The interview was all set up. Will Gaines‘ manager was just about to hand over to the tap dancer in the wings, when he suddenly popped out to fix his car. ‘He’s not easy to hold down.‘ she said. and sure enough there was no stopping him.
Second time round. The car‘s still not fixed. Time‘s getting on for both ofus. There are three dance festivals back-to-back this year. Wolverhampton. Edinburgh and Tower Hamlets. plus a jazz date in Carlisle and Will needs those wheels to get out of Essex and around them all. But I need his words. So we talk between repairs. The few minutes ‘chit-chat‘ ﬂy into an hour.
The rhythm may start in Will Gaines‘ feet but it goes on right up through into every gesture, every story. His face dances. And talk — his chat is full of pause and off-beat one-liners and up-beat show-stoppers. Fast hardly describes it. You have to switch in and stay there. We‘re in Forties’ Detroit underage dancing in the bars. We're in Miami in the Fifties watching the sell-out Cotton Club (set up with syndicate money) in Martha Rae's old joint. We pop over to the London Palladium for nine shows in the Sixties. And suddenly there's clog-dancing. Clog-dancing? There lies the root ofit all. Morris and folk-dancing. Gaines is over here to get close to the dance which emigrated to America. got all shook up in the streets and came out as tap. Now we’re talking about putting it on all together in a big barn somewhere — or on a TV show. But hold on there. What about his own beginnings?
‘1 just did it.’ Simple. No classes. notraining. ‘I'm just a natural born tap-dancer. I used to dance on ice-boxes out in the backyard.‘ If fridges had been invented sooner he might have missed his vocation.
Offthe ice-boxes. out of school and into the bars. At nineteen he had to say he was twenty-one to get into the clubs to dance. And when the war came he had to get an affadavit to prove he had lied about his age. But Will passed on any kind of military action and entertained troops instead. ‘I used to live on the base — could get on and off better than any soldier— and tap dance .' It invades his entire personality and attacks his audience with a direct hit. His conversation has a similar effect. l try to concentrate as I lose myself to his infectious American twang.
‘Everyone can dance. Even when they lay down the guns and stop shootin‘ they get up and dance. When you come into this world you‘re kickin‘ like hell. Ifyou come out headfirst you‘re kickin' your mother. ifyou come out feetfirst you‘re knockin‘ hell out of the doctor who‘s tryin‘ to get hold ofyou.‘
Television has tried to capture the man several times. In the early days it was without success. Gaines was booked into the first night of television broadcast out ofToronto in the Fifties. Disaster. ‘They had no
idea what to do with us.‘ Then, in Detroit on a TV show named after its DJ star Tall Boy Third Row. he
Will Gaines has tap—danced on ice boxes, military bases, a cardboard train —even a carpet. Now coming to Edinburgh’s Focus on Dance, he talked to Alice Barn.
appeared again. All but his feet! The huge camera had no fancy manoeuvres. ‘l was dancing on this cardboard train. You got these here windows and you can't see my feet. Well. they only have three minutes and when they come to the end of them Tall Boy just picks up the needle and the music stops dead. I knew then that what I did in six years to get a name for myselfcould be lost in three minutes‘ television.‘ He did not want to be slapped in the face like the comedian who was brought all the way from California to appear on the coast-to-coast Ed Sullivan Show and got sent home three weeks later without ever appearing. Ed Sullivan kept forgetting he was there. waiting in the dressing rooms. As Gaines uses his feet like musical
audible as it is visual and the percussion makes great listening. But radio has had its pitfalls too. ‘We had military radio shows in the Forties‘ Be Bop era in hotel lobbies and somebody decided J ask me along. [walked to the hotel from Kirby Street and as I walked towards the main drag it was gettin‘ posher and the houses bigger. I thought well. they‘ll have a linoleum or concrete floor in the hall or something. but ofcourse it was a carpet. Nobody had thought to put down some wood. So you can imagine tap-dancing on a carpet on the radio!‘
Things are not quite so bad today
but Gaines would prefer that ‘cameramen were taught to dance
instruments. his technique is as much young so they knew what to do.‘ And
as for the radio and recording— all he needs is that wood.
Not long ago. Gaines was asked to tap on [an Dury‘s latest album. ‘I went to a small studio and had to go outside to find a piece ofwood to get the sound that Dury wanted.'The wood was easy. the sound took some time. ‘He was amazed at what I was doing but it wasn‘t what he wanted.‘
Now nearly sixty. Gaines was a step ahead of him. ‘l le had to go down the road I'd already been. I came up with people like Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bradshaw. A lot of heavy jazz musicians came through that man‘s band. The shuffle. rock ’n‘ roll stuffpeople play today. Bradshaw was doing in the Forties.‘
But Dury and Gaines. two distinct generations. finally clicked. The rock star was so pleased he upped the fee. ‘The agent sold me cheap and bookd me for £35. Ian Dury gave me £1()().' For the benefit ofGaines‘ expertise and unique talent this still seems a bargain.
But financial gain is the last thing on the tap-dancer‘s mind. Above all he lives to dance. After that. he wants everyone else to dance and once you find the rhythm there should be no obstacles.
Take Crip Herb. ‘He had only one arm and one leg but was a hell ofa dancer. He had a technique with that cane and one foot and had a waiter to come and grab him at the end of his act before he threw away the cane.‘ And there's more. ‘l’eg Leg Bates— he had a peg to match the colour of each suit. If you analyse what he did. he was just stumping a piece ofwood on the stage. but you didn‘t notice that — he‘s probably still going strong and won't ever die.‘
Immortality for tap dancers would seem a fair return for the energy and enjoyment Will Gaines has certainly dispensed and is still sharing out. Failing that. the rhythm must be passed on.
And so. from entertaining in America at FBI stags (‘they want everything— you wouldn’t believe it‘). small jazz clubs. major theatres like the Apollo in New York. and in the Catskill Mountains. Will Gaines in the Eighties is doing Britain‘s art centre circuit and dance festivals. spreading the word.
Four years ago he danced at Platform 1 in Edinburgh and took sell-out workshops at the Rebecca Walker Studios. now CentreStage. Because of ‘natural born‘ ways his manager and assistant (‘hris Parry. herselfa dancer. takes the teaching part and lets Will create the buzz. And he does it every time.
Last year, catching him accidentally at the Spiegel Tent on the Meadows during the Edinburgh Festival. a lunch hour turned into an entire afternoon ofpure joy watching Will Gaines dance. A group ofyoung folk musicians he had just met backed him magnificently. ‘I was only going to do twenty minutes but they had to get a rope to drag me off.‘
As he says. don‘t expect to see Fred Astaire. There‘s no glamour or glitz of Hollywood. Will Gaines is all heart.
6 The List 20 March — 2 April