Henry LeTang: Seven Decades of Tap and Still Counting
Warren, Charmaine Patricia, Black Masks
Henry LeTang: Seven Decades of Tap And Still Counting
Henry LeTang, dancer and choreographer extraordinaire, was honored last year with a FloBert Award for his achievements in tap. Named for the 1920s entertainers Florence Mills and Bert Williams, the FloBert Awards recognize those who have advanced the art of tap through performance, teaching or choreography. Other recipients of the award include Gene Kelly. To date, however, LeTang's achievements have not been duly noted in dance history books in general, or in Black dance history, in particular. Nonetheless, whenever his name is mentioned to tap dancers, choreographers or historians, they speak of him with high honor.
Born in Harlem, New York on June 19, 1915, Henry LeTang knew at the age of seven that he wanted to tap. He says, "I went to a recital. At that time, the whole family used to go -- Mama, Dad and all five kids. Anyhow, that's what I wanted to do. My mother wanted me to play the violin. I played that for two years. Then that went out the window, and I started tapping."
His mother couldn't afford to send him to dance school. "We're talking about Depression here," LeTang explains. However, in 1922, his godmother and her husband, who didn't have any children, paid the fifty cents for each class and took the seven year old to tap lessons at Ella Gordon's Peter Pan Kiddies. Consequently, LeTang embarked on what would become a sixty-nine year career.
He stayed with Gordon until he was about thirteen. "But then I got to the stage where I kind of outgrew her, so she brought me down to [Clarence] "Buddy" Bradley's. He was like I am today. He taught the important people, the stars and so forth. Of course he never got any credit -- well, he's a Black man."
Following the path of other artists like himself, he soon went on the road. "It was like a chain," he recalls. "You had Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and New York." At home, he began performing at famous theaters in New York City. "It wasn't even the Apollo then," he recalls. "It was the Harlem Opera...up the street from the Apollo (which was a burlesque house then)." When Frank Shiffman, who owned the Harlem Opera took over the Apollo, then "the Apollo became the place."
It wasn't too long after starring at the Apollo, however, that LeTang again went on the road. This time it was with Sophie Tucker, the white solo headliner who, like other white headliners, used juvenile dance troupes as part of her act. However, LeTang could not go out to California with the troupe, he says, "because my mother wouldn't let me travel that far...You know the West Indian parents...they growled, 'my child isn't going out there.' So I came back home."
As the years went by, LeTang's career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher grew rapidly. He recalls that in the 30s, he had a trio: Johnny Robinson, Hubert Alan and himself. "I called it The Lee Brothers. I never used LeTang because they never got it right. They called me every damn thing, Lee Tang, LayTang. They spelled it wrong too...I used Lee. Henry Lee or Lee Brothers or whatever." He also teamed up with Sonny King. He often served as choreographer for these teams.
However, Henry LeTang found that performing was "too spotty." He notes, "To play, say the Apollo, I would play it this week as a single; next month I would team up with [someone], and play it, then I would team up with a couple of boys to keep working. Of course back then you had night clubs so that you could work. But it was spotty. And if you really want to do it, you get turned off...You'd get annoyed because you want to dance all the time...Even the boys that had more of a name, like Honi [Coles]...were laid off more than they worked...So that's when I really went to the teaching and the choreography. That really became my love because I like to create." He adds, "I was lucky because I did the teaching...I was never a bartender, or a waiter or anything...I never did anything else. …