As a young girl growing up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, Brenda Bufalino made her professional debut dancing in her mother’s musical act. She would learn and perform many different forms of dance, but her love was tap. Bufalino’s prodigious achievements in the world of tap dance include making a documentary about the Copasetics Club of old-time tap dancers, creating the American Tap Dance Orchestra, opening up the Woodpeckers Tap Dance Center with the ATDO, and teaching the art of tap to more than one generation of dancers both in the U.S. and overseas. Bufalino has written about her life as a dancer in Tapping the Source: Tap Dance Stories, Theory and Practice. She has also published Circular Migrations, a poetry collection featuring photographs of her ceramics, and, most recently, Song of the Split Elm, a magical biography of her great grandmother. Bufalino is the recipient of the 2016 Bessie Award for lifetime achievement in dance.
Terry Stoller spoke with Brenda Bufalino in June 2018 about her experiences in dance as a child, her love for tap dance, why tap “died’ in the ’50s, her calypso act, her work in the avant-garde, her documentary about the Copasetics, her act with tap dancer Honi Coles, her choreography for the American Tap Dance Orchestra, her solo performing, and her achieving iconic status in the world of tap dance.
Terry Stoller: Your mother and your aunt had an act called the Strickland Sisters, and as a young girl you danced in the act. You also went to dance school. Was there ever a possibility in your childhood for you to choose a different path?
Brenda Bufalino: I wasn’t thinking about it as for my life. The thing that interested me and what I wanted to be in my mind was a writer. But I always danced. I danced every day. I went to a conservatory, and I got there by myself on the train from the time I was 6 years old. I just did it.
Did your mother encourage you to study dance?
I always say I was brought up with benign neglect.
And your father, did you experience benign neglect from him too?
Well, he worked sixteen hours a day. It was at the end of the depression. He was a machinist. Sixteen hours, two shifts a day. It was tough. And he died young.
My novella, Song of the Split Elm, is about my mother’s family. I became very interested in why my grandmother raised two generations (and now it’s three because of my sons), but two generations of female artists when to be a female artist was no better than being a prostitute. Why did she want that for us? The house was working class but filled with music. The grand piano took up the entire living room. My aunt was a concert pianist. Sundays were music. After dinner it was singing, it was dancing, and I even had a tall rock outside with a streetlight facing it, where I would go and have an imaginary radio program and tell stories all over Swampscott. I’m still doing exactly what I always did.
At your first dance school, you learned ballet, interpretive, Egyptian, Spanish, acrobatic, and tap dance. (I got that from your book, Tapping the Source.) Tap was your favorite. Why?
Probably because I was so good at it. You like what you’re really good at. My rhythm was quite extraordinary. Then, in the later years, once I understood the depth of its musicality, how deep you could go with tap, I realized it’s the most difficult of all the dance forms.
You’ve said that in the ’50s, tap dance died.
Tap dance didn’t die completely, but the venues died. The possibility of work ended, and the dancers stopped dancing, of course. There was a twenty-year hiatus. When I was performing in the avant-garde in the ’60s and early ’70s, for instance, nobody would let me tap dance. It was corny and old-fashioned. So I began putting it through electronics, all the way back in the late ’60s.
Can you describe what you did with the synthesizer?
At that time, I was putting my taps in the synthesizer, which was huge. And the composer I worked with, Ed Summerlin, would manipulate the sound. Years later, when I went back to electronics, I worked with a loop, like a guitar loop, where I can put rhythms over each other.
You create those rhythms in the moment in performance.
Absolutely. That’s improvised. When the tap renaissance—I call it a renaissance, not a revival—when tap returned, I had quite a bit to do with that. There were no more venues as there were.
What were the original venues?
First there was minstrelsy and vaudeville, then music hall, nightclubs, and television. But television really destroyed variety acts. At one time, I was a variety act.
Television, how? I grew up watching The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured variety acts.
