Amidst all the waves of cultural, subcultural and political ferment that roiled through New Paltz in the 1970s, one current that ended up having lasting influence nationally and even internationally was one that few would have predicted at the time: the rehabilitation of tap dance as an artform to be taken seriously. It was an era when the clubs that had once been home to tap had long closed down; the rock ‘n’ rolling Boomer generation tended to think of tap as something rather quaint and corny that our parents had been into. Even its peak practitioners – mostly Black men then in their 60s who had honed their art in vaudeville theaters and commanded the spotlight during the Swing Era – were resigning themselves to the notion that tap dance was defunct. There were no venues left to make it welcome.
One of those former stars was Charles “Honi” Coles, who had toured with the great names of the Big Band era as half of the duo Coles and Atkins. By 1959, performing opportunities for tappers were so scarce that he closed his school and went to work as a stage manager and emcee for the Apollo Theater. He was still at it in 1973 when he heard from a former teenage protégé from his years of teaching swing and tap at a school in New York City called Dance Craft. Her name was Brenda Bufalino, and she wanted him to come up to New Paltz and share his art with her jazz dance students at SUNY.
A native of Swampscott, Massachusetts, Bufalino had studied dance from the age of 6 and performed locally with her mother and aunt in an act called the Strickland Sisters. At 13 she began commuting regularly into Boston to learn tap from a former vaudevillian named Stanley Brown. She moved to New York City at 18 to pursue more serious study of modern and jazz dance, Afro-Cuban, modern-primitive and calypso; this was when she began her apprenticeship with Honi Coles. Soon she was getting gigs in nightclubs, hanging out and soaking up as much jazz as she could when she wasn’t actually performing.
Tastes in jazz were changing as the ‘50s waned, and as the former dance venues began shutting down, Bufalino embraced avant-garde and free jazz. She married in 1959, gave birth to the first of two sons and mostly focused on writing poetry. Her family relocated upstate, first to LaGrangeville and later to Gardiner.
As her children grew, she reconnected with Ed Summerlin, an old friend from Boston who was composing modern jazz for television programming under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches. Bufalino began performing her poetry at live venues – mostly churches – throughout the Northeast, accompanied by Summerlin and other jazz musicians from his circle, some as prominent as bassist Ron Carter. And she started dancing again, choreographing pieces to interpret music that was anything but rhythmic.
It was at a 12-hour marathon avant-garde festival at South Street Seaport in 1973, a couple of years after her marriage had come to an end, that Bufalino began tap-dancing again – entirely by accident. The event, headlined by cellist Charlotte Moorman, took place aboard a historic boat, the Alexander Hamilton. Consisting mainly of electronic performances, including video installations by Nam June Paik, the festival’s offerings soon overloaded the vessel’s inadequate electrical wiring system and everything went dark. But Summerlin had brought his saxophone and Bufalino her tap shoes. Their acoustic improvisation was thus the only show left to watch, and the crowd went wild.
It was around this time that Bufalino opened her new studio upstairs from the crafts store Handmade on North Front Street in New Paltz, the Dancing Theatre. Fired up with the notion that audiences were ready to appreciate tap once again, she wangled the addition of a class called Hoofing to her SUNY teaching schedule and invited Honi Coles to do a guest class. “He thought tap dance would never come back,” Bufalino recalls. But before long they were putting on performances together in New Paltz. Coles also recruited a group of his old colleagues from the tap circuit who had established a club called the Copasetics to honor the memory of tap master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The Copasetics came upstate to spend a week performing at the Dancing Theatre, Old Main Auditorium on campus and the Academy Theatre on Academy Street. And they were electrifying. Those lucky enough to catch any of their shows knew they were witnessing dance history in the making. Armed with a half-inch reel-to-reel Porta-Pak, Bufalino made a video documentary of their visit, Great Feats of Feet, that later proved an invaluable tool in attracting grant funding for the tap dance revival.
