International Tap Dance Hall of Fame

 

The International Tap Dance Hall of Fame is the only tap dance hall of fame exclusively focused on tap dancers. It features founding and innovative

20th and 21st century professional tap dancers. With a collection of photographs, biographies, and videos, the Hall of Fame

is becoming a colorful and diverse retrospective of America's seminal tap dance personalities.

 

2016 - Harriet "Quicksand" Browne was born on August 7, 1932, on the south side of Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Ruby Jordan, was a hotel worker and amateur musician; her father, Reuben Jordan, was a pharmacist and shoe salesman who was a self-taught dancer (expert at dancing Snake Hips). The entire family was musical: her mother played piano, her grandfather standup bass, her maternal uncles played the saxophone and older sister, Marquita, had a voice "that could quiet any room." Through the Depression years, the family entertained each other by singing, dancing, making music at home. Browne credits her father as the first to give her tap dance lessons: "He could tap, and the rhythm fascinated me. It always has," she said, and she took every opportunity to watch the numerous tap dance acts that played the Regal Theatre, a black vaudeville house in Chicago. She also listened to jazz music, was familiar with "every musician, every solo," and a serious collector of the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Jimmy Lunceford, Fats Waller, and Nat "King" Cole.

By age ten, Browne was "wired for sound," and could dance. The Jordans sent their preteen daughters to take formal dance lessons from the Bruce Sisters (Mary, Sadie and Evelyn) in Chicago. There, Harriet learned jazz dance and rhythm time steps. In her early teens, and after performing in several spots in Chicago's NRA Theatre, she developed a song and dance act with her sister they called the Jordan Sisters: Marquita sang and both tap-danced. Their routine consisted of traditional steps from the Shim Sham, danced to "Nagasacki." From her earliest performances, Browne was an alert and speedy dancer, with steps that were clean, clear, and sharp. She was a low-heeled rhythm dancer in the style of John Bubbles. "I can do more with my feet in a flat shoe,” said Browne about rhythm tap dancing.

Around age fifteen, while dancing nightly in clubs around Chicago, Browne dropped out of the eleventh grade of Englewood high school to dance in the chorus. After meeting the young musician Paul Gonsalves, who was the featured saxophonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, she became pregnant, giving birth to a boy, Renell Gonsalves, who was raised in his early years by Browne's mother and sister, and who grew up to become a musician and music teacher.  Soon after Renell’s birth, Browne began performing as a soloist and also as an ensemble chorus dancer, appearing in such clubs in around Chicago as the Savannah Club, Town Hill and Town & Country clubs. By the 1950s, her tap choreography landed her in the center of variety shows and nightclubs where she was toured with the Cab Calloway band and later appeared with Flip Wilson, Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, Della Reese, and T-Bone Walker.

In the 1950s, Browne got a job working in the chorus at the Savannah Club in Greenwich Village, New York, where tap dancers like Derby Wilson were performing on a bill that included a number of variety performers. New York thus became her home base. In the post-World War II years, sand dancing was again in popularity, and though it went out in popularity as soon as it came in, Browne began working on it. In the 1970s, after marrying and taking the name of Browne, her husband built Harriet her first sand dancing apparatus: an upside-down card table with lips around it to keep the sand contained. While Howard "Sandman" Sims was playing around with sand at the time, she had taken this style of rhythm dancing on sand to new artistic dimensions. There was no comparing her style to any others. "I'd give Sandman a heart attack trying to keep up with my tempos because that's my thing. I didn't start it, I didn't originate it. But I made it mine." Browne sand danced to such extremely fast tempos that musicians had to struggle to keep up with her; the originality of her improvised rhythmic phrases was also her signature style.

Browne first began teaching in New York at first at the Bronx Dance Theatre, subsequently writing a syllabus for tap dance and earning certification from Dance Educators of America. In the 1980s, she opened her own studio and founded the Aristaccato Tap Company, training inner-city Bronx youth in passing on the history of tap and jazz. She also toured Europe with veteran tap masters Bunny Briggs, Charles Cookie Cook, James Buster Brown of the Copasetics Club; performed with Jane Goldberg's Changing Times Tap Company; and became one of the youngest members of the Silver Belles, a sorority of former Apollo Theatre and Cotton Club chorus line dancers.

As one of the outstanding women tap soloists in the 1990s, she appeared in the Boston Women's Theatre Festival, and events at Carnegie Hall, LaMama, ETC, and Symphony Space. In 1995, Browne was a recipient of he Choreographer's Fellowship from the National Endowment on the Arts. She was honored for her choreography at Lincoln Center's Allice Tully Hall in 1996 during National Tap Dance Day.

Browne has remained a vocal and supportive of women in tap dance, frequently reminding of the inequity of women in tap dance. Even in the 1990s, when female tap dancers were gaining in opportunities to perform, Browne continued to remind us that  "If they [male producers] can find enough guys to do it, they will go and call the fellas…But it doesn't belong to them. We can do it, to, given the opportunities. Men who tap have a different approach to it, just like musicians have a different approach with their instruments. Maybe more forceful…but women can do it and do it just as well given the opportunity. Give us the gig." Browne died on September 1, 1997, at the age of sixty-three, in New York City.

Constance Valis Hill

[Sources: Quicksand, produced with Mickey Davidson and Musical Director Frank Owen, featuring Browne's tap choreography and rapid-fired sand dancing; Susan Goldbetter, "Obituaries: Harriet Browne," ITA Newsletter (Vol. 8, No. 4 Nov.-Dec. 1997, p. 17); Dennis Levy, "Harriet Browne, Tap Dancer Extraordinaire," Body Positive (November 1997, Vol. X, Number 11); Rachel L. Swarns, "Her Tap Shoes Tell the Story," The New York Times (11 June 1996, B1, B4); Melba Huber, "Tap Talk for Intellectual Rhythmic Superiors: Silver Belles," Dance Pages (September 1993, p. 20-21); "Interview with Harriet Browne," by Constance Valis Hill, Oral History Project of the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library (February 3 and 12, 1996).]