For a little period there, vaudeville was brought onto television. But that used up an artist’s work. My colleagues—I was the youngest of the old guard, and now at almost 82, I’m the oldest of the new guard—those artists could work the same routine for twenty-five, thirty-five years. They’d go from one vaudeville house to another. When they put it on television, that was the end of it. They did not make all kinds of new material. When rock ’n’ roll became popular, the music was so loud, you couldn’t hear the taps. And tap dancers didn’t like the feel of the music. In fact, most of the tappers didn’t want to dance to bebop either, which was my era. I was already a fairly modern tapper.
Tap dance came up with jazz. And as jazz developed so did tap. There’s a through line. What we had to do was create a concert stage for tap. It had never been on the concert stage.
When the venues for tap dried up, you were able to keep working.
First I had my calypso act, because nobody would hire me as a tap dancer anymore. I studied West African, Caribbean, and Afro-Cuban with Syvilla Fort, Talley Beatty, Walter Nix, and Chino. I couldn’t be in Syvilla’s or Talley’s company as a white dancer. But I did look Caribbean. I had a solo act, and I toured nightclubs as long as calypso lasted. There were a lot of small nightclubs in New York during the calypso craze—the Trinidad Room, the Calypso Room. I worked the Calypso Room seven nights a week, four shows a night, for an entire summer in the late ’50s. That was just me and Ray Barretto—a wonderful conga drummer who became very famous—and his little band. I would sing calypso and dance. And I toured with it. I was at the Blue Angel in Chicago. They had a gypsy band playing calypso music.
I took some years off because I had two sons. And I had a subsistence farm. Those are the years when I started developing as a ceramicist and a writer, and I’m still practicing those art forms.
You were writing when you were working in the avant-garde with Ed Summerlin.
I was writing a lot of poetry. I had written a play, The Impotent Narcissus. Ed was writing a score to that—it never got put on. But I also wrote liturgies for the church. The National Council of Churches at that time was very involved in avant-garde art.
What type of dancing did you do at the churches?
A kind of combination of modern and mime. All the movement I had acquired over the years, I had synthesized into my own form of movement. Sometimes I was speaking as I was dancing. Ed wouldn’t let me sing. He preferred Sheila Jordan to my singing. She was part of our group. She sang the first song that I wrote with Ed, “Of a Sudden I Saw a Star.” That was thrilling.
How many years were you doing that?
Pretty much all the time my kids were growing up. Probably ten years, in the ’60s into the beginning of the ’70s. I got divorced, and I had an avant-garde company. I started choreographing and teaching. I was doing that form I created. I also did a lot of mime. I tend to be a natural fool or a kind of sad fool. In my first Dancing Theatre Company, I danced with them. It was men and women. My company started, and people wanted to learn tap dance. I said, This is crazy. I started putting tap dance in because if you remember in Tapping the Source, I talk about being on a boat for an avant-garde festival of electronic performances. I was in a cage, and all the electronics went out. I had my tap shoes, put them on and started to dance with Ed Summerlin playing his saxophone, and the whole boat came to our cage, and I realized that people wanted to see tap. They’d never seen the kind of tap that I did, jazz tap. I began incorporating it in my concert with that first company.
Was that also the name of a space?
Yes. It was my studio in New Paltz [New York].
In the early ’70s, you reconnected with tap dancer Honi Coles, whom you had studied with years before.
I studied with him in 1954 when I was 17. Once I was tapping again and my career was doing OK and the dancers wanted to learn, I said, If you think I’m good, you have to see Honi Coles and the Copasetics. I had known them when I first came to New York and jammed with them. So I found them in New York City and brought them up to New Paltz.
How come they were willing to go to New Paltz?
Hey, nobody had wanted them to do anything. They hadn’t worked in twenty years. There was a great confluence of things in the early ’70s. No, No, Nanette probably was the first Broadway show that brought tap back into the fold. The first time I brought the Copasetics up to New Paltz, they performed at the college. I was teaching at SUNY New Paltz and also teaching in a barn in the woods. They came up; they did a show. There weren’t too many people there. And they left—which way to Sheboygan?—they got on the bus. The next time I brought them up, I was opening my studio. They came and opened my studio for me.
Had SUNY New Paltz offered you opportunities?
