Montreal’s Miss Swing is Tap Dancing Into Her 80s
Ethel Bruneau was three when she knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “I walked into the dance studio and couldn’t stop tapping!” Her father had taken her to a legendary tap dance teacher in Harlem whose alumni included the Nicholas Brothers. From then on, Ethel lived for tap dancing and at nine, she was dancing professionally. “Our parents would sneak me and my cousin into a clubs to perform. There was a guy called Lock-Jaw Davis. This guy used to pick up tables with his teeth and me and my cousin would dance on the tables!”
At 15, Ethel was selected to perform with Cab Calloway. “He was a great man. Very respectful to the performers… But you had to be your best.” It was this tour that brought Ethel to Montreal, a city she described as the Las Vegas of North America, (partly due to prohibition being repealed earlier there than most Canadian provinces and surrounding US states). She fell in love with the city and made it her new home performing as the dancer, singer and entertainer “Miss Swing”. “I was in glory land,” she recalls, “when you tap dance it’s like someone gave you a million dollars.”
It wasn’t long before Ethel was passing on her love of tap to younger generations. “Technically I started teaching when I was nine at my own tap school so I’ve been teaching almost my whole life.” The Ethel Bruneau School of Dance was founded in Montreal in the 60s and continues teaching hundreds of dancers over many generations. Her style is not the cookie cutter classes of a tap chorus line but based in the oral tradition of passing not only technique but the soul of tap down to her students. The dedication to her art and the dance community earned her the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, as well as many students that continue to pass on her legacy. One such dancer, Travis Knights, now a professional dancer in his own right, started learning from her when he was 10 and continues to be mentored by Ethel whom he now considers a close friend. “She communicates love with everything she does…If I had gone to any other dance school I don’t think I would be a tap dancer. I’m a tap dancer because of Ethel Bruneau.” Travis is passing on the soul of tap through Ethel’s oral tradition in his own work and in curating tap dance events and festivals such as the Vancouver Tap Dance Festival. “I want to pass on Ethel’s work to show people there’s a different kind of tap to what we’ve seen. Closer to the origins of what tap is all about: rhythm and music.”
As for Ethel, heart surgery and health problems have sometimes gotten in the way but she has no intention of stopping. “They can do what they want but I’m not stopping. I’m leaving with my tap shoes.”
Alexis L. Wood
Alexis L. Wood is a British filmmaker based in Toronto and has made documentaries for the BBC, VICE, CBC and BRAVO on social issues and current affairs. She’s particularly interested in working with communities that are underrepresented in mainstream media.
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