Leon Collins, "The Dance Dynamo" of the 40s, is tapping again.
His tap shoes will click again this weekend when he performs with Jane Goldberg and three other dancers on the floorboards of Sanders Theater.
"Yep, jazz tap went out with the death of 'Bojangles' Robinson and was replaced with rock-n-roll," Collins, a teacher at the Harvard Dance Center, says.
Swaying back and forth on the piano bench, Leon unconsciously accompanies the rhythm of his speech with the rhythm of his body. He flips his tap shoe lightly over and tightens a screw in the metal heel with a flick of a screwdriver.
To support himself, during the lull of tap dancing's popularity, Collins says he left the stage and opened a garage. For over a decade he cleaned engines, varnished hoods, did body work--and refused to look at a variety show. "I was afraid if I saw people dancing I'd go back into show biz even though there was no money for tap dancers. As I'm a realistic person I felt I had to stick with the steady income of my garage," he explains.
Collins did not always want to dance. As a child he worked as an alter boy in his church and set his sights on the priesthood. But he says his sister encouraged him to take tap lesson. He loved it and began to make up his own pieces to the blare of a jukebox in a neighborhood pool room. He was winning amateurs' contests in his mid-teens and touring before he was 20, appearing in nightclubs throughout the U.S., Canda, and Europe.
He says working with musicians was exciting for him because he discovered he could reproduce their melodies with his feet. Although he couldn't get the intonation he could get the rhythm and the emotion came through the movements of his entire boc "Dancing is the poetry of the body, while music is the poetry of the soul," he smiles.
Two-and-a-half years ago some friends asked him to perform again in a show. "I thought my legs wouldn't be strong enough but I did it--and the audience liked my dance."
Now he teaches, spending half a year with the late Stanley Brown before opening his own studio in Boston. Although he says teaching requires a lot of patience, he thinks the rewards outweigh the trials. He adds that he loves to see the smiles of self-congratulation flicker across the faces of his students. "When you have it, you know you have it because you can do it."
This is his second year of teaching at the Harvard Dance Center. "I love it. The people are nice, respectful, responsive--I couldn't help but love it."
Jane Goldberg has been running a one-woman campaign for the past five years to revive Collins' art. She thinks it is important to preserve this distictly American art which, she says, blends Irish clog dance with African folk dance, because most of the original artists are in their sixties and will not be able to teach their craft indefinitely.
She says her crusade is progressing steadily. Her first tap performance was at Harvard in 1975. Eventually she taught at Jacob's Pillow and performed in New York.
Although she danced in high school productions, Goldberg drifted away from dance in college. She was a political science major at Boston University and very active in the antiwar movement. Only in her senior year did she begin to take modern dance lessons again.
After graduating, she studied with Claire Malardi, who teaches dance at Harvard during the academic year, performed in Boston, and wrote dance reviews for the Boston Phoenix.
She says a Fred Astaire movie in Boston Kindled her interest in tap dancing. At first she sought out old tap dancers becuase of her interest in the history of the dance but soon she wanted to perform herself. Now she plans to establish a foundation "to preserve, promote, and perform tap dancing," she says.