TAP DANCE HALL OF
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Charles “Honi” Coles
(2 April 1911-12 November 1992)
Charles “Honi” Coles, tap
dancer, raconteur, and veteran performer of the stage,
vaudeville, television, and the concert world, was born
in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George and
Isabel Coles. He learned to tap dance on the streets
of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other
in time step "cutting" contests, and made
his New York City debut at the Lafayette Theatre in
1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed
over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high
pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired
another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia,
determined to perfect his technique. He returned to
New York City in 1934, confident and skilled in his
ability to cram several steps into a bar of music. Performing
at the Harlem Opera House and Apollo Theatre, he was
reputed to have the fastest feet in show business. And
at the Hoofer's Club, where only the most serious tap
dancers gathered to compete, he was hailed as one of
the most graceful dancers ever seen.
From 1936 to 1939 Coles performed with
the Lucky Seven Trio, who tapped on large cubes that
looked like dice; the group went through ten costume
changes in the course of their act. Touring with the
big swing bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the
6’2” Coles polished his style, melding high-speed
tapping with an elegant yet close-to-the-floor style
where the legs and feet did the work. In 1940, as a
soloist with Cab Calloway's orchestra, Coles met Charles
"Cholly" Atkins, a jazz tap dancer who would
later choreograph for the best rhythm-and-blues singing
groups of the 1960s. Atkins was an expert wing dancer,
while Coles's specialty was precision.
They combined their talents after the
War by forming the class act of Coles & Atkins.
Wearing handsomely tailored suits, the duo opened with
a fast-paced song-and-tap number, then moved into a
precision swing dance and soft-shoe, finishing with
a tap challenge in which each showcased his specialty.
Their classic soft-shoe, danced to "Taking a Chance
on Love" and played at an extremely slow tempo,
was a nonchalant tossing off of smooth slides and gliding
turns in crystal-cut precision. Coles performed speedy,
swinging and rhythmically complex combinations in his
solos, which anticipated the prolonged cadences of bebop
that extended the duration of steps past the usual eight-bar
In 1944 Coles married Marion Evelyn
Edwards, a dancer in the Number One chorus at the Apollo
Theatre; they had two children. Through the 1940s, Coles
& Atkins appeared with the big bands of Calloway,
Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy
Eckstine, and Count Basie. In 1949, at the Ziegfeld
Theatre in the Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
they stopped the show with the Jule Styne number, "Mamie
is Mimi," to which choreographer Agnes De Mille
had added a ballet dancer. By the time the show closed
in 1952 the big-band era was drawing to a close and
a new style of ballet Broadway dance that integrated
choreography into the musical plot became the popular
form over tap dance.
Though Coles in 1954-1955 opened the
Dance Craft studio on fifty-second Street in New York
City with tap dancer Pete Nugent, there was a steady
decrease in the interest of tap dance in the 1950s.
"No work, no money. Tap had dropped dead,"
Coles remembered of that decade. Coles and Atkins broke
up in 1960; and for the next sixteen years, Coles worked
as production stage manager for the Apollo Theatre with
duties that included introducing other acts. He served
as president of the Negro Actors Guild and continued
his association with the Copasetics, a tapping fraternity
named in honor of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson,
which he had helped to found in 1949. At the Newport
Jazz Festival in 1962 Coles was in the forefront of
the tap revival that brought veteran members of the
Copasetics back to the stage. In the early 1970s, he
joined Brenda Bufalino in their duet concert of the
Morton Gould Tap Concerto and toured the United States
and England in their collaboration concert of Singin’
Swingin’ and Wingin’ where each contributed
original musical compositions, monologs, and choreography.
He joined the touring company of Bubblin' Brown Sugar
performing the role of John Sage in 1976, and regained
his stride as a soloist, performing at Carnegie Hall
and Town Hall. After receiving a standing ovation for
his performance in the Joffrey Ballet production of
Agnes De Mille's "Conversations on the Dance",
in 1978, Coles firmly placed tap dance in the world
of concert dance. In 1983 at age seventy-two, he received
the Tony Award, Fred Astaire Award, and Drama Desk Award
for best featured actor and dancer in a musical for
the Broadway hit, My One and Only, starring Tommy Tune.
Jack Kroll in Newsweek called Coles "Brilliant!"
in that musical, adding that his feet had "the
delicacy and power of a master pianist's hands."
Coles was a tap dancer of extraordinary
elegance whose personal style and technical precision
epitomized the class-act dancer. "Honi makes butterflies
look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire," the singer
Lena Horne said of Coles. The historian Sally Sommer
wrote that Coles was "a supreme illusionist he
appeared to float and do nothing at all while his feet
chattered complex rhythms below." He was also a
master teacher who preached, "If you can walk,
you can tap." As an untiring advocate of tap dance,
Coles often claimed that tap dance was the only dance
art form that America could claim as its own. He was
awarded the Dance Magazine Award in 1985, the Capezio
Award for lifetime achievement in dance in 1988, and
the National Medal of the Arts in 1991. Coles last appeared
as master of ceremonies at the Colorado Tap Festival
with former partner Atkins, performing up to the end
of a long and rhythmically brilliant career. He died
in New York City.
Coles has appeared in the films The
Cotton Club and Dirty Dancing and the documentaries
Great Feats of Feet, Charles “Honi” Coles
- The Class Act of Tap, and Milt and Honi. Television
shows include "The Tap Dance Kid," "Mr.
Griffin and Me," "Conversations in Dance,"
"Charleston," "Archives of a Master"
and Dance in America's "Tap Dance in America"
Coles & Atkins' classic Soft Shoe
can be seen in the 1963 Camera Three television program,
"Over the Top with Bebop," narrated by jazz
historian Marshall Stearns. The most descriptive material
on Coles & Atkins includes Marshall and Jean Stearns'
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New
York: Macmillan, 1968); and Jaqui Malone, "Let
the Punishment Fit the Crime: The Vocal Choreography
of Cholly Atkins" in Steppin' On The Blues (University
of Illinois Press, 1996).
Constance Valis Hill
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