Don’t Just Tap: Knock!

Steve Clarke

Born in 1923 Steve Clark was, along with the likes of his cousin Sammy Davis Junior, one of the original pioneering black artists. As half of the legendary tap dancing act The Clark Brothers , he fought enormous social prejudice to enjoy a career on both sides of The Atlantic, playing to packed houses from Broadway to Londonís West End.

As well as being an unrivaled tap dancer, Steve is also a consummate choreographer, singer, musician and entertainer. He has worked alongside the likes of Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Gypsy Rose Lee and Bob Hope and counted Frank Sinatra, Howard Keel, Tallulah Bankhead, Lena Horn and the gangster Al Capone as friends.

His cv is endless but films such as Killer Diller with Nat King Cole and A Day At The Races with The Marx Brothers stand out, as do a succession of appearances on televisionís Sunday Night At The Palladium and six Royal Variety performances including the famous 1963 event when The Beatles introduced the world to the expression ìRattle your jewellery.

Now at the ripe old age of eighty, still tapping and teaching, Steve Clark has been in the business for more than seventy years. We are extremely honoured to be able to present some of his thoughts for you here.

Don’t Just Tap: Knock!

I began my career not as a dancer but as a sportsman, I was a founder member of The Harlem Globetrotters and even today I like nothing better than a relaxing game of golf. Dance has always been central to my life but my world does not revolve around it. If it did I would have starved a long time ago.

I’m not suggesting that you go off and take sports lessons, that just happened to be something I was good at, but my point is that as a performer you have to explore what other strings you have to your bow. Be multi disciplined.

As The Clark Brothers me and Jimmy (thatís my brother by the way!) quickly realised that tapping was not enough and so we incorporated singing, comedy and musicianship into the act. When we werenít performing I kept myself busy and in pants teaching people like Cliff Richard, Freddie and The Dreamers and Gregory Hynes to dance (Gregory had flat feet bless him, but I think he turned out okay.)

Being multi disciplined helps you keep in shape too. Iím known for my tap but I do other styles too. Flamenco for example strengthens the ankles and is a good precursor to tap because it teaches you to pick up rhythm and sound.

Knowing lots of things allows you to stretch yourself by mixing them together. John Curry, the great Olympic ice skater was so successful because he developed a unique style, taking moves he learned in ballet onto the ice. The Clark Brothers invented their own style too, a precision based rhythmic tap that no one else was doing at the time. It got us a lot of work. When I teach itís the same, I make my students stretch themselves with modern jazz, ballet, flamenco and tap. Itís fun and it encourages flexibility and freedom.

You should remember that whatever your preferred discipline, perfecting that alone is only the beginning. If you canít make yourself unique, if you canít go multi disciplined and stretch yourself to your full potential then youíre just going to be another artist and unfortunately for you itís the special guys that usually get all the work.

Whatever you do make sure you can do it better or different than the people around you. Have great role models – and I mean great not just good. In my day, for tap dancers, it was Bill ìBo Janglesî Robinson. I didnít aspire to be him though, I aspired to be better and thatís the kind of drive Iím talking about. Thatís the kind of commitment youíre going to need if you really want to make it in this industry. Itís not easy, youíve chosen a hard path and youíre going to have to get to grips with it.

When I started out things were a little easier. In those days you had a theatre on every corner and the work was available. Nowadays I can see itís different. Repertory theatres have gone and the few big producers that run the roost wield a lot of power. Beware of that balance of power. When my brother and me started out I was always a bit cocky but back then I could afford to be because our act was unique and we were in demand. It didnít matter if we trod on a few toes (outside of the act of course!) but now if you upset the wrong person it can cost you work. Iím not saying you shouldnít stand up for yourself – you must – but pick your fights carefully.

Keep working. There were times in my early career when I shined shoes but that’s no good. You can’t say I’m a performer with shoe polish on your hands, youíre only a performer if you’re performing! I’m a big fan of survival (at eighty you have to be) but my advice is don’t wait tables unless you absolutely have to.

Try as far as you can to use the profession to survive. You won’t always be able to do so but TRY. In the America where I grew up, racial discrimination was at its peak and so I’d never like to go south but sometimes when the money was going to help me do other things – like eat – I’d go. In my career to date I guess I’ve been just about every place they had. It wasn’t always pretty.

If you can’t use the profession to survive then at least use it for practice. You have to practice to maintain readiness. Readiness means the ability to do your best work at all times and there’s no greater sin than not having it. Your big opportunity could come at any time so for god’s sake stay in condition! I really mean this. Do your thing for free if you have to but always do it. It’s important because as well as practice it also gives you exposure and exposure is the real key to breaking the industry.

