Ethel Bruneau: Dancing her way to pure joy

Carol Roach By Carol Roach, 13th Aug 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Urban Living

We will be looking at the life of Montreal dance instructor Ethel Bruneau.

Ethel Bruneau

Today we present an outstanding woman who exemplifies the accomplishments of women through the enhancements of their local communities. Ethel Bruneau, is not only the pride of Montreal she is a legend in the world of dance worldwide.

Every year, the award is presented to an individual who has made a "significant contribution to African-Canadian artistic and cultural life in Canada."

In 2009, the Martin Luther King Award was presented to Montreal's own Ethel Bruneau by the Black Theater Workshop at it's Vision Celebration.

Why choose Ethel Bruneau? The answer is just like Martin Luther King Jr., she too had a dream. Furthermore, she fulfilled her dream of teaching tap in Montreal for over 50 years.

Early life of Ethel Bruneau

Ethel Bruneau, was born in Harlem. Ethel Bruneau began her life of tap at only 3-years-of-age. Her parents saw her talent and enrolled her in the Mary Brice's school of dance, a very prominent dancing school in Harlem. Ethel Bruneau had the opportunity to dance with the world famous Gregory Hines.

She says that, "the only boy I liked to hold hands with was Gregory," though she could have held hands with any of the boys for the purpose of dancing at the school.

Ethel Bruneau got a chance to come to Montreal in 1953, when she had a three week dancing gig with none other than the great Cab Calloway. She loved Montreal so much she decided to make it her new home.

"When you walked down Ste. Catherine, it was Las Vegas! Nobody slept in Montreal. This city was open 24 hours a day," said Bruneau.

Ethel Bruneau remains in Montreal to bless us with her talent

Ethel Bruneau made her career here in Montreal, where she has danced her way to a happy life. She wakes up in the morning to dance, and even with some hip pain once in awhile, she says dancing puts joy in her life and she goes to bed happy. She has also put joy into the life of the hundreds of students who learned the art of tap in her dancing studio as well.

African dance

What is tap dance?

Tap dance is a dancing form that was born not of one dance type, but of a mixture of dances: English clog dancing, Irish step dancing, and of course African rhythmic movements. The African dancing linked to tap are drum rhythms, Juba, and Ring Shout. These later two dances incorporate the rhythmic movements, the swaying from side to side, as well as the wonderful foot movements that we are used to seeing in tap dancing.

The Juba dance was originally an African plantation dance involving stomping and slapping different parts of the body such as the legs, arms and chest. The slaves of West Africa brought this dance to the American plantations.

The Ring Shout dance also originated in Africa, and is a dance where the people form a circle or ring while clapping their hands and shuffling their feet.

Tap also incorporated the movements made famous by other African dances such as swing dancing, and Lindy hop (a form of swing, Charleston, and street dancing) with traditional waltz and foxtrot. Who would figure that all these dances are incorporated in modern tap dance?

Ethel Bruneau Dance School

In the early days of vaudeville mock slave dances were incorporated as part of the act. Dancers would paint their faces black for what was known as the blackface comedy. They would dance around imitating black farmhands. They also incorporated sounds into the dance routine. In 1982, the first blackface minstrel show brought tap dancing into the genre of comedy.

Three distinct styles of tap emerged from the Vaudeville area they were:

the clicking of noise first made by the shoes of the chorus girls and their swinging styles in their foot work especially when performing the Charleston,
the buck and swing style of some minstrel shows,
the soft shoe which was named after the sound of a semi soft leather shoe on the floor.

Tap was once at the top of dancing craze in America ,made famous by Hollywood and its era of the famous musicals. We have Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, and Shirley Temple who made tap dancing famous in movies.

Other movies such as "The Cotton Club" showed the Jazz element of the dance. The incorporation of Jazz also brought more complicated moves such as the: the shuffle, ball change, brush, side tap, flap, and cramp roll to the mix. “White Nights” featured the famous dancing of Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

More recently hip hop and rap music has been incorporated and tap is once again rising to the top of the dancing craze in America. Finally it is still very much alive in Montreal with Ethel Bruneau who is one of only two tap dancing instructors in Canada.

All photos taken from the public domain

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author avatar brendamarie
13th Aug 2015 (#)

Carol, wow, I had no idea that there was so much more to tap dancing than I thought.

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