The great tap dancer Bunny Briggs, known for his quick footwork, varied repertoire and striking stage presence, passed away in November 2014, at the age of 92.
Briggs was born in Harlem in 1922, and his love for tap began after he saw Bill “Bojangles” Robinson perform as a small child. He never took formal dance lessons, but started tapping on the streets of his neighborhood, and performed in a children’s dance group called Porkchops, Navy, Rice and Beans. After being discovered by the pianist Luckey Roberts, Briggs toured with Roberts’ orchestra and performed in private homes and mansions.
Briggs toured and performed with many of the big swing bands of the 1940s, such as those of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charley Barnet and Count Basie. Influenced by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he also adapted his style to bebop. In Duke Ellington’s 1965 concert of sacred music in San Francisco, Briggs was a featured dancer in “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might,” a groundbreaking performance. His association with Ellington lead to him being widely known as “Duke’s dancer.”
Briggs also performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, and appeared on Broadway, television and in films. He danced on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s, and was featured in the films No Maps on My Taps (1979) and Tap (1989). He received a Tony nomination for his performance in the 1989 Broadway revue Black and Blue, where he delivered a standout solo to Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”
“He’d act out his dance, like he’d have a scene going on his mind. In the middle of the dance, he’d strike these poses,” Savion Glover, who cites Briggs as a mentor, said in a New York Times interview. “I mean, our objective is always to tell a story, but he was such a sophisticated, lyrical cat.”
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