The Pied Piper’s Taps

The Pied Piper’s Taps:

Al Gilbert, the legendary “Pied Piper of Dance,” was born, Allesandro Zicari, on July 12, 1921. Al came from a generation in time, when people valued one another and truly cared. During that time, people really seemed to genuinely treasure one another’s friendships and supported their endeavors. This was in an age and era without technology. Thus, people reached out more to one another. They talked, were friendly, and neighborly, and they built relationships and bonded. They tried to make life easier, more palatable, and they freely and without reservation lend a helping hand. People, of this era also assisted by helping unconditionally to those that were less fortunate.

Al Gilbert, affectionately known as “Uncle Al, Star Maker, Dance Educator, and “teachers’ teacher” career lasted well over 60 years. He was a no-nonsense instructor who inspired and motivated all. He was internationally known, and could simplify steps in a way no one else could. “At a time when nothing like it existed, Music works website says it best…Al’s revolutionary vision to create instructional dance material for dance instructors and their students generated a trend that changed the entire dance industry.” Al codified syllabi for tap and jazz and made a long, lasting impact on the dance world. From the earliest days, when he worked side by side with his brothers, on the back street-corners of Rochester, New York, Al Gilbert made dance even more accessible without even realizing it.

It was 1954, a beautiful spring day, in the state of California. My mother was driving down the street, Pico Blvd. in the city of Los Angeles, with me by her side, in our 1952, two tone, blue hardtop, Chevy. Momentarily, she looked up, and spotted a sign. It read “…Al Gilberts Theatrical Dance Studio. Being the progressive thinker and person that she was, she turned the corner, parked the car, took me by my little hand, and walked into his front doors to talk with him. That was well over 45 years ago. It was a very magical moment as he greeted us both. After seconds of entering his door, my mother and I both knew. It was my privilege to be his friend, his student, and become a teacher, who has carried on his precious legacy to our disabled community in so many ways.

There is not much talk or literature on Allesando Zicari, and how Al gave of himself and his time unconditionally to the disabled world. So I will. He helped all that came to him. Even those disabled girlfriends, who I went to school with; whom my mother personally recommended.

Al Gilbert, dance teacher, poet, author, and humanitarian, proposed to come to my handicapped elementary school and give of himself and his talents unreservedly. He was enthusiastic and eager to teach other disabled children, and give his time to our community. Although, even the master in taps that he was- because he did not have a college teaching degree, he was blocked by “the experts.” Time and time again he “proved it could be done” while the experts said it couldn’t! He was a leader in his own right, and made an impact on everyone’s life he touched.

Including mine! I remember that day well. I remember vividly. I was a young toddler, only three and a half years old. And, to remember so vividly, after so many years is truly a blessing. I remember how he unconditionally loved, me, and how he gently took me under his wing and nurtured me. I remember how he taught me to dance, and how he would look down at me with his smile. His kind and mild temperament along with his encouraging words, taught me how to hop, skip, jump and run. He also taught me to point and flex my toes, and gain movement in my ankle that I may never have developed if it weren’t for him. No therapist ever gave to me like he gave of himself. Because of his teachings, and his techniques; my once twisted body, straightened out, along with my left leg. Now, not only did my dragged foot and flopped, out to the side gate, correct itself- But I was able to hang my full length brace up in my closet never to wear it again at the age of 11 years old. His unwavering dedication and devotion week after week, year after year, recital after recital of lessons taken with and without my brace proved to dramatically change me and my physical being.

Gently but firmly, I remember him reminding me to bend my knees; while doing shuffles, shuffle hops, or shuffle bal-changes. I can recall him clearly telling me to turn my knee out for better positioning, and I can remember hearing his voice on his tap technique records. Al gave me a ballet bar too, along with a book about a little girl who had week legs, who got strong again through dance- only to become a ballerina. On another trip, he came back with symbols. His unwavering unique, and loving approach towards me, tried every way possible to motivate and encourage.

Every chance I could while at home, I would practice after all my other therapies lessons were done and completed. So, with discipline, a willingness, and an open –mind, I would put my record player on, only to hear Al’s soothing, voice instructing me as he always did.

I also can remember him making my lessons fun, calling my mother up to have her bring me into his studio for extra lessons, without any charge. He use to say to my mama… “…that Karen’s smile was payment in full… that that was all he needed.” On another occasion, he even began piano lessons. He made this fun as well, as his playful side would come to check up on me and the piano teacher every chance he could. Never once did he let on it was to make my left fingers and hand stronger.

