Dianne “Lady Di” Walker
Dianne “Lady Di” Walker connects two high-profile warm-ups for National Tap Dance Day.
National Tap Dance Day is May 25, the 133rd birthday of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Chicago’s getting an early start on the festivities, though—on Sunday 15, two events run back-to-back at the Harris Theater and the DuSable Museum of African American History. Although not affiliated, Once Upon a Tap and Windy City Rhythms have more in common than just superfast footwork and stylish syncopation: Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, a.k.a. the First Lady or Ella Fitzgerald of American Tap, who emcees the latter event.
As for her connection to the former, I called Once Upon a Tap creator Derick Grant to ask whether Walker had had an influence on his career beyond being one of his first teachers. (I knew that Savion Glover, with whom Grant worked on Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, has been known to call her “Aunt Dianne,” and although Grant now lives in New York, both he and Walker hail from Boston.)
“Dianne Walker is the mother of my feet!” he exclaimed. “Okay, so the story begins. Her and my aunt and my mother and that whole generation grew up at Mildred Kennedy’s dancing school [in Boston], and were calling each other sisters, so by the time I was born, that’s ‘Aunt Dianne.’ ” Grant’s actual aunt, Andrea Herbert Major, ran the school where he trained. “In terms of local studios, the technique was fairly strong, but at the same time, Dianne had furthered her knowledge by going to be around all the Hoofers”—a lineup of all-stars that toured in the ’70s, billed in reference to Harlem’s famous Hoofers Club—“and joining [1985 Paris and Broadway musical] Black and Blue and living that whole experience. I was eight years old when she came back to our studio, and she chose me and two other fellas to learn this choreography for a gig. The gig was to be the small versions of Chuck Green, [Howard] ‘Sandman’ Sims and Bunny Briggs.… As a kid, you don’t really know what a big deal that is. I wish I had known…you know the cliché.
“She showed us footage of these guys, explained who they were and what they were. And then we did the show, we got to meet them, got to hang out. I was little Sandman Sims. He took care of me and I felt good about it, and from that point on, you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t a professional tap dancer.”
Both Sunday 15 events echo the compact lineage of Grant’s story. He created Once Upon a Tap with his two children, Lulu, 11, and Kaleo, who will celebrate his 13th birthday at the Harris Theater performance. And at the DuSable Museum event, Walker will present four local women with the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s JUBA! Award: Julie Cartier, Idella Reed Davis, Shelley Hoselton and Peggy Sutton. All are educators, mentors and community builders.
CHRP founder Lane Alexander—the sole dance voice on Rahm Emanuel’s arts and culture transition committee, if you don’t count the former ballet dancer himself—was wowed by Walker, too, at the age of 26.
But not only because of her dancing. “I met Dianne in 1986 at the Portland International Tap Dance Festival. I was wearing white tap shoes, and her mentor, Leon Collins, used to always wear white tap shoes, so she saw me coming from a mile away. ‘You’re a great dancer,’ she said, ‘but you know what? You’re a producer.’ …When I look back, it’s just another reminder about how keen an eye she has, her level of engagement. Even before I did, she knew who I was.”
Once Upon a Tap receives its Chicago premiere, Walker presents the 2011 JUBA! Award, and performances fill the DuSable Museum on Sunday 15.