Another person would have retired years ago, content to rest on her laurels. But Brenda Bufalino, who has been dancing professionally for 70 years, isn’t one for letting the years dictate her days. She remains today what she has been for most of those years: one of the jazz world’s great unstoppable forces.
Though she’s best-known as the woman who all-but-singlehandedly rescued tap dance from the mists of memory in the 1970s, Bufalino’s career, her interests and abilities aren’t limited to tap – a fact that she’ll be only too happy to demonstrate at the Unison Arts & Learning Center in New Paltz this Friday, November 20.
Of course she’ll be wearing her tap shoes. But there will be more; there will be music and poetry and perhaps a little audience interaction. It will be a performance that will reflect and briefly encompass her life’s calling as a jazz artist.
Her eyes brighten at the memory of how it all began. “My training was conservatory-type training. But in the ’50s I started specializing, first in Afro-Cuban and what was called ‘modern primitive.’ You could say that was the beginning: the ’50s, in the City. I’ve always considered myself a jazz artist, whether it was with poetry or as a writer or dancer, with or without taps.”
New York City has always been one of her homes; she has launched her own dance companies there, taught and improvised and choreographed there. Much of the tap renaissance that she and her late partner Charles “Honi” Coles are credited with creating was born and nurtured in venues there, large and small.
Along the way, Bufalino blended her performances with her political concerns – not only as a feminist, but also as a local environmentalist who fought against the effort to construct a condominium development along her beloved Shawangunk Ridge, on whose flank her Gardiner studio can be found. She’ll be offering an hommage to the part of the Ridge known as Gertrude’s Nose at the upcoming Unison performance. “I’ve been engaged with this mountain for a long, long time,” she says. “I did a tap opera about Gertrude’s Nose because I was concerned about women taking back the mountain. I felt then that women were not engaged in the environmental movement.”
She continues her creative work – including her ceramic work – at her studio when she’s not in the City or in Europe, where she says tap and jazz are both more popularly acknowledged than in the States.
She knocks wood when describing her physical condition. A lot of her friends and colleagues haven’t fared well, she says. “But I’ve been very fortunate. I have no metal. I can go through metal detectors without a problem.”
Bufalino’s voice takes on a hushed aspect when she recalls the loss of one of her greatest friends, tap dancer/actor Gregory Hines, who died in 2003 at the age of 57. “Oh, he was a great dancer, a fabulous guy. What a loss. He was so instrumental to so much of what was good back then, as a producer and creator,” she says.
Losses like that, coupled with catastrophic funding cutbacks by Congress in the early ’90s have taken a toll over the years on independent artists producing new work, she says. “Jesse Helms and his crew did incredible damage, and artists didn’t fight back,” Bufalino says.
That’s partly why this most American artform has prospered in places like Germany and Belgium: “They appreciate and understand us over there.”
But lately, Bufalino says, she sees a turning of the tide, a feeling that was confirmed earlier this year when tap dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance was awarded a 2015 MacArthur “genius” award: an achievement that would have been impossible to imagine when Bufalino was laboring to resurrect what she calls “the fine art of tap” from stereotypes of old vaudevillians and from sheer ignorance. “There have been so many revivals and now there are so many dancers and they’re good and they’ll carry on. And with Michelle winning a MacArthur – well, that’s just wonderful.”
Brenda Bufalino will perform an evening of jazz artistry at the Unison Arts & Learning Center, located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, on Friday, November 20 at 8 p.m. She’ll be joined there by Joe Fonda on bass and Mike Musillami on guitar. Advance tickets cost $18 for Unison members, $22 for non-members. At the door, tickets cost $20 for members, $24 for non-members. Students are admitted for half-price with a valid student ID.
Brenda Bufalino, Friday, November 20, 8 p.m., $24/$22/$20/$18, Unison Arts Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, https://unisonarts.org.