This was during the period when I met Steve Clorfeine. He was the director of Experimental Studies at SUNY New Paltz. And I taught music, dance, and poetry as one form. I never went to college, so I could not ever teach at SUNY. But the dance teacher tore her Achilles tendon playing tennis. They were desperate, and they called me. It was wonderful. I had amazing students, and I was able to experiment with ideas and consolidate. Each period I consolidated a little bit more idea-wise, with the writing, with the poetry, with the dance, with the music, always working and putting things together. In terms of the world, SUNY didn’t offer me anything, but the job did pay some bills. It coincided with my opening the theatre. I had a lot of energy.
When the Copasetics came and opened my Dancing Theatre studio, I had just bought a reel to reel portapac. I was part of this guerrilla group of filmmakers. One of the guys said, Aren’t you going to film this? Where’s your camera? I went and got my camera, and I filmed them. That was about ’73, ’74. My luck has always been fabulous students, fabulous colleagues, and students that became my right arm. Dorothy Anderson was one. She was actually an art student I was teaching to dance. She fell in love with tap dance, and when we did that first video with the Copasetics, we said, OK, we’ll make a proposal to the NEA to try to get a grant for the documentary. The NEA thought I was crazy. Why do you want to do something on these old men? They’re not very attractive. Tap dance is dead.
I was working with videographer Paul Ryan, who was into filming waterfalls. He would film me dancing to the waterfalls. That’s what finally got the grant to do Great Feats of Feet. Because I was electronically involved, the NEA gave me the money to film the Copasetics. It was a videotape documentary, and it was two hours long, and it changed everybody’s life. That document, although it could never be on television because it wasn’t the right format, that’s what got them in many doors and began their careers again. And Honi and I got together during that time.
You two became a duet. Whose idea was that?
I had him as a guest artist in my next Dancing Theatre Company. We did a concert in 1978 at the Pilgrim Theater in New York, Singing, Swinging and Winging.
That was a women’s company.
Except for him and the band. It wasn’t a “women’s” company, but it was four women. It was who was available. Nobody could tap dance. I had to train everybody. After Singing, Swinging and Winging, Honi and I started working together. We did The Morton Gould Tap Concerto together. And we toured, but I kept working with my solo career, touring a one-woman show. I moved to New York City, and I had another company, Bufalino and Company. They were people I was training in New York because Honi and I started teaching at Fazil’s in New York.
Honi reintroduced me to the heart of performance. I had left that. During the avant-garde, you’re more or less assaulting everybody, not making them feel good. I went backwards, and my audience was not too happy about that. They felt like I was selling out. But it was such a great decision. Honi as a performer and my mother as a performer were so similar. Both of them loved their audiences. Performing with Honi brought me back into that arena, and reminded me of all the old show business things I had known. And it’s really important because now that I am ancient (I think I’m the oldest tap dancer that has been tapping hard on the stage), I can relate those early things that audiences love and expect to the younger generation. Otherwise that’s gone.
When you were performing the duets, whose choreography was it?
The Morton Gould, we choreographed together. Our show Sounds in Motion, we did together, but for the most part it was Honi’s choreography. In that show I did my own choreography for my solos. What was wonderful about that show was that Honi and I both did monologues, and we each wrote original music. A good half of that show was our own songs, and we argued onstage for twenty minutes in those songs. One song he wrote was, “I was alone when I met you, now I wish I was alone.” They were funny. I had, “What’s it like to be home again, with a girl of your own again, sitting beside the fireplace holding her hand.” It’s like, you keep her at home. Both of us were comedians. We loved comedy. We were mentors to each other. And we argued all the time, so why wouldn’t we argue onstage?
He had been in Bubbling Brown Sugar by now. In our show, Honi did the card game that Bert Williams, a great black comedian, used to do and he sang, “I ain’t never done nothing to nobody …” It was a philosophy recitative. And I did George M. Cohan’s “Life’s a Very Funny Proposition, After All.” Honi would do the black vaudevillian recitative, and I would do the white vaudevillian. Very poignant, very deep, very beautiful. I was still jazz dancing at that point too, and I also danced in that show without taps.
