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The Class Act - Pete, Peaches & Duke - Coles & Atkins
2009 Inductee

The Class Act: Cream of Tap Dancing

At the turn of the twentieth century, concurrent with the musical comedy dance teams working in the blackface tradition, there was an elite group of African-American performers who rejected the minstrel-show stereotypes of the grinning-and-dancing clowns, the Fool and the Dandy. Clean-faced and well-dressed, these performance artists insisted on the absolute perfection of sound, step, and manner. They aspired to a purely artistic expression that was driven by their desire for respectability and equality on the American concert stage.  The pioneering class act of Charles Johnson and Dora Babbige Dean billed themselves as "Johnson and Dean, The King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy," and established the roles of the genteel Negro couple on the American stage. Dean “talked” her songs and “posed” in fancy dresses; Johnson, who always presented himself in full evening dress--top hat, tailcoat, monocle, gloves, and a cane-- “strutted” in the cakewalk tradition. Together, they appealed to audiences through well-dressed elegance and impressive personalities. In 1914, after touring Europe, Rufus Greenlee and Thaddeus Drayton returned to New York and formed an act that matched formal dress with an elegant style of dancing, thus combining strutting, ballroom dance, and cakewalking with percussive stepping. In 1923, at the height of their career, Greenlee and Drayton opened at uptown Harlem’s Cotton Club. Their graceful act was described as “Picture Dancing,” every move making a beautiful picture. Strolling onstage, they sang "You Great Big Beautiful Doll," doffing their hats and making sweeping bows. In “Virginia Essence,” a soft-shoe danced to stop-time, they filled in the musical breaks with conversation in various foreign languages. Johnson and Dean, Greenlee and Drayton, and the spectacular cakewalking couple George Walker and Ada Overton Walker, were the forerunners of what in tap dance has been called the “class act.” Graceful and impeccably dressed, moving together across the stage to make every move a beautiful picture, these dancers insisted on absolute perfection in sound and step. “You’re probably talking about straight up-and-down dancers, flat-footed dancers with no acrobatics . . . well-dressed, well-mannered, good music, good deportment-- all those things,” said Honi Coles about the “class act” dancers, naming the immaculate soft-shoe Irish dancer George Primrose; precision dancer Jack Wiggans who performed refined translations of the Argentine tango; and Eddie Rector,  whose “stage dancing” dovetailed one step into another to create a seamless flow of sound and movement.

 

The Nicholas Brothers followed in the class act tradition. Performing at the Cotton Club in the 1930s, they looked smartly streamlined in black tailcoats and dancing with such swirling speed that their tails were flying out behind them. Turning and tapping, brushing and patting the floor with the tip of his patent-leather shoe, Harold waved the dance to his brother, Fayard, who stroked the floor with velvet-smooth glides; together, they traversed the stage with slides and traveling crossover steps. Moving side by side and in perfect step with each other, their kicks and struts etched double-image designs in space. Whether leaping onto the platform, step-clapping down the stairs, or leaning into smooth-tapping reverse turns, the brothers exuded cosmopolitan cool, right through to their exit-- which had Fayard walking closely behind Harold, the two of them looking like one man with four legs.  Dancing at the Cotton Club in the 1930s and often on the same bill as the Nicholas Brothers were Pete, Peaches, and Duke-- Pete Nugent, Irving Beamon, and Duke Miller-- who further defined the class act through their precision-dancing. They opened their act with a precision-line military drill, tapping as if glued together. During each man's solo, the other two joined in to establish a new kind of continuity that was interwoven rather than episodic. They closed with a One Man exit, facing the audience, one behind the other, in single file, disappearing into the wings like a man with three pairs of legs. Descending from the great tradition of soft-shoe dancers, from Primrose and Jack Wiggans to Eddie Rector, Pete Nugent made full use of the stage. He insisted on the absolute perfection of sound and step, but his own style of strutting was like a swagger -- he walked with a bounce and there was a nonchalant hunch to his shoulders. That attitude held up his virtuosic dancing as the unrivalled model of the class dancer: “I'm a tap dancer first, last, and always,” said Nugent, “but if you have to make a choice, I prefer all body motion and no tap to all tap and no body motion. Any hoofer can execute all the steps, but the way a man handles his body and travels is what gives it class,” Nugent told Marshall Stearns. Other class-acts included Wells, Mordecai and Taylor, the Hillman Brothers, Three Little Words, The Three Dukes, the Dunhills, Rutledge and Taylor, The Lucky Seven Trio, the Rockets, the Five Hot Shots, and the white act of Virginia Lee and the Lathrop Brothers: all of these fine dancing acts had an opening number that was generally a flash number, a competitive dance, a soft-shoe; and a closer, usually a big flash number. The class act of Miller Brothers and Lois (George, Danny, and Lois Bright) is said to have one-upped all the other acts with high-speed rhythm tap dancing on a set of four-foot-high pedestals, each one shaped to spell their name: M I L L E R. They began with rhythm-style soft-shoe, followed by Danny and Lois performing precision tap and acrobatics, then climaxed with the trio dancing on and quickly across the pedestals, executing wings, barrel turns, and trenches. 

