The Littlest Rebel (1935)

Bojangles, Temple Tap Dances from the film

Episode 12: Bojangles and Me (Widescreen)

Saturday April 14, 2007

Episode Details: Art work by David Yue; Transcription, and performance by Timothy Yue; solo by Bill Bojangles Robinson, from The Littlest Rebel (1935), to "Turkey in the Straw"; performed on the Magic Carpet, designed and built by Timothy.

This episode is an early celebration of National Tap Dance Day (May 25th, Bojangles' birthday). In the coming weeks, I'll post some tap lessons teaching parts of this amazing solo.

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Episode 2: Bojangles, Curly Top, & Me
Saturday June 23, 2007

Episode Details: Transcription, and performance by Timothy Yue; Bill Bojangles Robinson and Shirley Temple, from The Littlest Rebel (1935), to "Arkansas Traveler"; Performed at the Clef Club, May 24, 2007. This is a little clip of a recent live performance, for all my friends who were unable make it to the show.

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Episode Details: Transcription, and performance by Timothy Yue; Bill Bojangles Robinson and Shirley Temple, from The Littlest Rebel (1935), Song and Dance; Performed at the Allens Lane Art Center.

This is an exciting episode for me, because it is the final dance from The Littlest Rebel. I didn't have the right number of steps, so I had to adjust it from the original. I submitted it to a SanDisk film festival. Please check back after the 18th to see if it was a finalist, and if it is please vote for it over at http://www.youtube.com/sandisk.

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Lessons and Analysis

Lesson 1: A Basic Bojangles Time Step

Saturday May 19, 2007

Episode Details: Art work by David Yue; Transcription, and performance by Timothy Yue; solo by Bill Bojangles Robinson, from The Littlest Rebel (1935), to "Turkey in the Straw"; performed on the Magic Carpet, designed and built by Timothy.

In this lesson, you will learn a basic Bill Bojangles Robinson Time Step. It is the opening eight bars from his solo from the littlest rebel. (To see the entire solo, go here.)

Disclaimer: This lesson is for intermediate and advanced tap students. I assume students already know a few basic steps: shuffle, flap, hop, and step. Also, I don't expect people to learn the combination from one viewing (I don't think I could). Remember you can use the play, pause, and time cursor, video controls to work on individual parts. This video will be on the home page for a while, so feel free to work on different sections on different days.

Sorry, for all the delays. May and National Tap Dance Day are busy times for tap dancers. Some of the titles in this video presented difficult problems. For those interested in the technical side, I ended up using PowerPoint, S Video out, Firewire in, Image sequences, Photoshop in Classic mode on a Mac, and Frame by frame hand adding titles.

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Season 2

Episode 8: Bojangles wing étude
Saturday August 18, 2007

Episode Details: Art work by David Yue; Choreographed and performed by Timothy Yue; Intro, 3 3/4 bars; Part 1: Bill Bojangles Robinson's wings from The Littlest Rebel (1935), to "Turkey in the Straw", an eight bar phrase, Time Step; Part 2: Ordinary contemporary wings, Time Step; Part 3: Bojangles elaboration, Time Step; Part 4: Rhythmic Possibilities, an eight bar phrase; performed on the Magic Carpet, designed and built by Timothy.

An étude is a short composition. I usually take the literal meaning from the French, a study, so more than just a short wings composition, this is a study of Bojangles' wings and some of the possibilities that they inspire. I've broken the piece down into parts so that the sections are clearly separated, and references to individual sections don't get confused.

The piece is in 4/4, common time. It opens with an Intro which is 3 3/4 bars long. Why 3/4 of a bar? Well, the Intro begins on beat 1 of the first bar, Bojangles' wings begin on beat 4 of the fourth bar, so that is the reason for my quarter beat correction. Although the piece is a study on wings, because études are such short compositions—8, 16, 32 bars, there is some freedom to add to the piece. For me, it makes sense to add a non-wing Intro, because it's often awkward or inelegant to begin a composition with wings. The Intro material provides a smooth transition into the wings.

The first part is Bojangles' wings. You can see the original piece here, or scroll down. (The wings start at bar 17.) Bojangles doesn't open his piece with wings either. A real trick to wings is elegantly transitioning into them. One of the first things you'll notice is that the way I do his wings doesn't look or sound identical to Bojangles. This phrase presents a difficult transcription challenge. Bojangles' performance is a case where two wrongs make a right. The phrase that he wants to do is short and doesn't quite fit the music, but he doesn't keep up with the tempo, so doing it a bit slow compensates for a phrase that's too short.

I could have learned to the phrase exactly as Bojangles performed it, but I'm more interested in the choreography. So getting the transcription as close to the original, but such that it fits correctly in the music, was paramount. Ultimately, the transcription is more valuable than for me to do an identical copy one time. So the phrase that I do from the closest transcription is very similar, but rather than being an even rhythm, there is more of a swing. Those extra pauses make the phrase fit to the music. So these are his wings, but only my best transcription.

This Bojangles' wing phrase, is one of the primary reasons I wanted to recreate this dance. It was interesting to me, because the way he does these wings aren't part of the current lexicon of tap. It's not that his wings haven't been seen before, or you'd never see anyone do wings that way, it's just that I don't think they're very common. I wanted to highlight them to bring them back more prominently into tap.

The second part of the Bojangles wing étude offers one simple example of how tap dancers would commonly do that same wing phrase today. It has the same rhythm and break, but the steps are slightly different. The variation on the original phrase provides a comparison of Bojangles and ordinary, contemporary wings.

The original phrase has a basic Time Step form—six bars of repeating material followed by a two bar break. In this case, the repeating six bars are comprised of three, two-bar phrases. Each of those two-bar phrases has three wings.