So it was that Brenda Bufalino took up the torch of restoring tap to its former glory, and recommitted herself to perfecting her own rusty technique. “When I brought the Copasetics up and got back with Honi in my 50s, I realized I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” she says. “So, I gave up all other forms of dance. I realized this was something that would take a lifetime to master.”
Before long there were many younger jazz dancers who wanted to learn from her: Dorothy Anderson, Bonnie MacLeod, Jane Goldberg and more. Bufalino began touring extensively as a duo with Coles, and collaborating with him on choreography, notably with their show The Morton Gould Tap Concerto. The Copasetics’ tap careers were revived as well.
In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, tap-dance festivals popped up across the land; Broadway rediscovered the artform after several decades of domination by the Agnes de Mille style of stage dance. By 1983 Coles had performed in several big musicals and won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in My One and Only.
Seminal as it was, the groundwork that Bufalino laid for the tap revival in New Paltz was only the middle period of a long, diverse and influential career. By 1980 she had stopped teaching at SUNY and began splitting her time between Manhattan and Gardiner. There are altogether too many highlights to mention in the ensuing decades. She and Coles toured the world and appeared with older stars such as the Nicholas Brothers and up-and-comers including Gregory Hines and a youngster named Savion Glover. “That little pipsqueak,” she says today with a laugh. “He stole everything I’ve got.”
Bufalino made it her business to break down boundaries for women in an artform long dominated by men, donning a thrift-shop white tuxedo and spats for an important gig at the Village Gate and making it acceptable thereafter for women tappers to dance in trousers and flats instead of short skirts and high heels. She championed original composition, improvisation and the integration of other jazz and modern dance moves into tap performance.
In 1986 she founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO) and opened a studio the following year in a SoHo basement, called Woodpeckers, to serve as its home. “It became the center of tap dance immediately,” she says. ATDO performed an original dance set to Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” on a PBS Great Performances special, Tap Dance in America with Gregory Hines, in 1989, which led to three years of national touring, followed by European tours and the formation of an International Tap Dance Orchestra based in Germany.
Federal arts budget cuts in the mid-1990s eventually led to the closure of Woodpeckers and the demise of ATDO. Honi Coles died in 1992, “a happy man” in Bufalino’s words; but she has continued teaching and touring solo, nationally and internationally, collaborating, mentoring and choreographing new dances right up until the present day. “Now we’re teaching lots of people. It’s the best community in the world,” she says. “It’s so much fun. That’s why I keep going: It’s still copasetic. There’s no other group I’d rather be with than tap dancers.”
Bufalino’s one-woman shows have included Cantata & the Blues, Journal of a Woodpecker, Unaccompanied and the tap opera Gertrude’s Nose. She has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Smithsonian Institute and the Kennedy Center. She founded the American Tap Dance Foundation to preserve and carry on the work of ATDO in 2000. And in the last decade or so she has won a slew of awards, perhaps the most prestigious of which, the Bessie (more formally, the New York Dance and Performance Award) for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, was conferred in 2016 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2016/09/29/gardiner-resident-brenda-bufalino-wins-top-dance-award).
Bufalino, who turned 85 in September, had just returned from Belgium when Hudson Valley One caught up with her last week in New Paltz, where she has an apartment. She also keeps a studio in Gardiner, where she does ceramics. She continues to write actively: essays, poetry, plays, memoirs, a novella based on the life of her grandmother. Having witnessed her performance at the Vanaver Caravan’s 50th anniversary gala in October, we can attest to the fact that she can still dance up a storm.
You’ll have a chance to see and hear this living legend in action next Saturday, December 3 at 7 p.m. at the Rosendale Theatre, which is hosting a “birthday soiree” titled Brenda Bufalino: Tapping into 85. There will be a “sneak peek” screening of excerpts from a documentary-in-progress produced and directed by her longtime collaborator, American Tap Dance Foundation director Tony Waag. Bufalino will dance, sing and tell stories, accompanied by jazz luminaries Teri Roiger on vocals and piano and John Menegon on bass.
Tickets cost $20 general admission, $15 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members. To purchase, visit www.rosendaletheatre.org/movies/brenda-bufalino-tapping-into-85.