The subtitle of your documentary Great Feats of Feet refers to the jazz tap dancer. You often perform to jazz music.
I dance to classical music, I dance to world music, I dance to everything, but my sensibility is jazz. I’m an improviser as well as a choreographer. And I did follow the trajectory of jazz music and tap dance in my own body.
At the same time that you were working with Honi Coles, you did a piece called Tapestry with Pat Giordano.
That was built from an argument. Tap dancers didn’t dance very long sets, and I asked Honi to please make his dances a little longer. He said, If you want them long, you do it. I did a forty-minute composition for Pat Giordano and myself. I hadn’t memorized up to that point, and I was determined to do that. I had a partner and would have to memorize it. Honi said, It’s not gonna work. The audience will never sit still for it. When I did it and it was successful, he was so mad. He didn’t want it on the bill if we were performing together. He said, What am I supposed to follow it with, the shim sham?
Did Honi have a parallel career when you were working together?
He started becoming well-known. He was in Bubbling, Dick Cavett started making the Copasetics famous, and Honi got into My One and Only in 1983. The amount of time we worked together was small. He had a stroke in 1987.
How did you come to create the American Tap Dance Orchestra in the mid-’80s?
I was doing my solo show. But I stopped my company in New York. I couldn’t quite get my ideas together. I wanted this orchestra. I loved counterpoint. Nobody was doing counterpoint at that time. And I couldn’t teach it as well as I needed to, and the dancers couldn’t do it. Then I finally had a group of dancers who could. One of them, Tony Waag, who I still work with, really wanted me to start a company. And Honi did too. He said, You’ve got to start another company. That’s when I started the American Tap Dance Orchestra. That was a dream I had always had, to really present tap as music, as the orchestra itself.
And you also wanted to do extended pieces and create something that was going to last, that wasn’t going to die out when the performer died.
That was something that really concerned Honi and me. One of the reasons tap dance kept dying was that it was on the back of the soloist. When the soloist died, the form died. Then there were the chorus lines, but that was not material. That was not like Martha Graham or José Limón. That was a chorus line. So that was an important consideration, that we develop material that can continue on. And it has happened. My work is being redone. Dorrance Dance did my Jump Monk at City Center in March. I was just in Texas, and they were doing my piece All Blues/Tacit, which is all a cappella.
I had two orchestra companies in New York and an international company, because I was touring a lot then and training the Europeans. The orchestra finished in ’98. I’m happy to say that those dancers are still performing and teaching. The American Tap Dance Orchestra dancers are all working, have all gone on, and now it’s a third generation of people.
When you started the international company, did you have them do similar dances to the American company?
Oh, yeah. And some of the dancers from America would go over there. I would augment that company. At that time too, I was creating a tap opera, Gertrude’s Nose. My piece American Landscape is a forerunner to that in a way. My interests have always been the natural world. That’s where my inspirations come from. That’s my passion.
Would you describe some of American Landscape ?
American Landscape is a combination musically of my own writing with the pianist Darrell Grant and the music of Hoagy Carmichael. There’s an indigenous feeling to my music; a lot of it has a Native American strain. I have some of that in my background, which resonates. And then as counterpoint is the Hoagy Carmichael music. To me the indigenous sounding music that I write is of the land, and Hoagy’s is of the people. He’s the landscape of the American people and the American way. It’s the white version and sweet. Those were the two components of music and the two styles of dance in Landscape. My son Jebah Baum has always been in my work. He did the big white buffalo masks for the dancers and the Native American–influenced prints projected as the backdrop.
ATDO did many concerts. I choreographed 150 works. I love narrative. As a soloist, I do a piece, Diary of a Racing Pigeon. I come out as the racing pigeon and describe what it’s like to be a racing pigeon. (My husband and I had 250 birds when we had the farm.) They’re poignant little creatures. Their journey is very analogous to the life of a tap dancer. They’re sent away to fly over continents, would kill themselves to get home—and their training is masochistic and sadistic, the domination of the trainer, the male and the female. It’s a wonderful monologue. I did it as a young woman. She dances the race and wins. I will reprise it as an elder, and she’s not going to win the race.
