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Tapped Out 

This city's young tap dancers are no longer welcome in the French Quarter. Are these kids troublemakers, or are they keeping an age-old New Orleans tradition alive?

The youngest kid is the first to spot the squad car crawling through the crowds on Bourbon Street. Without hesitation, he swoops up his tip box and begins sprinting. His friend follows him. Within minutes, they've disappeared into the crowd.

Now it's just Tootie on this corner. He isn't worried about the police because he has no record. But both of his friends were charged recently with obstruction of the sidewalk, he says. Or it might have been destruction of the sidewalk. Anyway, they were led away in handcuffs, their taps still on their shoes. If the cops catch them out here now, Tootie says, it would mean another trip to juvenile court.

Tootie (whose full name is withheld from this story because he's a juvenile) almost always revs up his act when someone walks by. This time it's a large man in a baseball cap. Tootie first tries to get his attention with a series of wild percussive taps. Not even a look.

"Aw, c'mon big guy," he says. He taps more leisurely and uses his right hand to gesture grandly, like a game show model, at his tip box.

The man looks over at Tootie and then, holding his beer with one hand, fumbles in his wallet with the other. Out comes a one-dollar bill, which he puts in Tootie's tip box, a tattered Barq's case. Tootie beams and says "thank you," then sees another clump of tourists headed his way and launches into a jig-like step that takes his feet high off the ground.

The neon lights of Bourbon Street were just beginning to show up against dusk when Tootie began his act near the Bienville Street corner. His bicycle leans against a post a few yards away; he rode it from his family's apartment in the Iberville housing project. He's 16 now and has been coming to the Quarter to dance since about 1991.

The biggest tip he's ever gotten, he says, is a hundred-dollar bill, and he's gotten it a couple of times. Right now, he's saved up about $300 from his dancing -- for "clothes and shoes and stuff," he says.

This is Tootie's first-choice spot to tap, and it's easy to see why. Overhead, speakers from Arnaud's restaurant pipe out traditional jazz. Underfoot, in the middle of Arnaud's red-brick sidewalk, there's a metal manhole cover. He likes how his taps sound on it.

The Barq's tip box only holds four dollars so far, but Tootie is optimistic. For one thing, no other tappers are out here tonight. "I do better by myself," he says.

Tootie's newfound monopoly here is thanks mostly to the recent sweep of the French Quarter, which prompted the arrest of his friends, as well as a good number of other street dancers, on charges of aggressive panhandling and obstruction of the sidewalk. "They are all gone," Eighth District Captain Louis Dabdoub says of the tap dancers. "They were harassing tourists for tips; they were strong-arming people."

Basically, the "supposed dancers" were hustling, not performing, says Dabdoub: "You can't smash beer cans, put them on your shoes and call it tap dancing."

When dance teacher Janet Andrews watches tap dancers in the French Quarter, she sees innovation. "The kids who dance in the Quarter don't know technique," she says. "But they are very very creative and they have fantastic rhythms. They're improvisationists."

Andrews thinks that it's a shame that the Quarter is no longer welcoming tap dancers. "I think it's awful. I think it's terrible," she says. "Tap dance has been in the Quarter for centuries."

This history should be no secret at City Hall, says Andrews. "Mayor Ray Nagin grew up in Treme so he knows all about this. I don't understand how he could actually let this happen. People in Treme -- the first black neighborhood in the country -- are not going to go for this. Because most of those kids come out of Treme."

Andrews is a cousin of jazz musicians James and Troy Andrews, all of them born and raised in the Treme neighborhood. Twelve years of her childhood were spent taking dance lessons from a highly successful Columbia University graduate named Bernice Durden Franklin. "She was better known to us as 'Teacher,'" she says.

Franklin's studio, on North Derbigny and Dumaine streets, was the most popular dance academy in the city, says Andrews. "It was the only black dance studio that held its recitals at Municipal Auditorium -- with full scenery, background, props, everything."

Andrews herself is now is a dance instructor at several places in town, including the New Orleans Ballet Association. In Treme, she continues Franklin's work by teaching tap at the Treme Community Center and at the Neighborhood Civic and Arts Center on Claiborne Avenue. Holding tap classes and workshops can be difficult, she says, because tap is the least-funded of the local dances, especially compared to ballet.

