“Just as the child is father to the
man, so the impressions of one’s youth remain the most vivid in manhood.”
My Dad is 91 years old and sharp as a tack. He remembers much of his past, with the occasional “where did I put my glasses?” moments like many of us who are much younger. He is an inspiration to me and not just because he’s my father. He is also an artist and I aspire to have as much integrity as he does.
Dad began tap dancing lessons when he was about four years old. His parents had gone to see Bill Robinson when they were expecting him and vowed if they had a boy, he would study tap. When he was around seven, the Director of his dance school decided put together a brother tap dancing act; they were all the rage in the mid1930s. Dad was paired with another boy, who was the same age and build as Dad. Dad was a brunette, and the other boy was a blond. Dad was right-handed and the other boy was left-handed. They really did look like they could be brothers. Dad and his partner became “The Riff Brothers.” I should mention that other boy was someone you might know, Bob Fosse.
Not much has been written about their childhood together, at least not the truth about their childhood together. There are plenty of theories about their vaudeville partnership, but no facts offered by someone who was actually there. Dad was there and remembers everything in detail. He has scrapbooks filled with clippings and photos and letters and dance studio recital programs. He has thank you notes from the USO when they performed for the troops during World War Two. He has pictures from vacations they took together and dance notes from their routines as well as their sheet music, marked with blue grease pen. Dad tells stories about the ten years they were together as an act and how much fun they had working together. Most of his Riff Brothers materials have been scanned and duly catalogued by the Chicago Dance History Project, a wonderful organization who believes in Dad.
Dad had his own dance career as a ballet dancer, choreographer and opera stage director. He was on Broadway at 19, in a show that rapidly closed, but he was on Broadway. He was a Master Pedagogue traveling all over the country during the summers of my childhood teaching tap, ballet and character ballet. His ballet pedigree can be traced back to Marius Petipa, the choreographer of “The Nutcracker.” He was a Teacher’s Teacher and I can attest he was something to behold!
Recently, Dad coached a tap dancing duo—calling themselves The Riff Sisters for this project—recreating one of the old Riff Brother’s routines. He didn’t just remember the steps but the nuances of the routine as well, which couldn’t be notated on paper. Our local PBS station featured the process on their local news program several weeks ago. At 91, he was teaching—that’s my Dad!
What I really aspire to, my wish so I could really be like my Dad is his grace and poise and his knowledge of who he is and who he was. It doesn’t matter what was portrayed or said about The Riff Brothers on a recent television series, he remained confident in his knowledge of the truth. ChoralNetters know me here as the Choral Ethics Maven but I was not graceful or poised about that! Dad calmed me down a bit but I still think it is beyond the pale. Dad explained the truth—their hard work to perfect the act every day after school, striving for professionalism and Grandma being a strict chaperon for BOTH of the boys for gigs—is not very provocative, but it is the truth.
Dad is still teaching me how to be an artist with integrity, poise and grace; at 91, it is his most important lesson for his children and his grandchildren. I am grateful to be his daughter and feel blessed to be able to call him Daddy.