Flint, MI– A spotlight shone on a smiling 12-year-old Malaika Bradley, seated in a chair on The Whiting stage.
It was the 20th anniversary of Tapology, a tap dancing festival and educational program founded by her grandfather, Bruce Bradley. This year’s theme was “Sankofa,” an African word which reminds people to reflect on their past to better their future.
Malaika has been following in her family’s footsteps, quite literally, but a sprained ankle kept her from dancing in the show on Oct. 24 as planned. She almost didn’t perform at all since she couldn’t dance, but her grandfather wouldn’t have that. After all, Tapology was created in part to ensure his family could perform together.
Malaika sat in her chair and listened intently as her aunt, or her “Titi,” Cherisse Bradley, sang to her. It was like her aunt was telling her a story. Out from the curtains came Bruce, and then Malaika’s mother, Alexandria “Ali” Bradley, and her other Titi, Frances Bradley. They tap danced, and brought the song Cherisse sang, called “Footsteps,” to life. Malaika was the center of it all.
“It was like living a dream,” she told her grandfather afterward. “It was a dream come true. Even though I was hurt, and I wasn’t able to dance, I was still part of something that was so important.”
That just about sums up what the Bradley family’s experience dancing and performing together over the years has felt like.
“What we have is a dream,” Bruce said.
Being a Bradley
One day Malaika asked her mother what it meant to be a Bradley.
“Does it mean you have to know jazz, and tap dance?” she asked. “Is that what it means to be a Bradley?”
Ali, who put on her first tap shoes at the age of three, grew up dancing with her father and siblings, and went on to dance in multiple shows on and off Broadway, laughed.
“That doesn’t define what it means to be a Bradley,” she told her. “It’s a part of what this part of the Bradley family has become, but you figure out how you want to embrace that within yourself.”
It definitely is a part of what the Bradley family has become, but it hasn’t always been that way. Malaika isn’t a descendant of a long line of artists, dancers, and performers going back for several generations. In fact, it all really started with Bruce– and he started late.
Bruce, 71, took his first tap dance classes when he was 30 years old. He was in Toronto at the time doing a show and had heard about auditions for another show that was going to be on Broadway.
It was called Bojangles and was about a Black tap dancer. Bruce had always been fascinated by tap dancing and decided to start taking lessons as soon as he learned about the auditions.
The show never ended up making it to Broadway, but Bruce continued to tap dance, and teach his family and other children, for the next forty years.
Cherisse was about 10 years old when her father had started tap dancing. Their home was always full of music, especially Motown, so it’s no surprise that she was already involved in the arts in her own way. Cherisse loved to sing, and act, and participated in community theater. She had even taken some tap classes before her father did, but had gotten bored with it.
“She wanted to do Michael Jackson,” Bruce said, but Cherisse said she was just busy with singing, theater, and other dance classes. She put it down for a little while but came back to it later on.
Ali was just a toddler when she put on her first pair of tap shoes.
“Pretty much anything my dad did, I wanted to do,” Ali said. “He was my source of creativity, you know, my foundation for art, dance, music, all those things. We had all that floating around in our house all the time.”
She was inspired by her father, but also Bojangles, and Shirley Temple. Even though Temple was a white little girl, she was still a little girl that could tap dance on TV, Ali said.
“I kind of was just enamored by this whole idea of being a tap dancer, or just being an entertainer in general,” she said.
Frances hadn’t been born yet when her father and siblings first started tap dancing, but she quickly caught up. She started dancing when she was four years old.
A true youngest child, Frances said she used to mess up on purpose in her father’s tap classes to get more attention.
“Is this it? Is this right?,” she’d ask him in front of the class. She thought it was so cool to have a father that taught tap. She wanted to show it off.
The girls didn’t just learn from their father. Cherisse took private vocal lessons through Mott Community College. They all took lessons learning an instrument– piano for Cherisse, flute for Ali, clarinet for Frances. They took art classes in the summer, and Frances especially found herself being drawn to drawing and painting.
“My thing was that these were the things that I was involved in and that I wanted to share with them,” Bruce said. “And make sure that they had support, because I kind of made my own way in those kinds of things. Nobody in my family was an artist. You know, I had to kind of self-motivate and provide those opportunities for myself, and I wanted so much more for them.”
It was an investment in his daughters’ future, but it was also a joy for him to be able to be involved in these things with them and spend even more time together.
“That was an important part of my life that I wouldn’t change for nothing,” Bruce said. “Not only did I get a chance to watch them grow and develop, but their friends and the friends they made at the dance schools, they kind of gravitated to our family because I was the teacher and they were my daughters. So it was like an extended family, and their parents. and we built a community around that.”
That community continued to grow when Bruce founded Tapology.