 

No one, however, surpassed the class-act dancing of Charles Honi Coles and Charles Cholly Atkins. In 1940, Honi was working as a dance soloist with Cab Calloway and his jive-Swing orchestra when he met Cholly who, with his wife Dorothy Saulters, did a song-and-dance act with Calloway. Coles had a polished style that melded high-speed tapping with an elegant yet close-to-the-floor style where the legs and feet did the work; his specialty was precision. Atkins, who had danced with and choreographed acts for the renowned Cotton Club Boys, had a highly refined sense of rhythm; he was an expert wing dancer. In 1946, after the war, they combined their talents by forming the class act of Coles and Atkins, and were immediately hired to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. The dance act they created was six-to-seven minutes long. Wearing handsomely tailored suits, they opened with a fast attention-getting tap dance that included a cross-current of patter; then they moved into a precision Swing dance in unison, and followed it with what became their classic soft-shoe, to the tune “Taking a Chance on Love,” played at an extremely slow tempo. Their soft shoe was followed by a challenge dance, in which each dancer showcased his specialty, working exclusively with the drummer to achieve a swinging percussive complexity. Coles performed speedy, swinging, and rhythmically complex combinations in his solos; Atkins was more light-footed and physically sculptural in his moves, blending tap with modern dance and ballet. They ended with tight precision steps and a walk offstage together. As Honi once explained to me: “Cholly and I were two straight, stand-up dancers, clean-cut, did wings--the extent of any kind of acrobatic stuff were wings, and wings were very popular--and we did the slowest soft shoe ever in show business and it was all neat and composed and we had good music and we had good costumes. We dressed well, we presented ourselves well and we didn’t resort to any kind of trickery as far as our act was concerned.”  As Coles and Atkins reached the pinnacle of perfection in their class act, audiences in the late 1940s were becoming less and less interested in “pure” tap. The Big-Band era was swiftly drawing to a close, vaudeville had vanished, television was in its infancy, a new style of ballet Broadway dance that integrated choreography into the musical plot became the popular stage form over tap dance, and night spots became small spaces with piano-bars or small cool-jazz groups.  Some argue that “tap dance died” during the period from the late forties through the fifties-- and the class act with it; some say that tap dance never died (it was only neglected). While that debate continues into the new century, the performance aesthetic of  class-act—with its elegant dress, aural precision, detached coolness, and flawless execution—has never died, and will forever continue to be the standard for the highest octave of tap-dancing perfection.

 

Constance Valis Hill

 

Gary Lambert “Pete” Nugent was born in Washington D.C., on July 16, 1909.  At the age of 16, Pete ran away from home to pursue a career in dancing, joining the TOBA circuit. Pete danced with the TOBA Circuit until around 1926 when he landed a job in the “Honeymoon Lane” Broadway Production. During that time he met and later formed a partnership with Irving “Peaches” Beaman in Chicago. In 1928 they formed a duo act and called themselves “Pete and Peaches”.  Duke Miller was added to the duo around 1931, and they became the unsurpassed class act of “Pete, Peaches and Duke”.  This act was often found performing in venues such as the Cotton Club in NYC, sharing the bill with other well known acts such as the Nicholas Brothers. After the act with Pete, Peaches and Duke split up in 1940, Pete had a solo act “Public Tapper, Number One”. During World War II he spent his military service touring in Irving Berlin’s show This is the Army, entertaining American troops around the world. His unit is the first integrated unit in the army, because Berlin insisted that the piece “This is What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” be performed by black dancers (therefore forcing integration due to casting for the show). Pete Nugent’s style was heavily influenced by the great vaudeville soft shoe dancers George Primrose, Eddie Rector and Jack Wiggins.

