Posts Tagged ‘The Copasetics’

The Copacetic Boat Ride

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

By Rachel Straus

It’s not easy tapping aboard a moving vessel. But every year in celebration of Tap City! one-hundred plus tap dancers do just that on the deck of the Circle Line in celebration of a 62-year-old tradition: The Copasetic Boat Ride. The historical event kicks off the annual, week-long, internationally-attended tap dance festival, organized by American Tap Dance Foundation director Tony Waag.

On the ship’s main deck on July 5, a circle of dancers formed in front of a jazz band. Some stars of the tap world welcomed the swaying and rocking of the ship as a challenge. Despite the boat’s occasional lurches and vertiginous tilts, their hard hitting styles never softened. Watching Jason Samuels Smith and Tamii Sakurai hit the deck with their taps (rather than their faces) was as thrilling as seeing Lady Liberty up close and against the setting sun.

Despite the fact that tap is an American art form—whose development reflects the country’s evolution from colonial rule to slave nation to super power—the dance form has gotten short shift. Primarily developed through black dancers, its popularity has ebbed and flowed like the tide. Its high water mark of popularity came with the rise of film and America’s embrace of Hollywood musicals: 1910-1950. Then tap went into near extinction. But starting in 1949, a 21-strong ensemble of black male tap dancers, calling themselves The Copasetics, began performing on TV shows, back room bars, and river boats. While Broadway and Hollywood hired fewer and fewer tap dancers, The Copasetics helped keep the art form alive, hoofing it on land and sea.

In the 1970s, tap experienced a renaissance in concert with the American dance boom, which was catapulted by the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts (1965) and the Ford Foundation’s large grants to dance. During that time aging members of The Copasetics helped teach a new generation, which included Gregory Hines, Brenda Bufalino and Savion Glover. Hit Broadway shows like “Black and Blue” (1989) and Savion Glover’s  “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” (1996), which celebrated and delineated the history of tap, further fostered tap’s revitalization. Then in 1986 the American Tap Dance Foundation formed. Founders Brenda Bufalino, Tony Waag, and the late Charles ‘Honi’ Coles recognized that the tap dancing world needed a home, just as New York City Ballet fought for and established one at Lincoln Center in the 1965. The organization headquartered itself in lower Manhattan not far from the Circle Line pier.

The Circle Line isn’t an ideal place to see tap dancing. But to witness tap dancers, of all ages, abilities, and from far flung places, tap aboard a rocking ship has a certain poetic fitness. Tap dance’s history hasn’t been smooth sailing. Regardless, tap flows from generation to generation despite the fact that the art form has never been given its own theater or has been sanctioned by the power elite, as is the case with ballet and opera. Tap has been kept alive through the efforts of key individuals, like Tony Waag.  As he taught a tap class for beginners on The Circle Line boat, Waag’s sunny demeanor echoed tap great Bill Bojangles Robinson’s famous observation that “everything is copasetic,” or perfect. Perfection, according to Waag, isn’t about a perfectly executed phrase. It’s about finding a rhythmic groove and riding it for as long as you can.