Monday, December 26, 2011

Little-Known Black History Fact: Charles 'Honi' Coles

Charles "Honi" Coles was a famous tap dancer of the 1930s who was said to have "the fastest feet in the business." People who witnessed his dance at the Apollo Theater said that his feet moved so fast, it looked like an illusion.

Coles was given the nickname 'Honi' by his mother. The streets in Coles' hometown of Philadelphia were beaming with aspiring tap dancers "cutting" one another in contests. That’s where Coles "honed his craft."

Coles got his start with a group called The Three Millers in New York, who danced on top of pedestals and tiny platforms, doing barrel turns, wings and over-the-tops. Unfortunately, Coles learned that his partner replaced him in the group, and he retreated back to Philly. After connecting with the Joffrey Ballet, Coles made history when he performed in their unique production of Agnes DeMille’s "Conversations About the Dance." For the first time, tap made a debut in concert dance.

The late, great Lena Horne once said of Coles, "Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire."

In the 1940s, Coles joined with Cab Calloway to create a duo with Charles "Cholly" Atkins. The two would perform as Coles and Atkins for years. He danced with an array of jazz greats: Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie.

Coles made his broadway debut in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1949. He also appeared in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and "My One and Only," and received a Tony Award for his performance. He was 72 years old. In 1949, Coles helped to found The Copasetics, a tapping fraternity made in honor of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

In the 1980s, he taught dance and dance history at Yale, Cornell, Duke and George Washington universities. Coles also had a small but stellar part in the 1984 film "Cotton Club" - where he danced in a classic scene featuring Maurice and Gregory Hines and a mix of legendary hoofers - and a bit part in the hit 1987 hit movie, "Dirty Dancing."

In 1992, the year after he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George H.W. Bush, Coles died at age 81. He was posthumously inducted into the American Tap dance Foundation's Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2003.


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