When The Clark Brothers began, there were theatres on every corner and you got exposure by working around. Today the TV offers the chance for incredible exposure. The golden rule is ‘get yourself seen.’ When you know what you really want to do, when you know what you really love, you then owe it to yourself to go for it totally. And don’t be afraid to take a chance either: self produce, self promote and if you think you’ve identified a country with more work move there! Me and Jimmy did just that in 1948 on the advice of my pal Frank Sinatra and we never looked back.

Entering the entertainment business is an investment. An investment of your time but also of your money and resources. Look for organisations like The PTC which are good enough to give you stuff for free but be aware that they are a rare and precious commodity. Typically you can expect to have to pay for lessons, pictures, music scores, show reels and industry magazines.

If you spend wisely you can really make your money work. I bought specially commissioned tunes for the Clark Brothers and costumes too. Such things identified us and added to our unique or ‘novelty’ value. I remember once an employer telling me how he’d hired us because he remembered the smart creases in our trousers. It’s amazing but the smallest detail can be a memorable gimmick and help you stand out from the crowd.

At the end of the day, standing out from the crowd is really what itís all about and that’s why I say don’t just tap: knock. Mix it up, do it different, do it better and pummel away at that industry door until you’re seen. Remember, you’re a talented person, don’t die with your talent.

Steve Clark

March 2003

Members of a workshop run by The PTC sent in questions for Steve to answer. Here’s what he said.

How do you make yourself outshine others on the stage?

If you’re doing an acting role, the time to shine is in your auditions. Once you’ve been hired your skill has to be devoted to doing your job. Sometimes you will be given a job that requires you not to shine, for example a carriage driver or spear carrying part.

The important thing to remember is don’t conflict with anyone else. If you have the audacity to outshine a star you could be in trouble. You might also be guilty of not doing your job right.

However, if you’re a variety act, like The Clark Brothers, you have to shine at every opportunity because you’ll be up against a lot of good guys for the same jobs. Do it like I say above. Make yourself unique and get yourself something that defines you. The word gimmick is pure cornball, I know, but by any name that’s what you need.

America or England?

America is a great country for an entertainer to ply his trade. Jimmy and me had lots of reasons to leave and it worked for us because back then we were a household name and in demand. We had already broken the industry. But what I noticed about England – the big difference between England and America – is that the US is more prepared to gamble on an artist. The UK seems satisfied to recycle a small pool of talent – you see them in the soaps and then the pop charts and then the magazines and itís always the same guys. Thereís something about the UK that likes mediocrity and encourages envy. If you have talent here you have to be strong to get it seen. Itís not impossible but thereís definitely more opportunity in America.

As a choreographer, what do you think inspires a strong sequence?

I never take fixed ideas into rehearsal. Experience has taught me that itís a waste of time, they all go out the window the moment you arrive anyway. New ideas come in and old ones leave as you get to know the people youíre working with.

There’s no set process but there are things I watch out for. First and foremost you have to know the capabilities of your dancers. A good choreographer presents well what his dancers can already do. It’s all about putting it together. The biggest mistake you can make is to try to get a dancer to dance like you. They won’t be able to do it and you probably wouldn’t be able to dance like them either. So look for strengths and weaknesses in your cast and then work to the strengths.

What do you think is better, simple but sharp or clever and complex?

It’s really all about class. You’ve heard the expression ‘slick’. That’s what your aim has to be, to be slick. Dancing should be slick, precise and simple. If you do what you do well it looks great and professionalism is all about making things look easy. You can’t make things look easy if they’re beyond you.

Why do you think American tap is more popular than any other tap form?

Class. American tap is slick.

What tricks can you recommend to win over an audience?

Once an entertainer has his audiences’ attention he can do anything. We’d tease them. I took to holding a trumpet while singing a Louis Armstrong number, I’d lift it to my lips but never play a note. When I came to the end of the song I’d say ‘I’m gonna play this thing if it kills me.’ Then I’d play a single note and take my bow. It was simple comedy but it held the audiences attention.

What are your favourite moves? What do you always try to get into one of your routines?

It’s true that there are a few moves in tap that we can name and define: cramps, buffaloes, ball changes and the like but what I’ve tried to stress in my column is that you have to make your act your own. Me and Jimmy like a little wing every now and again but our interest is in precise, rhythmic tap. Our moves don’t have names – most of them we invent for ourselves. It’s dangerous to have favourite moves because you can end up dancing like everybody else. This is fine for chorus line but not if you want to make it as an individual or as an act.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring performers?

Just three and I talk all about them in my column. Readiness, exposure and survival.

Dedication would have to figure in there too. Make what you do something you love and go for it totally.