LYON, FRANCE, SEPT. 16 -- Steve Condos went down swinging, and died -- precisely as he would have wished -- not with his boots but with his beloved tap shoes on.
Jazz tap master Condos, 71, died here late this afternoon after dancing in a matinee repetition of Friday's gala program, hosted by Hollywood's Cyd Charisse and director Stanley ("Singin' in the Rain") Donen, that had launched the 1990 Lyon Biennale de la Danse -- a sumptuous three-week festival honoring a century of American dance.
Condos had completed his performance and gone backstage to his dressing room at the Auditorium Maurice Ravel, where he collapsed instantly, presumably from a massive heart trauma (he had a history of heart problems).
Sally Sommer -- a noted American dance critic and scholar who had served as artistic consultant for the gala and produced the tap portion of the program -- was backstage when Condos finished his performance.
"His performance had been phenomenal, and he knew it," she said. "He came offstage completely ebullient, saying, 'Man, I feel so good, my legs feel so terrific, I feel as if I could dance forever.' Then he walked into his little cubicle, pulled the curtain, and a second later we heard a huge crash. We were just a few feet away and dashed to the cubicle. He was on the floor. Two doctors and an emergency CPR crew arrived very quickly, but I think he was gone the moment of that crash."
Afterward, Condos's wife Lorraine -- who was also a close collaborator in his career -- said of the manner of his dying, "He wrote the script himself. He always wanted to go out dancing."
Condos shared the tap portion of the gala with fellow dance artists -- most of them close personal friends -- Eddie Brown, LaVaughn Robinson, Sarah Petronio, Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, Harold and Fayard Nicholas (the Nicholas Brothers), and the Jazz Tap Ensemble.
In a rapid consultation backstage after Condos's collapse, they agreed he would have wanted the program to proceed without interruption, so the show indeed went on. It wasn't until the end of the program that Biennale artistic director Guy Darmet announced to the audience what had transpired.
Condos was one of a small and elite cadre of veteran jazz tappers who had ridden a resurgent wave of mass enthusiasm for tap in recent years to a crest of new-found popularity and esteem. He was among the chief performers in the recent movie "Tap," which starred Gregory Hines and the late Sammy Davis Jr.
A strapping, square-jawed bear of a man with a broad grin and Herculean stamina, he was known within the profession for his unquenchable passion for tap and what amounted to a visionary obsession with its rhythmic possibilities. "Rhythm is the spice of life," he was fond of saying. In the basement of his Hollywood, Fla., home, he habitually practiced hours daily on a tiny square of wood he'd built for the purpose, chasing down intricate rhythmic permutations like a hound at the hunt.
Condos grew up in Philadelphia and began his performing career in vaudeville. During the '30s he teamed up with his late brother Nick as the Condos Brothers. He was featured in Hollywood musicals from the major studios alongside such stars as Betty Grable and W.C. Fields, and danced also in numbers of Broadway musicals. As an itinerant performer he toured the United States and Europe with bands such as those of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington. On TV, he had been a guest on such shows as "Nightline" and "The Phil Donahue Show," among others.
Sommer, who knows the field as well or better than anyone, said today of Condos:
"He was a pure jazz percussionist. He never traveled very far with his feet, but he took you places you never imagined with his rhythms. He'd found a new sort of timelessness in his rhythm that made him both a traditionalist and someone looking far into the future of tap. He worked in long, long, long phrases that built upon each other and broke time barriers. Perhaps most amazingly, the older he got the better he got. Instead of becoming weaker and more predictable with age, as you might expect, he did just the opposite, growing stronger and less predictable every season."
At a brunch with Slyde, Robinson, Petronio, Sommer and a few other friends and admirers only hours before today's matinee, Condos was in a typically upbeat humor. Recalling days when tap gigs were in short supply and he had tried grooming himself as a stand-up comic to keep the bills paid, he cracked a rapid barrage of corny one-liners about small hotel rooms. "My room was so small I had to step outside to change my mind." "My room was so small the mice were hunchbacked." His brawny shoulders shook with a laughter that spread itself around the table like spilled champagne.
Steve Condos was a trouper in all the very best senses of that term and a dancer whose skill, ingenuity and love for his art will long echo in the pantheon of tap.