charles Lester they named me, but god forbid anyone should call me that. Actually, my aunts all called me Lester, it was my sister who called me Honey. But I was a member of a club, the Jolly Buccaneers, and I had to walk around with the name 'Honey' on the back of my team shirt. Can you picture me going down the streets of Philadelphia like that? I was in 9,000 fights, and I won none of them. Finally, I took off the 'y' and substituted the 'i', like in 'honi soit qui mal y pense.' And nobody's called me anything else since."
He kept on with dance despite parental opposition and indifference. "My mother was fanatically religious; she had no eyes for it at all. My father? He couldn't care less, he was just going his own way. George and Danny Miller, the guys I was dancing with, they knew this girl who'd left for New York to be a chorus girl, and she heard about an opening in a show. 'I got just the guys for you,' she told them, and there was our first big opportunity."
The three of them came right here to Washington to rehearse, in a theater on U Street, perfecting an act in which they danced on narrow raised pedestals. The show opened in Norfolk, Va., and then the trio went on to New York's Lafayette Theater. It was the first of a series of successes in Coles' peaks-and-valley's career -- the lot of the black hoofer in those days. In the valleys, he eked out whatever and however he could. "I was a good pool player, so I hustled pool. I mean, these were times when you worked as a dancer in joints where you made what you picked up from the floor afterwards in coins. Some nights it was three bucks, and you felt pretty good."
In the early '40s, Coles was doing a solo act with Cab Calloway when he met another hoofer, Charles "Cholly" Atkins, with whom he struck up first a friendship and then a team act, Coles and Atkins. They developed a soft-shoe number, performed at a fiendishly slow tempo, that became one of the legends of the profession.
Cholly Atkins later went on to become choreographer for singing groups like the Supremes and the Temptations. Today, Coles says he has no particular "specialty" of his own. "In the early days," he says, "I think I was really the beginning of fast double time -- I was the fastest in the world. But now, I like to show all the moods tap can have, all the shadings and innuendoes, that's my bag. I can dance fast or slow, flagrant or submissive, pianissimo as well as fortissimo, big or humble. The point is we do have the potential, tap has the potential, to describe a whole variety of feelings as well as sounds. People say tap is 'happy-go-lucky.' Well, it's not go-lucky, but it is happy, there's always that 'up' feeling. We could never portray a tragedy. Wait a minute, wait a minute, I take that back. I'm remembering when Baby Laurence died -- he was one of the greats -- we tap danced at this funeral, at Rev. John Gensel's jazzman's church in midtown Manhattan. With no music, we did a toom-chicka-toom-chicka-toom, right in front of the coffin, and with the echoes of the church and all, it was truly solemn."
In the wake of the current tap revival, Coles spends much of his time these days teaching. One of his pupils is Dick Cavett. "I just love this guy, he's terrific," Coles says. "One day, he says he's got a friend he wants to bring along to the lesson. Who do you think walks in? Woody Allen. He was really something. I showed him a step and he says, 'How am I gonna make a sound on this foot if I'm standing on it?" Needless to say, nothing was learned that afternoon."
A lot of his students are women. "Why, way back in Philadelphia," Coles says, "it was a woman -- Louise Madison -- who taught me my first five-tap wing. And if tap survives today, you know who's going to keep it alive? Young white girls -- they're 99 percent of my students, like Jane Goldberg, like Brenda Buffalino. But tap goes in cycles. Now all of a sudden, it's big. Along will come something else, and it'll sink back into oblivion. But it'll come back again. That's why I don't want to sell it, I want to give it to someone -- I don't want to see it die. Because you know, tap is the only true dance art form that America has to offer."