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.

 

2012 - Alice Whitman and the Whitman Sisters’ Legacy

The Whitman Sisters-- Mabel Whitman (1880-1942), Essie Whitman (1882-1963), Alberta Whitman (ca. 1887-1963) and “Baby” Alice Whitman (ca. 1900-1969), comprise the family of black female entertainers who owned and produced their own performing company, which traveled across the United States from 1900-1943 to play in all the major cities, becoming the longest running and highest-paid act on the T.O.B.A. circuit and a crucible of dance talent in black vaudeville. They were called the greatest incubator of black dancing talent, and their star dancer, youngest sister Alice Whitman, was called the “Queen of Tap,” considered the finest woman tap dancer of the 1920s-30s.

The four sisters were daughters of Caddie Whitman and the Reverend Albery Allson Whitman, who was called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” and served as Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kansas and Dean of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. When they were young, their father gave singing and dancing lessons to Mabel, Essie and Alberta, teaching them the Double Shuffle—for exercise only he insisted—and religious songs with the intent that the girls would accompany him on evangelical tours and church benefits. They attended the New England Conservatory of Music and at a young age became well-known as singers, dancers and musicians.

In 1899, Mabel, Essie and Alberta formed the Whitman Sisters Comedy Company and toured all of the leading southern houses, playing to black and white audiences. With the establishment of the Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours in 1904, Mabel became one of the first black woman to manage and continuously book her own company in leading Southern houses. Refusing to follow the set pattern of segregating audience by having whites in the auditorium and black in the balcony, the Whitmans insisted upon blacks being allowed in the parquet and dress circle sections of the theater although spectators were probably still grouped together by race. They worked for a season with Billy Kersands, the famed minstrel soft-shoe tap dancer and comedian. In 1910, she organized Mabel Whitman and the Dixie Boys, and toured the country and Europe. Her sister toured U.S. circuits to great acclaim as Bert Whitman and Her Three Sunbeams. By 1914 Mabel had consolidated the family talent into the fastest paced show on African-American vaudeville.

“Baby” Alice was born in Atlanta, Georgia. By the time she joined the company at the age of four, the Whitman Sisters had become a family-run business that played most of the major vaudeville circuits in the South, East and Northeast. All four sisters were featured performers. Mabel directed the large company and handled all the bookings, Essie designed and executed costumes, Alberta composed music and kept the books, and Alice was billed at the star dancer, the  “Queen of Taps,” enhancing such popular dances as Ballin’ the Jack, Walkin’ the Dog, and the Shim-Sham-Shimmy with clear and clean tapping. She was considered the best female tap dancer in the 1920s to 1930s. Considered “The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville,” the Whitmans’ fast-paced shows, based on a variety format of songs, dances and comedy skits, which included twenty to thirty performers, a chorus line, and jazz band, and always plenty of talented dancing kids.

Historian Nadine George-Graves writes that the Whitman Sisters offered something for everyone: jubilee songs and coon shouts, cakewalks and breakdowns, comedians, midgets, cross-dressers, beautiful dancing girls, jazz and blues singers, a swinging band, and extraordinarily talented child performers, in the parlance of the day referred to as “picks” or “pickaninnies.”

Two or three of the teen girls, including Jeni LeGon, Lois Bright Miller and Catherine Basie (future wife of Count Basie), were featured as the Snakehip Queens. They would do a shake dance (something like the shimmy) to the jazz song, ‘Diga Diga Doo.” Shifting the focus to the lower half of the body, the girls would then do a snakehips dance, the movement of their satin costumes emphasizing their undulations. Mabel would come on with the pickaninnies, singing old favorites then turning the show over to the boys, who would belt out songs, tap like their was no tomorrow, and challenge each other while Bert clapped a Charleston rhythm. The audience would roar as the young dancers turned flips, ran up walls, and generally defied gravity.

Alberta cut her hair short, dressed as a man, and excelled as a male impersonator. A singer and flash dancer, “Bert” topped her Strut with high-kicking legomania, playing the dapper gentleman partner to her youngest sister. A description of Alice Whitman’s dance style comes from a reconstruction of Whitman Sisters’ act 1909-1920 by Nadine George-Graves: “Alice would then begin to sing her number and the stage would clear as she broke into a clear, clean tap routine full of wings, pullbacks, and time steps that put most tappers to shame.” When interviewed by Marshall and Jean Stearns, Alice said, “I’d make my exit with the Shim-Sham-Shimmy, mostly from the waist down-- along with more squeals-- wearing a shawl and a little flimsy thing around my middle with a fringe and a bow on he back. If I ever lost that bow, they used to say, I’d sure catch a cold. I could swing a mean [Alice winked her eye] around.”

“Of the tap dancers (Alice) was the best there was,” Jeni Gon stated. “She was tops. She was better than Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell and me and anybody else you wanted to put her to…. She could do all the ballet-style stuff like Eleanor. And then she could hoof [heavy, grounded tapping]!”

No film footage exists of Alice Whitman or of the Whitman Sisters Troupe. LeGon notes that Alice Whitman “never went out on her own . . . she stayed with the sisters.”  The highly segregated entertainment world created both limitations and opportunities for the Whitmans. The established film industry was closed to Mabel Whitman, as one of the foremost company directors of the day, and her star female dancer, Alice. But the black vaudeville Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) and devoted African-American audiences ensured that the Whitman Sisters would become one of the longest running, highest-paid, and most popular companies on the black vaudeville circuit. “Performers like the Whitmans had to carefully control the images they portrayed in order to stay in the ‘big time,’” biographer Nadine George-Graves wrote. “From the time they performed in front of their first audiences, singing and dancing on their father’s evangelical tour, through their years as an independent troupe playing the top vaudeville houses and heir time as headliners on the Toby circuit to the end of their 40-year careers, Mabel, Alberta, Essie and Alice made sure that they were never taken advantage of, and maintained spotless reputations. Ever loyal to the African-American community, the Whitmans entertained whites and blacks, men and women, upper-,middle-, and lower-class Americans.”

Alice’s son, “Pops” Whitman (1919-1950) became one of the stars of the Whitman Act at the young age of four, and developed into one of the finest acrobatic tap dancers, one of the first to execute cartwheels, spins, flips and spins to swinging rhythms. The team of Pops and Louie were stars of the African-American variety circuit, appearing in several films and became well known to white audiences. The sisters knew talent then they saw it, and gave hundreds of dancers their first big break. Leonard Reed, Willie Bryant, Jeni LeGon, Lois Bright Miller, Aaron Palmer, Eddie Rector, Clarence Taylor (Groundhog), Jack Wiggins, and dozens of others all served apprenticeship with them. They not only employed comedy dancers, they featured dancers as dancers, and sold their show on the strength of its dancing talent—and without doubt, the incredible long life of the Whitman Sisters was based on the premise that good dancing always pleased the public.

Written by Constance Valis Hill and Margaret Morrison