New Television Workshop Collection

New Television Workshop Collection Oral HistoriesDance Archiving Project

Honi Coles Interview

Alternative Title:
Dance Archiving Project: Honi Coles

Copyright Date:

Copyright Holder:
Rights information is unidentified.

4 videocassettes of 4 (VHS) (240 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.
4 videocassettes of 4 (Betacam SP) (240 min.) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.
4 videoreels of 4 (240 min.) : sd., col. ; 1 in. master
1 folder

This is the only interview recorded as part of the New Television Workshop's "Dance Archiving Project," an attempt by the Workshop to document aspects of modern dance history. Six other interviews were conducted with important artists and designers of the twentieth century. (Painter/installation artist Judy Chicago and painter Lee Krasner were interviewed as part of the "Twentieth Century Artists" series in 1979. Melanie Kahane (interior designer), Paul Rand (graphic artist), Charles Blessing (city planner), and O'Neil Ford (architect) were interviewed as part of the "Design Archives" project in 1981.)

The interview was conducted over two days at the Cotton Club in New York on May 11-12, 1981. The interviewer is Brenda Bufalino, a famous contemporary jazz and tap dancer and teacher responsible for the modern renaissance in tap, who often performed with Coles. The interview is both informative and entertaining as Coles (and Buffalino) shows off his impressive knowledge of tap and tap history. Many tap steps and routines are demonstrated by Coles, often together with Buffalino. Coles tells a variety of amusing anecdotes that enlighten the biographical and dance-related discussions. Photos of Coles' early performances and some examples of sheet music he wrote to accompany his routines are also shown.

Charles ´Honi' Coles was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1911. He learned to tap dance in his early years from street corner competitions and through disciplined self-study. After moving to New York in the 1930's he gained fame dancing in the big clubs of the time, including the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, with the biggest stars of the time, including Bill Robinson, John Bubbles, and his partner, Cholly Atkins. After serving in WWII, he returned to New York and opened an influential school of tap where he taught many of the great modern dancers. He received a National Medal of Arts in 1991 and died in 1992 at the age of 81.

This is raw, unedited footage. Occasional microphone problems led to the reshooting of some segments of the interview.

The original footage was shot on four one-hour reels of 1" videotape. Preservation dubs were made in 9/98 on four one-hour Betacam SP cassettes, as were four one-hour screening copies on VHS cassettes. A short, excerpted 3/4" cassette edited down from the original four hours of tape also exists.

Also contains one folder of documents relating to Coles and the project, including a student paper on the interview that includes interview excerpts, contracts between WGBH and Coles and Bufalino, drafts of a Cole's filmography, and correspondence between WGBH and Coles/Bufalino.

Four-hour interview on four video cassettes.

Tape 1 (56:30): Origins in Philadelphia; learned to tap in street corner and amateur competitions; describes different kinds of tap shoes; theater stages in the 1930's; demonstrates Charleston steps and taps; his discovery and move to New York; his diligent self-study; his family's attitudes towards dance; tap innovations he created; demonstrates some tempos and time steps; claims tap dancers had a big influence on the creation of be-bop; partnership with the Lucky 7 Trio; the importance of dress and style to dancers; use of comedy in his dances; apparent ease of tap steps from the audience's point of view; difficulty of teaching tap; calls Fred Astaire the greatest dancer ever and John Bubbles the greatest tapper; early dance experiences in New York; his early influences on other dancers; the importance of the Hoofer's Club in New York for early tap dancers; his creation of the walk-around step.

Tape 2 (58:30): Explains and demonstrates the shim-sham routine; Suzy-Q step; demonstrates tap Charleston, double Charleston and walk-around; shows variations of walks; demonstrates the tango twist and trucking steps; explains how steps originated at the Cotton Club and changed forms upon popularization in Broadway shows; talks of and demonstrates a dance popularized by Pete Nugent; always avoided copying others' styles; shows a wing step; influences of Bill Robinson and John Bubbles, and his relationship with Bubbles; memories of Bojangles; demonstrates over-the-top and B.S. Chorus routines; his relationship with partner, Cholly Atkins; shows soft-shoe routine they performed to Ethel Waters' singing; limitations black dancers had in the 1930's due to discrimination; his own feelings of non-resentment towards attitudes of the times; sheer happiness gained from entertaining people; first appearances at the Apollo Theater in 1934; his feelings for and working with Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington; speaks of his wife and their first meeting at the Apollo, and his daughter; dancing in the Army in 1944; the opening of a club in New York in 1949.

Tape 3 (55:00) (the first two minutes are exterior shots of the Cotton Club and surroundings): shows and explains photos of his early performances; PHOTO: Dallas performance; his early experiences with partner Cholly Atkins; PHOTO: at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Charlie Green and Dizzy Gillespie; competition between dancers; speaks of Duke Ellington; PHOTO: TV appearance with Bob Hope and Dick Cavett; PHOTO: with Charlie Green and Anita Alvarez, from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" show; always did his own choreography; PHOTO: his role as Time Man; PHOTOS: swing dancing with Charlie Green; PHOTO: with Bob Hope and Dick Cavett; PHOTOS: early shots with the Miller Brothers; PHOTO: with Pete Nugent, Peaches, and Duke Miller; the opening of his studio with Pete Nugent in 1954; stories of the studio; his style of teaching; PHOTO: with Pearl Bailey; his regular appearances at the Apollo from 1934 on; discusses how early tappers had many places to play and learn, as compared to today; PHOTO: from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" show; PHOTO: from "Girl Crazy" show; shows some of his piano charts he wrote to accompany his dancing; talks of writing music for tap and which instruments he prefers; ability to write harmonies and percussions in his music.

Tape 4 (58:00): More musical charts; different charts for piano and horn arrangements; calls Chappy Willett (SP???) the best musical arranger for dancers; discusses how Willett taught him to write music; favorite songs to dance by, including "Russian Lullaby," "I Love You Truly," and "Roses Remind Me of You"; explains how Bill Robinson made tap music more sophisticated; discusses how he always creates dance steps before writing music; creative processes behind his steps and arrangements; commercialism in dance -- dancing to appeal to a wider audience; improvisation in his routines; differences between improvised jazz dance and set Broadway arrangements; ethnic differences in tap and dance; shows different kinds of tap plates for shoes; demonstrates soft-shoe steps and breakdowns; bar patterns in tap; uniqueness of 8-bars in tap.

Bufalino, Brenda

Barzyk, Fred

MacLeod, Margaret

Tap dancing -- United States

Unedited footage

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