 

Although Nugent considered himself a tap dancer first and foremost, he preferred “all body motion and no tap”, rather than “all tap and no body motion”. Nugent prided himself on being more than a just a hoofer. Although he insisted on clean, clear taps—“Good dancers lay those rhythms right in your lap”— Nugent was primarily concerned with making full use of the stage.  “I’m a tap dancer, of course, first, last, and always, but . . . I prefer all body motion . . . Any hoofer can execute all the steps, but the way a man handles his body and travels is what give it class.”  (from Jazz Dance by Jean and Marshall Stearns). Nugent’s insistence on perfection made the teamwork of his trio outstanding. Many dancers tried to copy his steps and style, and he became a sought after coach for professionals, working with artists such as Buster Brown, Fay Ray, the 4 Step Brothers, and the class act “The Dunhills”.  He graced the floor as a teacher and “tap stylist” at several well known tap “hot spots” such as the studios of Henry LeTang, Jerry LeRoy (which became Fazil’s) in NYC, and Stanley Brown in Boston, MA. Pete was also an original and beloved member of the Copasetics, whose members included such legends as Billy Strayhorn,  Cookie Cook, Honi Coles, Cholly Atkins, Peg Leg Bates, and Ernest “Brownie” Brown to name a few. Nugent continued performing until the new wave of “bebop” changed the music scene. Unwilling to dance to bop, he eventually went into retirement around 1952. Around that time period the dance team of Coles and Atkins split up, and Pete teamed up with Charles “Honi” Coles and opened a dance studio in NYC with called “Dance Craft”. However, due to the declining interest in tap dance at the time, the studio did not survive. A short time later he was hired to be the road manager for the Motown group “The Temptations”, and continued with similar work that followed, drifting away from working as a tap dancer. In 1962 Nugent came out of retirement to perform with a handful of tap legends including Baby Lawrence, Honi Coles, and Bunny Briggs in a presentation by George Wein entitled “A History of Tap Dance and its Relationship to Jazz” at the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which brought tap back into the public eye. He enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early tap revival, and passed away April 25th, 1973. Although Pete Nugent was well known and highly respected by his colleagues for his style and craftsmanship, he did not gain as much notoriety and fame as his contemporaries. There is no archival video footage of his dancing; only oral accounts and descriptions from those who knew and worked with him. The chorography “Breezin” is one of the only known examples of his choreography that exits today. This choreography was made available through Nancy Howell, who studied with Pete Nugent for a year at the Stanley Brown Studio in Boston, MA. In 1953, while Nugent was associated with Stanley Brown’s studio, Nancy was selected to be a featured soloist for the annual student performance. Nugent was asked to create a solo choreography for Nancy to perform in Stanley Brown’s Studio “Dance Patterns of 53’ - Fifteenth Annual Student Revue”, held on June 2nd and 3rd at John Hancock Hall in Boston, MA. Sandi Sandiford, a noted dance arranger, did the original dance/musical charts for Breezin’.

