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Theater Thu Oct 27 2011

Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville


Cast: Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville

Reggio "The Hoofer" McLaughlin was born to dance--tap dance, that is. Here, he talks about performing in the Chicago premiere of Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville, a story of the music and dance history of blacks in the historical vaudeville era.

You got your start dancing in Chicago's subways--talk about that experience.

I started dancing years ago; when I started, tap dancing was outdated. Nobody even thought of it anymore but I always wanted to do it. My older sisters took classes at a Chicago Park District [facility] and when I saw it, I fell in love with it at first sight.

Were there not many opportunities to tap available to you?

The only opportunity I had was what I made for myself. I loved it so much that I just started dancing in the subways and in the streets because I loved how it made me feel--and how it made people feel--you know, it put smiles on their faces.

Tap has often been regarded as the "stepchild" of dancing and in some ways, is still fighting to be recognized on the same level as other dance genres. Why do you think this is?

When it first started, it was always considered a low-class dance, it was associated with the black minstrel era and it was looked at as a stereotype. Hollywood came along and put people like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in a tuxedo which made it more glamorous and then it was put it in the movies--that's what took it to an upscale level. They had the resources to take it to a level of acceptance when they put it in the movies. Many people didn't even understand that it came out African-American roots.

Yes--tap dancing is deeply rooted in stereotypes and evokes a lot of thoughts of negative imagery. Do those stereotypes and images still run through your mind? Do you pay attention to that sort of thing?

It doesn't exist anymore because the dance has evolved and people see the beauty of what tap is about. It's now a skillful and respected dance art form.

Let's talk about the show, Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville, which centers on the "Chitlin' Circuit" and its relationship with black vaudeville acts. What are your thoughts about the Chitlin' Circuit, as well as the negative stigma still attached to it?

As a kid, I performed in some of those theaters that were considered the Chitlin Circuit--the Apollo Theater in New York, The Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Regal Theater here in Chicago. They were the only opportunities you had as an [black] artist but still, they were able to perfect their craft--they were able to work--and believe it or not, some of them still felt it was better than other things they could've been doing. They weren't getting the credit they deserved and a lot of their material was ripped off from them. They got no recognition and they definitely weren't getting paid.

The Chitlin' Circuit then, paved the way for black performers in terms of serving as a vehicle for them to perform.

Yes it did--because at first, they weren't performing at all! It gave them a platform to perform and it just went on from there.

Keep a Song in Your Soul features the Grammy Award- winning Carolina Chocolate Drops--what does it mean to have them be a part of the show?

The Carolina Chocolate Drops--they are authentic and along with Reginald Robinson, a Ragtime piano player, they complete the show. They perform with the element of the vaudeville era; it's really pure and from the heart. And that's what's so sweet about working with them--they know this era.

What will the audience see? What can folks expect from the show?

I want African-Americans to be exposed to all the contributions to the arts from vaudeville--not just blues and gospel music, but also the dance element, especially when it comes to tap dance. I also want people to see that a lot of musicals came from tap dancing and that while tap was always classified as a stereotype, look at what it has become!

See Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, Thursday, Nov. 3 through Sunday, Nov. 6; show times vary. Tickets are $41-$45 and can be purchased online or through the box office at 773-728-6000. Note: The show contains adult language and content.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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