Yet Andrews finds her neighborhood a perfect place to teach tap. Among the jazz drummers who live in Treme, several have nephews, nieces or kids of their own who tap in the Quarter. "I mean, you can walk down the streets of Treme at any given time and you can hear a trumpet blowing or a saxophone blowing or a drum beating. So the kids who are tappers listen to these rhythms being played on the street. And they carry that with them in their heads when they go into the Quarter to dance."

Occasionally, she says, tappers from the Quarter come to watch her classes. Only a few have taken lessons from her. She understands why. "Those kids are down there because they need the money. Their parents can't afford to give them some of the things that they need or want. So they go down to the Quarter to make the money to keep them off the streets, to keep them from selling drugs or stealing or whatever."

If she ran the city, she says, she would give the tappers more structure on how to behave while performing, and perhaps teach them some technique. But she certainly wouldn't pull them out of the Vieux Carre. "It's just the natural flavor of the Quarter," she says, explaining that, half a century ago, the legendary duo Pork Chop and Kidney Stew made a living dancing there. "They were very good dancers. But these kids, with training, would be very good dancers, too."

Whenever Jacqui Malone has visited New Orleans, she's seen children on the street tap dancing.

Tap's popularity in the birthplace of jazz seems fitting to Malone, a professor at Queens College and author of books such as Steppin' on the Blues, a history of African-American dance. In that book, Malone details how tap dancing and jazz influenced each other.

"Tap and jazz are very close forms," she says, via telephone from her New York apartment. "(Legendary dancer) Buster Brown used to say, 'Drumming and tapping are twins; they just don't look alike.'"

During the 1930s and '40s, the best musicians and dancers of the day drank together, played baseball with each other, and held joint jam sessions. Band leader Duke Ellington, in fact, preferred musicians who were dancers. "I think it's very important that a musician should dance," he once said. "I think that people who don't dance, or who never did dance, don't really understand the beat."

Many jazz artists -- including Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton -- were also accomplished dancers. And one of the finest dancers was none other than Louis Armstrong, Malone points out.

In Armstrong's hometown during tap's heyday, ritzy establishments in the French Quarter hired dancers like Pork Chop and Kidney Stew to dance both inside and outside. They would first attract passersby by dancing on the sidewalk in front and then would dance an entire act inside.

Beverly Trask clearly remembers the latter days of that era. Each year, Trask brings experts like Jacqui Malone and many older dancers to town through her role as the director of the New Orleans Heritage Dance Festival. But in 1959, she was a fifth grader taking dance lessons in her hometown of Bogalusa. During a visit to the French Quarter, she saw an elderly man in a tuxedo dancing on the sidewalk. She asked him about some of his moves, she recalls, and the two of them then danced a little time step.

By then, tap was on a decline -- until the early 1960s, when a Hunter College professor named Marshall Stearns began to seek out old hoofers for a book he wanted to write about black vernacular dance. In 1962, Stearns brought a few jazz dancers -- including longtime tap icons Honi Coles, Cholly Atkins and Buster Brown -- to the Newport Jazz Festival, where they performed with jazz musicians. "Critics were knocked out," says Malone. "They hadn't seen anything like it."

Tap dance soon began to re-emerge. Those older dancers taught their craft to young men like Gregory Hines and, more recently, Savion Glover, whose roles in Broadway shows such as Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk propelled both him and the art of tap dance to new heights.

"A lot of people thought of tap in a nostalgic way until Savion came along," says Malone. "Both Cholly (Atkins) and Buster (Brown) have told me that Savion is the greatest tap dancer who ever lived. His feet are incredible, they say." Glover also gave tap a whole new look, she says, because he took the older traditions and incorporated hip-hop.

Despite the renown of a few stars, dancers in public forums have long struggled with authorities. "Ever since they started dancing on the street," Malone says, "they ran into problems with police." Sometimes, residents find the dancing too noisy. But typically, when street dancers have been singled out, says Malone, one of the factors is racism. "Most often, they're black kids out there and they're targeted."

She says she is especially dismayed that this city would crack down on its dancers. "I just thought," says Malone, "that in New Orleans, tap would be recognized as one of the things that really helped make it the appealing place it is."

