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Charles "Honi" Coles (1911-1992)

By Jenai Cutcher West

In the early 1930s, Charles “Honi” Coles spent about a year in an empty room in Philadelphia, tap dancing for up to eight hours a day. He emerged with “the fastest feet in the business.” Coles had moved back to his hometown, where he had learned to tap dance on street corners, after working in New York City as one of the Three Millers, a flash act incorporating many jumps and other tricks. The lanky 6’2’’ dancer returned to New York in 1934 with his new technique: smooth, close-to-the-floor dancing that allowed long lines of tap notes to float through several bars of music without a break.

He was a member of the Three Giants of Rhythm from 1936-1939 before venturing out as a single act. Service in the army during World War II interrupted Coles’s performance career, but he returned in 1946 with the goal of opening a dancing school with friend and fellow tap dancer Charles “Cholly” Atkins. They developed an act they could perform temporarily, just until they earned enough capital for their new business, but the team of Coles and Atkins was too successful; the dance studio never opened and the pair performed together for 14 years.

Determined to maintain more control over their act than earlier black performers were afforded, Coles and Atkins were uncompromising in their representation and bookings. Theirs was a class act; they always performed in impeccably tailored suits, and if a presenter requested something other than their trademark sophistication, they turned down the job.

Unlike most acts of the time that specialized in just one type of entertainment, Coles and Atkins incorporated song, comedy, and several dance styles, clocking over 12 minutes of performance time in each set. They would enter with an up-tempo dance, slow it down a bit, then lead into a song. At the center of their set was the famous Coles and Atkins soft shoe, danced to the Vernon Duke song “Taking a Chance On Love.” Set to a painstakingly slow tempo, the soft shoe choreography transitioned between single and double time, triplets, swinging eighth notes, and quarter notes, slides, turns, kicks, and traveling sequences, all with complete synchronicity.

Each dancer then performed a solo in his own preferred style. Coles maintained a cool, calm posture in his upper body as he executed speedy, small steps with clarity. His elegance while dancing once prompted Lena Horne to declare that Honi Coles “made butterflies clumsy.” (Honi Coles: The Class Act of Tap) His long, relaxed legs articulated complex, extended phrases, ushering in the bebop style largely associated with later musicians. The act closed with a challenge dance followed by unison choreography.

Coles and Atkins worked with many of the major big bands touring at the time, including those of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. In 1947 they traveled from New York to the West Coast with Count Basie and returned with Billy Eckstine. In 1949, they were cast in the Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, dancing their own choreography, although uncredited, in a showstopping number, “Mamie is Mimi.” They were on Broadway for two years and toured with the production for another year.

By that time, work was becoming scarce for most tap dancers, in part, according to Coles, because Agnes de Mille introduced modern dance to the Broadway stage. Atkins began accepting more work as a choreographer for Motown bands, and in 1960 Coles became the stage manager at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He worked there for 16 years before tap began to experience a resurgence in popularity.

In the mid-1970s, he began a longtime collaboration with protégé Brenda Bufalino. She featured Coles and other members of the Copasetics Club in her 1975 documentary film, Great Feats of Feet. As a duet, Coles and Bufalino toured the U.S. and England and performed the Morton Gould Tap Concerto with the Brooklyn Academy Philharmonic. When Bufalino began creating concert works of her own, Coles served as consultant and later helped her establish her company, The American Tap Dance Orchestra, often performing as a guest artist. Coles was a fixture at the new tap festivals cropping up throughout the country. He taught and performed alongside other former vaudeville, movie, and Broadway dancers and, due to his experience working at the Apollo, excelled at creating the concert line-up and serving as Master of Ceremonies.

Amidst the revival, Coles was also able to return to Broadway. He starred in the musical Bubblin’ Brown Sugar in 1976 and, at age 72, originated the role of Mr. Magix in My One and Only, for which he won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Fred Astaire Awards. He also sang and danced on screen, with roles in Rocky II, The Cotton Club, and Dirty Dancing, as well as starring in the television movie The Tap Dance Kid. He appeared in Agnes de MiIle’s Conversations About the Dance and the PBS Special, Tap Dance in America.

Coles served as president of the Negro Actors Guild and earned the Dance Magazine Award (1985), the Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement (1988), and the National Medal of the Arts (1991). He was a founding member of the Copasetics, a club formed in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They often opened performances with “The Walkaround,” otherwise known as “Coles’ Stroll,” which was built on his favorite adage, “If you can walk, you can tap dance.” Throughout his career, Charles “Honi” Coles was a tireless advocate for what he viewed as the only dance art America could claim as its own. He died of cancer at age 81.


Jenai Cutcher West tap dances, writes about dance, teaches dance, and makes dance movies. She has performed and taught throughout the U.S. and internationally. Her first documentary, Thinking On Their Feet: Women of the Tap Renaissance, recently screened at The Wexner Center for the Arts and the Southern Utah International Documentary Festival. Jenai has an MFA in Dance from The Ohio State University. Her new book, Columbus Moves: A Brief History of Contemporary Dance, was published in May 2012.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Atkins, Cholly and Jacqui Malone. Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

Bufalino, Brenda. Tapping the Source. New Paltz, NY: Codhill Press, 2004.

Frank, Rusty. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955. New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.

Fraser, C. Gerald. “Honi Coles: Recalling 50 Years of Tap.” New York Times 17 July 1984. (link)

Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. 

Moving Image

Available on DVD:

Great Feats of Feet, 1978. Brenda Bufalino, Dir.

Honi Coles: The Class Act of Tap, 1994. Jim Swenson, Dir.

YouTube:

“Over the Top Be-Bop” (link)

“Swing Is Really the Thing” (link)

“Doin’ the New Low Down” (link)