Welcome to Summer Session of A.P. Tapology. Today’s class is being taught by Frances Bradley – tapper, painter, artist extraordinaire. She’s serious about her craft(s), and she has a smile and laugh that are both infectious.
Chapter One begins with none other than Bruce Bradley, Frances’ father, the visionary behind the Bradley Tap Dynasty. Mr. Bradley, a dancer and thespian turned community role model, took up tap dancing at the age of 32 after being turned down for a role that would have required this charmer to not only act and sing but tap as well. Mr. Bradley started taking lessons and engaged in a daily 2-hour practice routine until he became good enough to pass on what he’d learned to not only his daughters but eventually, all of Flint, Michigan.
According to Frances, Bruce Bradley ran a ship tighter than Joe Jackson. She and her sisters were awoken early each morning at 5 A.M. to practice tap in their basement. "Sometimes I would cry, like why am I up so early? I'm only 12," she comically recalled. Summers were filled with the same routine: practice and training. Clearly, practice makes perfect: twenty years later, Frances and her sisters have both gone on to share the same stage with tap legends from around the world.
Thanks to their dad, for Frances and her sisters (Cherisse and Alexandria bka Ali), tapping was never a choice. In the Bradley household, to tap or not to tap was never an option. For as much flack as they receive, I think there’s something to be said about Black fathers like Richard Williams, Earl Woods and even Matthew Knowles. One has to admire the level of commitment necessary for a father to push his children to the point of Outlier-dom (see Malcolm Gladwell). And for his children to love him for it.
When asked to share her most memorable childhood experience with tapping, Frances relayed the story about when she, her sister Ali, and their childhood friend Kandee, won Amateur Night at the Apollo.
The girls, better known at the time as “The Stepettes,” wowed the audience with their impressive dance moves and shiny shirts their mom picked out from K-Mart. Frances started laughing hysterically when she described the outfits. Regardless of whether or not they committed some kind of crime against fashion, like most of us in the 90s, that night’s competition was a mere foreshadow of their bright futures.
In addition to her daily ritualistic practicum, a large part of her own Tapology included much study and research. The Bradleys watched countless hours of footage of legendary tappers – everyone from the Nicholas Brothers to Gregory Hines. Frances uncannily knows Tap scene for scene and line for line, pretty much in the same manner I know Coming to America. (Which means she KNOWS Tap). As a child of the 80s/90s, she would later be inspired by the prodigy that is Savion Glover. She also credits Ted Levy, Kevin Ramsey, Tina Pratt, Mabel Lee and Dianne Walker for helping to shape the dancer she would become.
For Frances, tapping is another form of music but it goes beyond that particular genre via the combination of sound and movement that takes place. According to her, "tap is an acoustic instrument like so many other percussion traditions" that come to us from the continent.
In jam sessions, she is overcome with joy and inspired to get up and let her moves communicate with the band in a sort of call and response found present in any African aesthetic musical tradition. Tapping for Frances, is a sort of spiritual force to be reckoned with, especially when she improvs. It allows her to dig deeper – to get in touch with her own spirit. In tapping, she finds balance.
When speaking about “that dude," Frances states that Bruce Bradley has big dreams. The Bradleys have built a family business and basically made something out of nothing. Every year, they would load up the family van with other kids in the community and go to festivals around the country, meeting famous tappers, study with them, and return home to train. Eventually they realized that they could share their love for tap with so many others and established Tapology, a summer tap festival held in Flint for the past 9 years.
It’s quite obvious that Frances bought into her father’s vision and plans to continue educating people about tap. She’s in the process of setting up some workshops in Africa, after spending some time in Mali earlier this year. She is interested in drawing connections between the tap tradition which took root here in the U.S. and traditional African dance forms.
I am now taking tap classes and when I asked, Frances Bradley, my tap instructor what words she has for someone like myself, who is just learning at this stage in the game (and I’m not the only one mind you – there have been several tap legends who started when they too were in their Jesus years), she replied “Girl, Practice.” Of course she would say that. She is a former star pupil of Bruce Bradley’s no pain no gain school of Tapology. But one of the things that Frances stated was “it’s critical to understand why you want to learn and what is your goal. Reach out to elders who are still here – mentors who will train you.”
As I strung up my Capezios, I decided to do just that… so maybe one day, I too can make the Tapology Honor Roll.
If you're on the East Coast, you can check out the Bradley Sisters, July 20, 2011 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Click here for more info.