Around 3 o'clock one afternoon, a 12-year-old kid who says his name is Tyrell slips the metal taps onto his shoes and puts out a tip box near Cafe du Monde. His friend, who's a few years older, sets up right next to him.

The younger boy begins tapping happily, smiling at the tourists and dancing around in circles. Soon the tourists begin to respond, with one dollar bill, then another. Before long, Tyrell has seven dollars. His friend's box contains a single dollar bill and some change.

Quarter dancers know that small, cute tappers often get the most tips. A few older, more experienced tappers like Tootie are next in the tip hierarchy. Last come the lanky, junior-high kids who have grown out of their adorable years but don't yet know enough flashy moves to wow the crowd.

Tyrell's friend falls in the last category, and he's not pleased about it. "Why should I dance when you get all the money?" he asks. "You been trying to play me all day, dawg."

Tyrell just keeps tapping around in circles and smiling sweetly. Occasionally he says "How 'bout it?" and gestures toward his tip box. With that, the tips begin pouring in again. Tyrell says that he's been dancing out here for about four years and that once, around Mardi Gras, he made $200 in one day.

He tries a couple of fancier moves with elaborate rhythms. He plays snare drum, too, he says, then clams up and stares. The older kid is reaching for Tyrell's tip box.

Tyrell grabs the money and tosses the box off to the side. His friend follows him onto a nearby side street and begins telling Tyrell that he's going to break his jaw because he's sick of being played. "You hear me, dawg?" he yells, taking off his T-shirt like he's ready to fight. A couple of residents peek out of their windows and doors to see what's going on.

His friend runs off. Tyrell stops, takes the nails out of his taps and stuffs everything into his pocket. He's going to try to come out again tomorrow, he says.

Even from behind his trademark sunglasses, Uncle Lionel Batiste saw the crackdown coming.

"I was afraid this was going to happen," says the Treme Brass Band's assistant leader and bass drummer, as he settles in for a bottle of Miller High Life at Joe's Cozy Corner in the Treme neighborhood.

Batiste takes a sip of his beer and explains that he'd been noticing that some tap dancers were running behind the tourists with their tip boxes. Others would use nasty words if the tip wasn't what they'd expected.

"That's not right," says Batiste, who himself danced in the Quarter during the 1930s and '40s. He would buy "dancing irons" -- taps -- for both shoes for 50 cents, he says. (They now run about $11 a pair.) At the time, Batiste and his friend Bird were both working as porters at clubs on Bourbon Street. "We would knock off work," he recalls, "and then dance on the way to the Treme. They used to throw us nickels and dimes."

During that era, a lot of young kids were out on the street with shoe-shining boxes. "The shoe shiners would get hassled by police," says Batiste, adding that the kids would often end up polishing the officers' shoes for free. But he and Bird never had any trouble with the cops.

Batiste and Bird would work out their routines in Bird's backyard. They'd pick up new moves from the films of the day and then practice their routines back and forth so that they could dance in synch and know the timing on each other's solos. "It's like playing the horn," says Batiste, making a trumpet with his hands. "When the trumpet is soloing, the band knows what to do."

By the time he was a teenager, he was good enough to dance with Pork Chop and Kidney Stew. "I was not as good as they were back then," says Batiste. "I didn't have as much experience.

"Pork Chop and Kidney Stew would perform on stage at the Famous Door with (trumpeter) Sharkey Bonano, who had a Dixieland band," says Batiste. "The whole band was white; Pork Chop and Kidney Stew were black." In order to enter the club, Batiste would have to have special permission. "Back then," he says, "dark-skinned people weren't allowed there unless they were performing. So I only went there when Pork Chop and Kidney Stew asked me."

Batiste says that he and Pork Chop and Kidney Stew grew up together in the Treme neighborhood. "Pork Chop's right name is Ollie Anderson," he says. "He was the tall one."

Kidney Stew, born Isaac Mason, was the better dancer -- "darn good," says Batiste. At one point in their act, Pork Chop would even put his finger on top of Kidney Stew's head and twirl him, "like an ice skater but still making a rap." Batiste recalls that the duo went overseas to entertain the troops during World War II. Other trips included a tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, and a performance at a Smithsonian-sponsored folk festival in 1985.

