A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Science of Dance, Art of Rhythm: A lesson in tap•ol•o•gy with Alfred Bruce Bradley

The following is a guest post from fieldworker Nic Gareiss. Photos and video provided by Nic Gareiss.

Alfred Bruce Bradley, tap dancer and founder of the Tapology Festival
"Repeat after me: when I listen, I learn." Standing in a room with Tapology Festival director Alfred Bruce Bradley, the sense of his mastery is palpable. In his weekly evening classes at Creative Expressions Dance Studio in Flint, Bradley demonstrates each step carefully, articulating rhythms expertly in a series of vocable sounds he scats to the room full of young dancers. "Ba-ba-boo, ba-da-da-ooh..." The students stand wide-eyed and attentive, and so do I. It's difficult not to in Bradley's presence.

"When I started there wasn't a scratch on this floor," he quips, "over the years I've worn them all down." Looking at the floor, it's as though one could see the ephemeral effect of the dance - an art form that usually finds its meaning in its disappearance - made visible in the flecked layers of finish, varnish, and bare wood excavated by steel taps attached to sounding feet. During his class we see a vestige of the bodily labor and artistry of Bradley and his legacy. If these floors are a testament to his love for American tap dance, it's clear that love runs deep indeed.

The floor at Flint's Creative Expressions Dance Studio, worn
and well-loved by Bradley and his students' tap dancing feet.
Bradley, a Flint native, came to tap dancing at age 32, later in life than most dancers, originally inspired to learn through his career in theater. Working first with Flint's McCree theater, he began learning to tap dance during a run of the hit Off Broadway musical “One Mo Time” at The Village Gate in Toronto, Ontario. Bradley later studied with Kevin Ramsey (a protege of Chuck Green and Henry LeTang) as well as the co-founder of the the Detroit-based tap legends The Sultans, Lloyd Storey, who danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He performed widely, from New Orleans to Zürich, always bringing his new repertoire back to his students in Flint and eventually founding the Tapology Festival, which is now in its fifteenth year.
Bradley's own choreography echoes the dance steps from the great African-American tradition of tap dancers: Henry LeTang, Chuck Green, John Bubbles, Bill Robinson, yet is uniquely his own. Between time spent touring and working with his mentors, he continued to live in Flint and was thereby largely self-taught. "I learned things and then would create rhythms on my own," he shared. He has also developed his own pedagogy. During class Bradley invites his students to demonstrate newly-acquired material on their own upon a 3x3 foot square platform at the front of the classroom. Each student is given an opportunity. During their time on the board, their classmates and Bradley bestow undivided attention. He shared that the board's purpose is not only to check the retention of repertoire but also to demonstrate the benefits of hard work, build leadership, and confidence. "You can teach math and science through this form, you can teach language, and how to memorize and build self-esteem."
Bradley illustrates a step in one of his weekly classes at Creative Expressions Dance Studio in Flint
From left to right: Bradley's Capezio K360 tap shoes, Bradley demonstrating steps for students, Bradley's teaching board
As founder and director of the Tapology Festival, Bradley has a chance to bring his mentors and luminaries of tap dance to his home city. During our conversation he stressed the importance of tap dance in Flint. "It does a lot to bring cultural identity. Tap dance has been embraced across the world by all kinds of people: black, white, it doesn't make a difference. When you can bring kids together - I have kids coming down from Bloomfield Hills, and they dance with kids on welfare - they develop friendships. They learn together. They perform together and have a great experience. Those friendships are going to travel with them the rest of their lives. They are going to bring a new awareness, a new brotherhood...You're developing community through this dance. Because you're teaching the history, they are learning appreciation for an African-American influenced dance form...Through this dance form there's a merging and a bringing-together of people from various social, economic, religious, cultural backgrounds."

For more information on Alfred Bruce Bradley and the 15th annual Tapology Festival held in Flint, visit www.tapology.org.

Tap dancer Alfred Bruce Bradley demonstrates scatting rhythms 
during a conversation with MTAP fieldworker Nic Gareiss

Nic Gareiss is a MTAP fieldworker, professional performer, and dance researcher living in Lansing, Michigan. He holds degrees in Music and Anthropology from Central Michigan University and a MA in Ethnochoreolgy from the University of Limerick. His 2017 fieldwork for MTAP focuses on dance, marginality, and the political salience of moving (and sounding) bodies.