Black Theatre Workshop - Web exclusive!: Top of the taps

Top of the taps

Ethel Bruneau keeps the dance dream alive

Black Theatre Workshop's 23rd Annual Vision Celebration honours Montreal dance great

Dancing is the very heart of this inspiring story of empowerment. This month, the 23rd Annual Vision Celebration, produced by Black Theatre Workshop, salutes Ethel Bruneau with the 2009 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, citing her unswerving devotion in bringing dance to generations of young Montrealers.

Now 72, she was born Ethel Mae Waterman, in Harlem, one of 16 kids (eight of them adopted), all taught to sing and dance. She regales with stories about her influential teacher, Mary Bruce, who ran a small loft studio on West 125th Street, where Bruneau received formal training in tap and ballet. She also graduated from the famed New York City High School of the Performing Arts. Touring in shows far and wide ensued, and when she landed in Montreal in 1953 with Cab Calloway’s troupe, she stayed.

In that era – the city’s glory days of nightclubs – places like the Montmartre, the Terminal Club and Rockhead’s Paradise regularly showcased black performers. At 20, she met her future husband, legendary Mansfield Tavern waiter Henri Bruneau. They settled in Dorion and she eventually started offering dance classes, over 45 years ago, establishing a neighbourhood school. Later she became a nursery school teacher, but continued to teach tap, connecting with children and adults alike all across Montreal. Currently, the Ethel Bruneau Dance Studio is based in Dorval.

Bruneau’s brand of dance is rhythm tap. "You don’t need music. You do it with your feet. This is soul tap, black African tap," explains Bruneau. "It’s like getting the Holy Spirit, you just dance. It’s not about race, it’s about your feet." She’s notably proud of two of her protegés, young hoofers Travis Knights and Canadian tap dance champion Justin Jackson, both moving steadily through the ranks.

Like Mary Bruce before her, throughout her career she’s been giving free lessons to children who could not afford to study. "It’s not about the dollars," she says plainly. Strength and persistence led her to mortgage her home four times to keep her dream alive – that includes creating the Montreal Tap Festival and bringing in greats like Diane Walker and Jimmy Slide. "Black kids can’t afford to pay, so I bring master tap dancers to them." Bruneau loves what she does. "[Teaching] brings me joy. I have no money, but I’m a millionaire, living the life I want. I have a passion and I’m leaving with my tap shoes on."

Ever grateful for the upcoming King Award, she says, "He always believed in non-violence. In dancing… we all work together. Little black boys and little white girls holding hands. That’s what’s in my school."

23rd Annual Vision Gala Celebration
Hyatt Regency (1255 Jeanne-Mance), Jan. 24, 6 p.m.
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