Knowing what had gone before makes Batiste more discouraged by the dancers in the Quarter. "Most of them are doing the same thing, like a scratched record." He stamps his feet and claps in an imitation of the current signature tap-dance routine. "They're doing the same thing, even if there are 25 of them."

To go further requires a different mindset, says Batiste, one that goes beyond "the hustle" -- the performance focused purely on money. "When I want to be noticed dancing, I know when to start, stop, what to add, and what to wear."

You have to study dancers of any style, he says. In fact, the way Batiste dances while playing his bass drum came from studying an older drummer named Papa Knox, who played with a similar slide and little hop. You know you're doing well when you're constantly trying to do better, he says. At that point, the money just comes with the territory.

"What else are they going to do," he asks, tapping sideways across the room, "when they can't take their eyes off of you?"

Tootie leans over and messes with his left tap, a horseshoe-shaped piece of metal at the front of his black tennis shoe. He pivots the tap to show that it's missing one integral piece -- a standard 5/8-inch nail. Without that nail, the tap flaps on his shoe and then shifts out of place as he dances, sings, claps, and -- always -- gestures toward the box.

He grimaces at his left shoe. "If I had another nail in my shoe, I'd be showing all my moves."

He's happy to demonstrate most of what he can do, he says. There's "dancing around the world," stepping fast on the manhole cover, and the old standard called "the fast leg." Then there's his own invention, a step he calls "the Mardi Gras." Some of his moves, he says, came from watching Savion Glover on television. Others he picked up from older, more experienced street dancers.

In the middle of one move, the flapping tap snaps. Tootie goes down the street and comes back with a smashed can -- Budweisers work best, he says, because they're thinner. He takes the nails out of his ruined tap and fastens the new can to his left sole.

The repair is done just in time for another group of tourists. "How 'bout it, sir?" he says, gesturing toward his box.

The Arnaud's door opens slightly and a young boy peeks through the crack. His name is Cameron, he says. He's 9 years old and is visiting from Tennessee. "I've never seen anything like this before," he says, pointing at Tootie's feet as they move.

Jan Terry from Dallas walks by. "The only place you can see this is right here," she tells him.

click to enlarge Janet Andrews teaches young tappers (from left) Allison King, Jerrica White, MaQue Hollins and David Monroe, at Treme Community Center. She sees talent in the French Quarter dancers, even if they don't come to her classes. 'Mayor Ray Nagin grew up in Treme,' she says. 'I don't understand how he could actually let this happen.' -  - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Janet Andrews teaches young tappers (from left) Allison King, Jerrica White, MaQue Hollins and David Monroe, at Treme Community Center. She sees talent in the French Quarter dancers, even if they don't come to her classes. 'Mayor Ray Nagin grew up in Treme,' she says. 'I don't understand how he could actually let this happen.'

click to enlarge Janet Andrews teaches young tappers (from left) Allison King, Jerrica White, MaQue Hollins and David Monroe, at Treme Community Center. She sees talent in the French Quarter dancers, even if they don't come to her classes. 'Mayor Ray Nagin grew up in Treme,' she says. 'I don't understand how he could actually let this happen.' - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Janet Andrews teaches young tappers (from left) Allison King, Jerrica White, MaQue Hollins and David Monroe, at Treme Community Center. She sees talent in the French Quarter dancers, even if they don't come to her classes. 'Mayor Ray Nagin grew up in Treme,' she says. 'I don't understand how he could actually let this happen.'
click to enlarge Legendary New Orleans dancers Pork Chop and Kidney Stew got their start on the French Quarter streets, but also took overseas trips to entertain the troops during World War II. - LOUISIANA STATE MUSEUM'S JAZZ COLLECTION
  • Louisiana State Museum's Jazz Collection
  • Legendary New Orleans dancers Pork Chop and Kidney Stew got their start on the French Quarter streets, but also took overseas trips to entertain the troops during World War II.
click to enlarge Treme Brass Band drummer and one-time street dancer Uncle Lionel Batiste says he could see the French Quarter crackdown coming. As he sees it, the kids need to take a different approach to their craft. - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Treme Brass Band drummer and one-time street dancer Uncle Lionel Batiste says he could see the French Quarter crackdown coming. As he sees it, the kids need to take a different approach to their craft.
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