In this second part of the étude, within each two-measure phrase, the sequence of wings are all done on one leg. In the original, Bojangles alternates legs every wing. Usually, we think of wings as similar physically to a jump or a hop. The distribution of weight is such that a wing is typically done all on one leg. They naturally lend themselves to sequences all on the same leg.

That quick weight change and switch from one leg to another, so that the sequence of wings alternates, is particularly intricate and beautiful. There are no added steps or pauses. The wings just switch from one leg to another. Bojangles creates that virtual, magical, floating optical illusion. He takes a common step and makes it extraordinary.

The third part of the Bojangles wing étude elaborates on his original phrase. At its core, this variation emphasizes the beauty and power of Bojangles wings. Bojangles goes beyond the few seconds of dance by inspiring so many ideas. His wings open up so many possibilities to new compositions.

Bojangles wing time step has a simple overall form—a two-bar phrase that repeats three times, and a two-bar break. On the microscopic scale, each of the repeated two-bar phrases has the same form. Each is comprised of three wings and its own mini break.

My transcription of the original isn't an identical copy. As I've written earlier, his performance is a case where two wrongs make a right. The two-bar phrase is three wings and a mini break. Each wing fits into two beats, and the mini break fits in two beats. (Three sets of two-beats is six plus a two-beat mini break is eight beats or two bars.) Because he doubles his time, each wing actually takes four beats, and the break takes four beats. The problem is that wings and break are triplets.

It's certainly possible to take those triplets and do threes against twos to fit into two beats. But that has a very particular offbeat sound and feel. You don't hear that rhythm. Bojangles jumps to the double, but lets his tempo decelerate. And he uses his ear to hear the song that isn't precisely matching his wing rhythms to correct for those missing beats, when he gets to the two bar break at the end of the whole phrase.

If you accurately double the time, you could in fact do a fourth set of his wing phrase, although this would be very fast. But Bojangles didn't miss a set. It's clear from the matching microscopic/macroscopic phrasing that he performed his intended phrase with a Time Step structure. In my transcription of the original, I double the time, but perform each wing and mini break with a syncopation that adds a pause for each part. I tried to capture both the fact that he's doubling the time but also the form is a time step.

In this variation, I added back the missing beat for each wing. It's actually the same type of intricate elegant wings. They create the same optical illusion leg switch. I simply separate part of the motion, adding a fourth sound. It keeps the even run that Bojangles implies, but the added beat allows it to stay in tempo to the song. After the set of wings, I kept the same mini break. This break is also, technically missing a beat, but it creates a beautiful phrase, because an even run is paired with a syncopated break. It provides contrast, increasing the clarity and definition of each of the two-bar phrases. The break's syncopation has a really nice on beat, off beat feel.

From the floating movement, to the intricate musical form and structure, Bojangles' wings are the height of beauty and elegance.

The fourth and final part of the Bojangles wing étude provides another variation, which focuses on the powerful rhythmic uses and possibilities of Bojangles' wings.

The section starts on the one. This is important to point out, since the previous sections started on the four and ended on the three. There are a couple reasons why the final part begins on the one. The main reason is that the rhythms I choose naturally begin on a one. The other reason is that the Intro began the whole piece on the one. So having the final phrase begin on the one and end on the four is musically and mathematically pleasing. It seemed like an elegant way to create a sense of finality to a short composition.

Because the third section ends on the three, and the fourth begins on the one, technically there's a quarter note rest before the fourth section begins. However, this pause is largely disguised and goes unnoticed to the casual viewer. The way that I hid the pause is that, perceptually, I cut the tempo in half for the final section.

Not only is tap a percussive instrument, but also there is virtually no sustain to the beats. I don't point this out as a shortcoming; in fact, many tap dancers use this to great advantage. The speed and clarity of paddle and roll hoofing is possible because the lack of sustain prevents the rhythms from getting muddy. The short impulse nature of the sounds is a critical part of tap.

Nonetheless, tap dancers and listeners still think of tap in terms of quarter note beats, eighths, sixteenths, etc. But this perceived length of any particular tap beat depends on when the beats that come before and after it fall in time. Although the third section ends on the three and there is a pause, because the next rhythm cuts the meter in half, there is no sense of a pause or missing beat. In fact, this pause immediately cues the listener that the tempo has been cut in half.

Typically, tap dancers are known for doubling tempos. But it can be just as powerful a tool to cut the time. The trick to making that new heartbeat a powerful pulse is to have smooth transitions into and out of the timing.

For the wings, I played threes against twos rhythmically. One of the reasons to cut the tempo was to emphasize that off rhythm. The beauty of Bojangles' wings is the way that they smoothly switch from side to side. It arises from a string of wings done consecutively. I chose this three against two rhythm because it too gets its strength from the series of three. They are at first independent from the tempo and finally reconnect to it. A simpler choice might have been to increase the speed of the steps and do triplets for every beat. While this is also a beautiful and virtuosic rhythm, it tends to let the steps, in this case each wing, exist separately. In this variation I wanted the rhythm, like the movements, to highlight the beauty of the wings as a group.

The fourth section departs from the time step structure and is comprised of two four-measure phrases. However, if you look at the larger structure of the piece as a whole, it has a similar time step structure. The first three sections follow the same structure, and the final section is the break.

This short étude isn't intended to provide a final complete statement, but rather a taste of the possibilities. It focuses attention on Bojangles wings, but doesn't provide a complete set of all the possible uses and variations on those wings. The fourth part is an example of that sampling but leaving open all the other variations. Rather than attempting to be a cadential, final thought, it is more a first look at one new way to express these wonderful wings. It is just one suggestion for the seemingly endless possibilities of Bojangles' beautiful wings. So that's my Bojangles wing étude.

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