As the Oscars are to the movie industry, the Emmy Awards to television and the Tonys to Broadway, the Bessie Awards are to professional dance in America. More formally known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards, the Bessies were founded in 1984 by the Dance Theater Workshop to recognize “outstanding artistic achievement in the field of contemporary dance performance.” Since 2009 they have been given out by Dance/NYC. The award was named for Bessie Schonberg, a highly influential choreographer and dance educator who died in 1997.
Each year, just like their stage and screen counterparts, the winners in most of the categories are not known until the envelopes are opened onstage. This year, the 32nd annual Bessie Awards will be handed out at the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday, October 18. But three awards are announced ahead of time: two for outstanding service to the field of dance, one to an organization – this year, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts – and the other to an individual: this year, Alex Smith of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center.
And then there’s the ultimate prize, the mega-Bessie: the Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance. On September 19, Dance/NYC announced that this year’s Lifetime Achievement award will be going to someone whom you might just run into on the street in New Paltz or Gardiner. If you’ve lived around these parts for a long while, you might remember her teaching tap, Afro-Cuban or jazz dance classes at the Dancing Theatre, or bringing together the surviving members of the 1930s tap-dancing superstars the Copasetics to perform at the Academy Theatre in the 1970s.
Yes, longtime Gardiner resident Brenda Bufalino – the woman who almost singlehandedly made tap cool again after several decades of perceived squareness – is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
The founder of the American Tap Dance Foundation, Bufalino trained and partnered for years with one of the virtuosos of tap’s vaudeville and early Hollywood heyday, Charles “Honi” Cole (1911-1992). She has long been an avid ambassador for the once-neglected artform, and was instrumental in its revival, mentoring several younger generations in the highly demanding techniques of tap-dance as well as promoting the compositional aspects of tap. She has performed all over the world and even created a one-woman “tap opera” whose title, Gertrude’s Nose, probably sounds tantalizingly obscure to anyone who doesn’t live within view of the Gunks.
Brenda Bufalino just turned 79, but the last time this reporter saw her perform – about two years ago – she was still fitter, faster and friskier than the vast majority of 19-year-olds. Long may her winged feet fly!