And Gertrude’s Nose ?
It’s different from American Landscape because there’s a libretto. Gertrude’s Nose is the northwest promontory to the Shawangunks. That’s where I brought up my children. It’s a sacred mountain. Somebody is always trying to take it over. A Marriott was going to take it, but we fought against that and won. It’s now a state park. But there’s always a struggle for the mountain, and that’s what the opera is about. There’s a feeling in me that women are not taking enough responsibility for nature, for the climate. What I said to my dancers was, as long as the earth is being raped, we are being raped. So it’s about women taking back the mountain. That was a women’s company. The music was Jay Clayton and her singers, with synthesizers; it’s just voices, tap, and poetry. The big performance of it in America was at Dance Theater Workshop—and my son Jeb carved the gobos of the mountain that receded and came forward in different colors and shapes.
You recently did a program in the Westbeth Community Room, reading from your latest book, Song of the Split Elm. Amazon lists it as a biography/autobiography. Is that how you would describe it?
It’s hard to describe, really. It’s a magical biography of my great grandmother, who was really lost. I only knew three things about her. And then I created her life. I knew important things about her, and I knew what happened to her, who her father was. He was my grandmother’s grandfather, and he did the same thing to her.
When you did the reading, you tap danced and used the synthesizer.
That was the first time I tried it for a book reading. I said, How can I capture her spirit? When I was reading the part of her singing, I thought, let me see if I can catch her spirit. I loved doing it. I didn’t know if it would work. That’s what we do. We try things. One of the people who was there for the reading decided I have to do it as an audiobook. Isn’t that exciting?
It seems that you’re bringing forward the work you did in the avant-garde.
I’ve been working with that loop. I never stopped. Especially after my company stopped. I had to get my rhythms into the loop so that I could do counter rhythms.
You’ve lived here for some twenty years, and I’d like to ask what Westbeth has meant to you.
I found Westbeth in 1980. I knew somebody who was living here, and I knew right away that this was where I wanted to live. I was just coming back to New York City. I didn’t want to come. Honi insisted that I come back. He said, If you stay up in New Paltz, you’re going to get lost. I was looking to come back and living all over the place, so I put my name on the Westbeth list, and of course nothing.
When Jesse Helms stopped giving grants to individual artists (I used my grants to support my company), everything fell apart. I had to close my studio in 1996. I was in terrible despair. The company was ending. Honi had died. My mother was descending into Alzheimer’s. Then my name came up on the list. Westbeth is the dream of New York City. It saved my life, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
You’ve been working for many decades. Even when tap “went underground,” you had the confidence to keep working as an artist.
It’s not only confidence. One gift I’ve had is as a prognosticator to know when it’s time for something artistically. I’m usually too early in a cycle, but it is soon to come. I just get on it. I attribute that to a great extent to the benign neglect I was raised with. You go out and find your way.
Now you’re an iconic figure in the world of tap dance, called the Queen B of tap.
And I got a Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement. The first lifetime achievement award to a tap dancer.
Has that changed things for you?
It’s changed things emotionally. Interestingly enough, I keep thinking people are going to stop calling me. I can’t do twenty minutes of tap dancing anymore—although I can do an hour and a half show. The festivals are tough. I just finished another one. You work so hard, but they’re also wonderful. I love the tap community. I’m so proud of it and proud that I had something to do with building it. I look at them and feel they’re OK now. I can concentrate on new projects—some of them are dance, some hand-built functional and sculptured ceramics, and also new books.
I’m so proud and so pleased that I can take Honi out into the world. I’m his representative. I made Great Feats with him, and I still do his work, teach his dances. And my children have always been involved creatively. Jeb with his painting and his masks, and my other son, Zach, with his videotaping; he did wonderful camera work for me. Now my granddaughter Alice occasionally performs with me. What more can an artist want?
To find out more about Brenda Bufalino, go to brendabufalino.com.
Photo credits: Headshot: Tony Waag; Bufalino final portrait: Debi Field.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2019 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council