 

Compiled by Susan Hebach

 

By the late 1980s, despite the tremendous interest in and worldwide revival of tap dance, it was no longer possible to find a copy of Jazz Dance.  We sent out scouts, squirreled copies from each other, Xeroxed chapters for courses we were teaching, and repeatedly called publishers to plead for the return of Jazz Dance to the book shelves. Finally, miraculously, here it is, reissued by Da Capo Press. It is a testimony to the community of dancers, fans, and scholars: we have made ourselves heard. Artists like Bill Robinson, King Rastus Brown, John Bubbles, Honi Coles and others who speak to us in this book, are our Nijinskys, Daighilevs, Balanchines, and Grahams. We honor them by studying their lives and work. This is a book I have read over and over; I will read and recommend it for as long as I am a tap dancer or a student of American History. There are so many books on ballet and modern dance. There are still so few on tap dance and they are so cavalierly allowed to go out of print even though the interest in them is so deep and sustaining. Studying tap dance through this marvelous book is like studying this country’s history, not through its wars and politics but through the creation of its own indigenous art form. It has been over twenty years since Marshall Stearns interviewed the tap dance for this book on jazz and vernacular dance. His introductory remarks read like an obituary; they ring with the sadness, melancholy, and nostalgia of the blues, mourning the loss of this unique dance form, with few presentiments of how and when it would be revived. Many of the dancers died before the first publication of this book; neither they nor Marshall Stearns lived to see the revival and the renaissance of tap dance. This is truly sad, for Marshall would have seen his book become the Bible for the new generation of tap dancers and a reference manual for the tap masters still living who worked so diligently to pass on the tradition as well as the technique. This book gave those dancers a reference point from which to observe both their contributions to, and the history of, their form, They incorporated this history with a new self-consciousness and respect for both tap dance as an art form and the tap dancer as an artist. A new generation of dancers-turned-producers pulled tap dance kicking and screaming into the 70s, 80s, and 90s—applauded but still misunderstood. Practitioners were required to become evangelists and apologists. This book really helped: it gave us credibility and created vocabulary and context for students, critics, producers, teachers, and archivists. With this reissue we can be assured that universities and libraries will have resource materials for students of black history and dance. A new generation of tap dancers and fans will not enjoy this marvelous work that documents a powerful, magnetic, and thoroughly magical history.

 

JAZZ DANCE Foreword By Brenda Bufalino

 

One of the greatest class acts of all time was Coles and Atkins, Charles ‘Honi’ Coles and Charles “Cholly” Atkins. The met in a show business hotel in Harlem in 1939, and spent much of the next two decades dancing together. Honi Coles was unusually tall for a tap dancer, and his lanky build simply enhanced the graceful tap style he was then developing. His good looks and sparkling eyes exuded a rare joy beyond the charm he possessed. During the 1930s, Honi Coles was known as having the fastest feet in the business. His main interest was rhythm tap, that lyrical, percussive tap form that was developing rapidly in the 1920s and 1930s by many tap dancer, including the “father” of rhythm tap, John Bubbles. It was said that Honi Coles could do everything Bubbles did, but faster. Cholly Atkins cut his teeth performing in nightclubs throughout the country with the duet The Rhythm Pals. In 1939, he landed in New York City, and through a tip from Honi Coles, auditioned for the great World’s Fair show The Hot Mikado, featuring the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins first met in 1939; however, they did not dance professionally as a team until after World War II, when they formed their act Coles and Atkins. Coles and Atkins—the definition of a Class Act. It ran twelve minutes. This was unusually long for a tap act, but then again, this was no ordinary tap act. Most tap acts of the time lasted anywhere from three to eight minutes, and they were just expected to tap. Any singing or comedy was considered an invasion of the other entertainers’ territory. However, Coles and Atkins broke through that barrier with their delightful twelve-minute act comprised of singing, comedy, and of course, excellent tap dancing. It was a blend that was ultimately pleasing to the audience and proved to ensure their longevity as an act. Coles was the rhythm dancer, creating poetry with his feet; Atkins was the flash dancer, combining balletic moves with tap. Their confidence as individual dancers, and their rapport as a team, was winning. Their most outstanding number was their Soft Shoe. The Soft Shoe had been performed for nearly a century before Honi and Cholly began working on theirs. What set their version apart was the seemingly perilous slowness of it. Each step was executed in graceful symmetry that was absolutely breathtaking. Never before had such precision and style been brought to this tempo of Soft Shoe. The “slow Soft Shoe” became a favorite in their repertoire. Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins were not the first to bring class to tap. Bu by the 1950s, they were definitely the last word on it. 

 

Excerpt from TAP by Rusty Frank

 

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