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Best Feet Forward In 'Essence Of Rhythm'

July 04, 1986|CHRIS PASLES

From the urbane showmanship of a Charles (Honi) Coles to the pure percussive rhythms of an Eddie Brown, rhythm tap accommodates a wide diversity of styles.

Four different tap masters--Coles, Brown, Howard (Sandman) Sims and Jimmy Slyde--will celebrate this diversity on the "Essence of Rhythm" program at 8 p.m. Saturday at Royce Hall, UCLA.

(Also on the program: buck-and-wing tapper Frances Nealy, a jazz band conducted by Phil Wright and the local host company, LTD/Unlimited.)

All the veteran hoofers developed their styles through the lively competition of street-corner challenges. Coles, 74, said recently:

"You saw other dancers and you tried to emulate them. But then your body took over and it developed into your own style."

Local audiences are familiar with the sophisticated Coles, but not so much with the others.

Brown is a hoofer who focuses strictly on making tap sounds. You might best appreciate what he does by just closing your eyes and listening: He'll match and outclass many a drummer's licks.

"I started as a flash dancer (vigorous gymnastic and acrobatic tapping)," Brown, 67, said. "I used to do 10 or 12 choruses of flash dancing to 'Chinatown.' But it was hard work. When I got off stage, my heart would be pumping so hard I thought it would jump out.

"So I thought, 'There's got to be a better way,' so I put my mind to specializing on rhythm."

His inspiration, he said, was the great John Bubbles, who revolutionized tap by dropping his heels to the floor--previously, most tap-dancing had been done on the toes--and getting more taps to the measure.

"That changed everything," Brown said. "We had to learn to dance all over again. But it had more soul al-to-gether."

Sims also is associated with sound-making--the gritty, slippery sound of leather scraping on sand. He developed the style while training to be a boxer--an occupation he gave up after breaking his hand twice. He'd do "some fancy steps" in the rosin box before entering the ring, he said.

"People went for the scraping sound," he recalled. "So I made a sound board by sprinkling sand on a flat platform. That was in 1935."

(A Los Angeles native, Sims quickly dismissed questions about his age: "It's a matter of opinion. Why don't you see me dance and decide for yourself?")

"They called the board my Stradivarius," Sims said. "I could use any kind of music--or I could do it without any music at all."

For Sims, the potential for tap is unlimited:

"If you have 50 dancers, you'll have 50 different styles--if they haven't gone to the same school.

"They'll develop a comfortable style for themselves because anybody can dance. But most people wait until after they've grown up--and then it's too late."

For a clue to developing his style, Jimmy Slyde had to look no further than his own name--and he lives up to it, sliding, spinning and skimming over the stage.

Says Cecil Donnell, co-producer of the UCLA show: "When Jimmy dances, you need a follow spot because he moves all over the place. He has a whole visual approach to tapping: He tries to make a picture that can be pleasing in sound and in movement."

Slyde, who declined to be interviewed, has been living in Paris for more than 15 years and so is perhaps the least known of the four locally. But he is one of three tappers featured in a new George ("No Maps on My Taps") Nieremburg documentary, "About Tap," narrated by Gregory Hines.

For them all, the wheel will come full circle Saturday: While they're tapping, a younger generation--like the five women in the LTD company--will be watching for tips.

"Kids today are a little different," Coles said. "Most have had some training as far as ballet and modern are concerned, so it's not as authentic as our basic style was. But it's still tap. They like what they see someone else do and they want to do it, too.

"That's what tap is all about."

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