The studio Bruce taught at had annual recitals, and tap dancing was always a big hit. But when he asked to feature his daughters in the shows, Bruce was told that he couldn’t.
That wasn’t going to work.
“I’m giving too much to this not to be able to do what I want to do,” Bruce said. “So I made up my mind from that point on that I’ll never ask again. I would just do my thing.”
Not only would Bruce do his own recitals– he would do them his way. Instead of traditional dance competitions, he created a festival of performances with a focus on the experience and learning from legendary performers rather than winning. In addition to learning from performers, the children were also given the task of teaching each other what they’d learned.
“My focus went towards that, because I knew in the long run that would benefit them greater than going and winning a few trophies or medals or whatever,” Bruce said. “They would learn lifelong lessons from people who had overcome great obstacles in their life to become the great artists that they were. And that’s what I wanted them to experience.”
The children were learning about dance, but they were also learning about history, culture, and social justice. In the 20th anniversary show, dances incorporated “Black Lives Matter,” signs and T-shirts.
“There’s a great need in any inner city of young African American kids who are not getting the culture and the artistic opportunity that’s needed for them to develop properly and to be competitive in the world,” Bruce said. “And I believe that Tapology can give them self-confidence, whether they become tap dancers or not, and the historical information about their place in the world order is not one of being a slave, but one of greatness and cultural enrichment that has impacted the world.”
Even the format of the festival was instilling Afrocentric values in the children who participated, Ali said.
“The idea of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, ‘each one teach one.’ We grew up and our learning environment was the community,” Ali said. “So we learned how to work together through the dance, and that was all a part of his teaching strategy. We learned how to gain extended family through his way of sharing, and so it was fun for us, and we didn’t realize until we got older exactly the value.”
Over the years Tapology grew into more than just a weekend annual festival. Bruce and the rest of the team began doing outreach, workshops, and performances throughout the year. They took the kids on trips. They partnered with Flint Institute of Music to do lectures at their library.
As Tapology grew, so did Cherisse, Ali, and Frances. They learned from their father and other performers, but they also began to learn from each other.
By the time the girls were teenagers, they were teaching tap classes and taking on roles as leaders in the program. But there came a time where each of them had to pursue their own dreams in other places.
Bruce compares the artistic investment he made in his daughters to planting a field.
“It’s just been a journey of continual investment and encouragement with a goal in mind,” he said. “It’s like planting a field and then cultivating your crop. You know, even after you’ve planted, you don’t just leave it to the wild. You know, you pull the weeds, and you fertilize it, until that plant gets strong enough and then it starts telling you what to do.”
For a period of time, the three daughters were far away from home.
Cherisse performed in California, and eventually moved to Brooklyn, NY, to study vocal jazz in college. She also created her organization, “I Found My Voice,” to help empower women who were victims of abuse. Ali studied theater at Marymount Manhattan College, and toured around the world doing shows. Now she lives in Baltimore. Frances studied illustration at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she also worked at the Mural Arts Program and the African American museum. Ali had two daughters, and Frances had two sons.
But they could always come together, from wherever they were, for Tapology.
“No matter what’s going on in the world, or whatever’s happening, those are like pure moments where literally nothing matters but what’s happening in this moment right now,” Ali said. “We can abandon everything else in that moment and just be together. And that’s the magic.”
Over the course of twenty years, their roles in the program have changed. Cherisse has been involved in the musical aspects of the performances. Ali has served as a choreographer, an assistant director, and was formerly the artistic director. Frances now serves as the artistic director, and has used her design skills to create nearly every piece of art that is attached to Tapology. All three of them have found ways to connect their resources from other cities back to Flint.
“We have our obstacles, you know, personalities clash, and we’re all very strong-minded in our own ways…but in the end that gratitude wins when it all comes together,” Cherisse said.
Bruce couldn’t be more proud.
“All of them are divas in their own right, which is a beautiful thing for me to sit back and witness,” Bruce said. “And I don’t have to say that. People come to me and tell me that. ‘All your girls are divas, and each of them are in their own distinct manner.’ You know, it’s not a carbon copy here.”
Bruce could have led a different life. He could have focused on his personal career, and gone on to do multiple Broadway shows, and do movies. He had the talent, but he chose to make his family the priority.
After twenty years, Bruce still has his daughters on stage with him. Now he also has his granddaughter on the stage, and he’s teaching his grandsons how to tap dance too.
A lot of great artists don’t have that kind of family unit, he said.
“They don’t have that sense of sacrifice that they made, that they can look back on in their old age, and say, you know, here’s my grandchildren crawling all over me, and you can’t buy that,” Bruce said. “Those are the real values in life. Those are the things that really mean the most, alright, because as artists, that comes, that goes. But when you can plant a field and cultivate it, and it can continue to nourish the earth, then you’ve done your thing.”