In almost every performance of The Copasetics Buster Brown would step to the front of the stage and say, “We would now like to perform for you the B.S. Chorus!” Cookie Cook would yell from the back, “The what?!” Buster responds, “The B.S. Chorus!” Cookie would question again, “Well, what does that stand for?” Buster’s response, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t stand for Bachelor of Science.” The crowd would laugh and the band would launch into one of the fastest versions of the B.S. Chorus I’d ever encountered.
(Above: The Copasetics, from R to L, Honi Coles, Cookie Cook, Bubba Gaines, Buster Brown, and Brownie Brown, perform the B.S. Chorus on the Dick Cavett Show.)
What is the B.S. Chorus
(Above: Andrew demos the B.S. Chorus under tempo. Check out the hop-pickup-wing progression in the third step.)
Over the course of tap dance history only two dances have permeated the community and survived. The B.S. Chorus is one of those dances. The other is the Shim Sham. While the shim sham is considered simple and knowledge of it’s origins are generally accepted, the B.S. Chorus is different. The dancer’s name who originally stringed together the steps that make up the B.S. Chorus has been lost to history, yet here we are some 90 years after the recognized heyday of tap dance still performing it. While other choreography has been reconstructed from video or passed down through a particular dancer’s lineage the B.S. Chorus is truly communal. Variations exist, to be sure, but the basic structure and order of the steps is the same regardless of geography or lineage.
Technically the B.S. Chorus consists of a 32 bar sequence made up of the following sections:
- Traditional Time Step
- The Crossover
- The Wing
- Over-the-Tops and Trenches
(Above: Honi Coles demonstration the B.S. Chorus.)
Simple. To the point. And depending on the tempo and the energy of the dancers, a sure crowd pleaser.
What makes the B.S. Chorus so special?
The B.S. Chorus is simple in structure and straightforward in conceit. It’s purpose as far as one can infer is to have a short, uncomplicated, dance that can illicit a predictable audience response – applause. The piece begins simply and continues to up the ante as it progresses. While it is a simple dance, it is not easy. Every step can be used as a study of a particular tap dance technique, stylistic execution, and performative approach. For such a simple dance to be so rich in content is unique. for such a dance to have survived the popularity rollercoaster that tap dance has ridden is a kind of gift to the modern dancer.
A Community Dance
Besides the learning tool, what makes the B.S. Chorus interesting is how many dancers actually know it. I first learned the B.S. Chorus from Chris Baker in Washington, D.C., while a member of the National Tap Ensemble’s youth company, and got a brush up (read: kick in the pants) in Los Angeles while hanging out with the late Chance Taylor, Hiroshi Hamanishi,and a few other dancers. Dancers across the United States and internationally know this dance. How did this happen?
The story of the B.S. Chorus is often tied to the story of the Tree of Hope. As it’s told, out-of-work dancers would congregate under the shade of the large tree on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Producers and show directors knew this and would come around in search of dance acts. They would announce, “We need a trio. Two guys, one girl, for a show next Friday. Anyone available?” Spontaneously three dancers would get together and volunteer for the gig. How could they do this on such short notice? Common vocabulary. They already had two dances in the bag, the Shim Sham and the B.S. Chorus. They could easily put together a unique soft shoe, and be ready for the show within a week. They might even create variations on the community dances so as not to be seen as performing the version at everyone already knew. That could be perceived as being lazy.
Either way, the B.S. Chorus helped dancers get work, and became a part of the common vocabulary of working dancers. As young dancers came up I can imagine older dancers guiding the young upstart, saying, “Oh, you want to work? Then you need to know the Shim Sham and B.S. Chorus. Go and learn those first.”
Today the B.S. Chorus (and the Shim Sham, even more so) are still stalwarts of the vocabulary of the tap dance community. Many tap dance concerts end with a full cast performance of one or the other (or both!). What is being lost, however are the nuances, the deep understanding of the content, the variations, and the experimentation. In 2015, Cats Paying Dues and I were invited to perform a piece with a group of local San Francisco dancers for a TED Conference. I used the vocabulary of the Shim Sham and B.S. Chorus as the source material for the choreography. We all learned the piece the evening before the performance. Many of the dancers had never met, let alone performed together. The event was an excuse to meet each other, the common vocabulary facilitated our interaction (check out a video here). With a common vocabulary we could spend more time learning about each other, and sharing our individual journeys.
I wonder what it would be like if there were more opportunities to do this. What if local communities of dancers began to create their own variations of these dances once again? In doing so, we would be honoring our past as well as affirming our present local identities. What if there were more communal dances? Pieces whose originator is allowed to be lost to history, or rather, whose form and structure is simple enough for adoption, but flexible enough and encouraging of variation.
Imagine a tap dance community that shared more of what they had so that they could experience more of the joy of dancing together. The Shim Sham and B.S. Chorus wouldn’t be simple pieces treated as throwaway’s, but return to the first things that we address when guiding young dancers into the community.