LeTang, Henry 1915–2007
Henry LeTang 1915–2007
Henry LeTang was a renowned tap dancer and teacher who worked with an impressive list of stage and screen luminaries during his long career. For nearly five decades LeTang ran a dance studio in New York City, but he rose to prominence only in the 1980s as the choreographer of tap routines for successful Broadway musicals such as Sophisticated Ladies and Black and Blue. In the early 1990s he relocated to Las Vegas, where he opened another dance studio and trained another generation of chorus-line hoofers. He died in his sleep on April 26, 2007, at the age of ninety-one.
LeTang was born on June 19, 1915, in New York City to Caribbean-immigrant parents. Clarence LeTang, his father, was from Dominica, while his mother, Maria, was a native of St. Croix. Both ran a radio and phonograph repair business in the city, and Maria harbored hopes that her son would become a concert violinist. He balked at music lessons at the age of seven, however, and convinced his mother to let him take a tap-dancing class instead. “It was for boys,” he said years later about what drew him to tap, according to his obituary in London's Guardian newspaper. “I guess you could say it was very macho with the slipping, the leaps, the splits.”
Tap is a unique form of dance in which the performer also becomes a percussive instrument. It has many predecessors in dance, including Spanish flamenco, West African ceremonial rites, and Scottish-Irish folk stepping, but is thought to have emerged in its present form in New York City in the 1830s. Later in the century it emerged as a staple act in black minstrel shows and vaudeville, and Hollywood films popularized it further in the first half of the twentieth century. By the time LeTang was in his teens, he “was so caught up with dance,” he told Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times in 1981, “that if I couldn't buy a ticket or get someone to take me I'd sneak in.” LeTang recalled that “there was a stage doorman named Louie at Loew's State, I remember, a sort of hunchback, who'd put me in the wings because he knew I had the bug.”
One of LeTang's first professional jobs was as a performer with the orchestra of Claude Hopkins, a renowned stride pianist who had worked with Josephine Baker in Paris in the 1920s. LeTang soon proved talented enough to tour with major musical acts such as Louis Armstrong and Sophie Tucker. “Youngsters could perform then,” he said in the interview with Dunning in 1981. “They weren't so strict.” Though tap was at the height of its popularity at the time, LeTang was too short for a spot on the male chorus lines in Broadway stage productions, but he was good enough to entertain a job offer from Hollywood as a choreographer—which his mother forbid him to take. To earn a living while still feeling part of the dance scene, LeTang opened his own studio in 1937. His teaching abilities soon became legendary. “Before long, word was out: if you were a performer who had just been cast, quaking, in a show that called for high-level tap dancing, your first phone call was to Mr. LeTang,” wrote Margalit Fox in his New York Times obituary. The list of those he worked with is a long and prominent one, and includes Billie Holiday, Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen, Gregory Hines, Maurice Hines, Debbie Allen, and Bette Midler, among many others.
In the 1940s some of the color barriers on Broadway began to disappear, and LeTang started to land jobs as an assistant choreographer. He worked on the 1943 musical My Dear Public and a year later was the director of tap routines for another project, Dream with Music. In 1952 he was hired as chorographer for a revival of the famed black musical Shuffle Along, which back in 1921 had been the first Broadway work both created and performed by African Americans. But by this point, tap was already beginning to fade as a popular dance form in stage musicals, having been gradually usurped by the more ballet- and modern-dance influenced choreography that emerged with the 1943 landmark musical Oklahoma!
LeTang kept teaching students in his studio for the next quarter-century, and the fallow period ended in the late 1970s, when he was hired as co-chorographer on a new musical called Eubie!, which opened in 1978 and ran for 439 performances. It featured two brothers, Gregory and Maurice Hines, whose tap act would help revive the form; both dancers had worked extensively with LeTang. The dance master went on to serve as one of the chorographers for the 1981 musical Sophisticated Ladies, which starred Gregory Hines, and LeTang was thrilled by the revival of interest in tap dancing. “Tap is coming back,” LeTang told Dunning in the 1981 New York Times interview. “Old people love it. Young people are really getting an education. A lot of them have never seen it except in the old movies on television, and that's not like seeing tap live. The rhythm patterns are so important. And also the sight value is very impressive.”
LeTang's legendary status in Broadway-musical circles led to an offer to work on The Cotton Club, a big-budget 1984 film-musical from Francis Ford Coppola. LeTang served as tap coordinator for the movie and made a brief screen appearance. He was the principle choreographer for Tap, a 1989 film starring Gregory Hines and another tap legend, Sammy Davis Jr., and that same year he won his first Tony Award for Black and Blue, a musical revue centered on African Americans in the Parisian arts scene of the 1920s and 1930s. In the mid-1980s LeTang traveled to Las Vegas to work with dancers there for a new stage production, and Ellie Epps, his wife, later convinced him to move there permanently for their health. They opened up a studio in the 1990s that trained scores of Vegas showgirls and other casino-stage performers. By then tap was enjoying yet another revival, thanks to the hit Broadway musical Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, which featured Savion Glover. As a youngster Glover had auditioned for LeTang, which led to the ten-year-old's debut in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway in 1983.
In 2002 LeTang was awarded an honorary doctorate in performing arts from Oklahoma City University. “It is a milestone in my life,” the Guardian tribute quoted him as saying. “Getting a Tony a couple of times does not compare to the feeling that I had when I received that doctorate. We have worked and dedicated our lives to the American art of tap.”
At a Glance …
Born Henry Christian LeTang on June 19, 1915, in New York, NY; died on April 26, 2007, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Clarence and Maria LeTang; first marriage ended in divorce; married Emma Jimenez (died, 1965); married Ellie Epps (died, 2002); children: (with Jimenez) Henry Jr., Jon.
Career: Appeared with the Claude Hopkins Orchestra and toured with Louis Armstrong and Sophie Tucker, early 1930s; owner and teacher of dance schools in New York City, 1937-91, and in Las Vegas, NV, after 1992.
Awards: American Theatre Wing/League of American Theatres and Producers, Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre (Tony Award) for chorography, 1989; Oklahoma City University, honorary doctor of performing arts, 2002.
Dance, February 2002, p. 58.
Guardian (London, England), May 9, 2007.
Nation, February 27, 1989, p. 281.
New York Times, April 12, 1981; March 2, 1984; May 3, 2007.
LeTang, Sharon, “Henry LeTang, a Pioneer Hoofer,” The African-American Registry,http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2937/Henry_LeTang_a_pioneer_hoofer__/ (accessed November 12, 2007).
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