Dorval tap teacher honoured for decades of dancing delight
Ethel Bruneau is Montreal’s maven of tap dance. For more than 60 decades, she has taught hundreds of students — for much of that time at her studio in Dorval.
She introduced her students to the intricacies of rhythm tap — aka hoofing. Think Savion Glover, Tap Dogs and the late Gregory Hines.
Bruneau, who turned 83 on New Year’s Day, is being fêted with the tribute Ethel Bruneau: Celebrating a Life in Tap, at La Sala Rossa as part of the multi-disciplinary Lux Magna Festival, Jan. 26.
Bruneau has five grandchildren who all danced at one time or another. Three of them — Tisha Llewellyn, Majiza Philip and Tesfa Llewellyn — will perform at the tribute, along with student Krista Riley and Bruneau protégé Kyle Briggs. Bruneau will appear at the top of the show, performing the song It Don’t Mean a Thing.
Liberté Big Band: MTL Formation accompanies the dancers with original music by band director Liberté-Anne Lymberiou, who is also the show’s coordinator.
It was Llewellyn who brought the show’s producer, Sonya Stefan, and his grandmother together. He works at La Sala Rossa restaurant and when Stefan’s vision for her next show was in its infancy, she heard he tap-danced.
“Sonya wanted to bring back those happy memories she had tap-dancing as a child,” Lymberiou said. “But we didn’t want to do a retrospective, a museum piece. We wanted to show the influence Ethel had on the contemporary world of dance. We wanted to show that tap is modern, still evolving.”
Lymberiou said that many don’t know that jazz music was influenced by the complex rhythms of hoofing way back in the day.
“It wanted to bring back that conversation between dance and jazz,” she said. “Rhythm tap goes with jazz. It’s a profound experience, because it is real.”
Bruneau was born and raised in Harlem. She came to Canada as a Cab Calloway dancer in 1953 for a three-week gig and ended up staying. To make a living, she sang and danced and taught and taught some more.
The second part of the program features Bruneau’s original protégé, Travis Knights, with wife Tanya. The couple is accompanied by pianist Andrés Vial with music by Thelonious Monk. The two dancers grew up dancing together at Bruneau’s studio. They fell in love, got married and now have two little girls.
One of Bruneau’s strengths is her ability to single out and encourage young boys with dance talent. Over the decades, she has taken dancers such as Knights, Justin Jackson and now Briggs under her wing — giving them the skills to blossom as strong, male dancers.
“I taught all my students that it’s not only about being a dancer,” Bruneau said. “You have to get a good education and you have to be a good citizen.”
The evening ends with Bruneau singing Bye Bye Black Bird, while the whole gang performs the shim sham. With roots that reach back to the 1920s, the shim sham is considered tap dance’s “national anthem.”
“I am so honoured,” Bruneau said. “I can’t believe this is happening. I am thrilled and I am thankful.”
Bruneau was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award during the Black Theatre Workshop’s annual Vision Gala in 2009.
The tribute is co-presented by West Island-based Overture With the Arts, an organization committed to bringing performing arts projects with positive messages to schools.
There is standing room and some seating. It is recommended to arrive early if you want a seat.
Ethel Bruneau: Celebrating a Life in Tap is at La Sala Rossa, 4848 Blvd. St-Laurent, 2nd floor, at 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Tickets cost $17 or $20. The performance space is not wheelchair accessible, but there will be volunteers on hand to help people with reduced mobility access the second floor. The Lux Magna festival runs from Jan. 2427. For complete program details, visit www.luxmagna.ca.
Ethel Bruneau, 83, attends a rehearsal Monday for a tribute to her life in tap by former students and local musicians at La Sala Rossa. The event is part of the Lux Magna Festival on Jan. 26.