Dianne Walker has been crowned with more titles than most royalty.
In the rhythm tap community, she’s known as Lady Di, Aunt Diane, tap mastress and professor of tapology. Yet perhaps her most appropriate moniker is ambassador of jazz.
She has been around long enough to know everyone — the late and greats such as Honi Coles and Bunny Briggs, the famed like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover and the up-and-comers including Michelle Dorrance and Andrew Nemr. She is friends with everybody, too.
“Not everybody likes each other,” said Walker speaking from the Williams Inn in the Berkshires. “I started out as a clinical psychologist. I get along with everybody.”
Walker clinched the title of dancing emissary by performing and teaching worldwide, keeping, as she said, “tap alive.”
“I don’t have a company. I don’t have a studio. I function in the tap community at large,” said Walker.
Weaving steps and stories
And as part of her ongoing diplomatic efforts, Walker has spent the past few days teaching and jamming at MASS MoCA. She’ll end her mini-residency at the contemporary art museum with a performance of Dianne Walker and Friends this afternoon. The program will gather area jazz musicians with Boston and New York rhythm tappers such Dorrance, Nemr, Khalid Hill, Sean Fiddler and Claudia Rahardjanoto.
“I’m so proud of these young dancers,” said Walker. “I feel like I’m their mentor. Even if they only took one class, or never took a class from me and just sat in my car and talked, these are my kids. I’m so proud I don’t have to dance.”
Walker will though, mixing in her own delicate footwork. She’ll also weave some of her favorite tales of tap.
“I’ll keep my talking to a minimum,” said Walker. “I don’t want to get the hook. If I pick up the microphone, I’ll get a flurry of groans. They’ll think, ‘she’s going to keep us her until tomorrow.’ I promise I’ll only say one or two things.”
That’s too bad as Walker is an encyclopedia of tap history. She recalls what it was like in the 1970s when she first slipped on a pair of tap shoes in Boston.
“The studios were all middle-aged women,” said Walker who got her start at Leon Collins’ studio. “Women were the ones keeping it alive. And I was lucky to work with some of the old masters.” In addition to Coles and Briggs, she worked with Jimmy Slyde, Cookie Cook, Steve Condos, Fayard Nicholas and Cholly Atkins. “But to my thinking, we had to get a child in there to open the floodgates. Tap was in jeopardy of losing its form. We had to get young people interested.”
The kid who saved the art was Glover. She first met him casually in Rome. A year later, she booked her first gig with the then 11-year-old in Paris. For 10 months, they appeared in the show “Black and Blue.”
“He was at my hip,” said Walker. “We forged a relationship. I consider him my son. He had such enthusiasm for tap. He could talk all day about tap. And he didn’t have anyone to talk about it to except me. He just couldn’t get enough. We were quite a match. We were very close.”
She realized the future of tap was secure after Glover teamed up with Hines in the film “Tap.” Glover followed up the movie with regular appearances on “Sesame Street.”
“After that, the studios were filled with students,” she said. “I remember getting out of a ticket once because the police officer saw I had tap shoes. When I told him I danced, he told me about his son who loved watching Elmo dance on ‘Sesame Street.’ He bought his son a pair of tap shoes and I didn’t get a ticket.”
Walker laughs and moves onto another story — recalling the night she was dubbed Lady Di.
“I thought Barbara Duffy gave me that name, but she said she didn’t,” said Walker. “I got the name in Colorado in 1986. I walked out on stage in this white blazer that looked like brocade. It was a really nice jacket that I just picked up that afternoon. I just happened to find it. And when I walked out, someone whistled and called out ‘Lady Di.’ I think it was the way I strutted out.”
She cherishes her memories, including all of her gigs with Slyde, a fellow Bostonian and one of the last living legends of jazz tap. He has been ill lately. And before she traveled to North Adams, she asked him to hang on until she got back.
“You know, this weekend will be all about Jimmy Slyde,” said Walker. “I haven’t told all the kids yet, but the show will include Jimmy’s favorite songs like ‘Clear Day.’ He always dances to that. So Jimmy will be reflected in the show.”
Walker has seen a lot of the greatest in tap fade. And as they die, her status as matriarch rises. She accepts that as her calling. And she will use her influence to help the young tap artists to grow.
“I see myself, first and foremost, as someone who is spreading and sharing the information. I see myself as an educator. I’m a better teacher than anything. That is my first order of business.”
She’d also like to bring a regionally fractured tap world together.
“When I first heard the sounds of tap, it struck a chord in both my souls — the soul in my being and the sole of my feet,” said Walker. “It’s something about the rhythm. It speaks to all of us in the tap world. The commonality is the song.”
Dianne Walker and Friends
WHERE: MASS MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass.
WHEN: 4 p.m. today
HOW MUCH: $20, $15 students and $10 children
MORE INFO: (413) 662-2111 or www.massmoca.org
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Categories: Life and Arts