I remember the closeness we had, and how our friendship grew and developed over decades and time. I trusted him, I respected him and his word, and I talked to him like he was my daddy, when I lost my own. He became the temperate figure I looked up to for strength and endurance. He became the rock and pillar in my minds eye to endue all. He gave me a quiet love, acceptance and devotion for not only dance, movement, and rhythm, but he bestowed upon me a burning desire and passion which could not be denied. His love and enthusiasm for music, rhythm, and man-kind was passed on, body, mind, and soul. I knew what I wanted to become, and I was going to become it. I was going to follow Al Gilbert’s footsteps even though I had Cerebral Palsy. I was blessed with the same gift, as Al… I was born to dance just like all the other students before and after me that he endowed with his skill and talent.

5 comments on “The Pied Piper’s Taps
  1. Susie says:

    Al Gilbert – Transitions – Pied Piper of Dance dead at 81 – owner of Stepping Tones Ltd – Obituary
    Dance Magazine, Sept, 2003 by Jo Rowan

    Gilbert, a poet, performer, mentor, educator, and businessman, owned Stepping Tones Ltd., which produced more than 1,000 “graded” dances for teachers and students. His codified syllabi for tap and jazz made a major impact on the way these forms were taught internationally. Gilbert created songs and dances, recorded them with vocal instruction and written notes, and marketed them as records, tapes, CDs, and videos. His many videos and dance notes are available at the New York Public Library, for the Performing Arts.

    Born Allesandro Zicari in upstate New York, Gilbert learned to tap dance on the streets and danced with his brothers, Charlie and Pat (Rico), and his sister, Rose, in nightclubs and theaters until World War II, when he served in the Army Air Corps and performed for the troops. After his 1945 discharge he moved to Hollywood and danced in The Jolson Story. But his real love lay in making classes fun at Al Gilbert’s Hollywood Theatrical Dance School.

    Gilbert taught internationally at private studios and major dance conventions such as Dance Masters of America, Dance Educators of America, and Dance Olympus. He also created the Al Gilbert Dance Seminars and wrote Al Gilbert’s Tap Dictionary: Encyclopedia of Tap Terminology and Related Information. His knowledge, energy, and generosity distinguished his educational work; he could simplify steps and motivate students while clarifying technique for teachers.

    Oklahoma City University presented him with the Living Treasure in American Dance Award. He was also honored by many dance organizations for his tireless efforts to improve the teaching of American dance. He produced five concerts at Pepperdine University to showcase emerging choreographers and dance companies. A member of Oklahoma City University’s School of American Dance & Arts Management Executive Advisory Board, he taught annually at the campus. During his last visit, he said that despite his failing health, he loved what he was doing, because “teachers live through their students.” Gilbert’s immeasurable influence will live on through his students and their students.

    A celebration of his life took place in May.

  2. Susie says:

    Formalizing The Language Of Tap. – Fletcher, Beverly – Gilbert, Al – Review – book reviews
    Dance Magazine, Feb, 1999 by Debbi Dee

    Though a basic vocabulary does exist for common steps found in tap dancing, still there is great variation from one dancer and teacher to another, depending on where in the world the step was learned, the age of the step, and the tapper’s everyday vocabulary. Hence the need for dictionaries.

    The year 1998 brought out several new tap dance dictionaries, two by legends of tap that should be added to every dance teacher’s library. Of course, they should be on every reference librarian’s list, too, and they are also easy to read and to use for serious students.

    Tapworks, by tap master teacher Beverly Fletcher, is a dictionary and reference manual. It is a labor of love and concern that brings to the reader all the years of Fletcher’s expertise and knowledge as a dancer and teacher. This is the only book I have read that talks about the two different forms of tap.

    This book is packed with information on tap history, from its beginning to the present, and the impact tap dancing has had on dance as an art form. This historical prelude is followed by standard abbreviations for steps and figures and the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary this tap dancer has ever seen. In the remaining pages, she gives considerable insight into theatrical staging of dance, and theatrical terminology. The book ends with a glossary of styles and dances as well as specific types of tap dance steps.

    Tapworks has been adopted by the Dance Masters of America, Inc., as the official tap manual to be used in conjunction with the organization’s tap teaching syllabus, which was also written by Ms. Fletcher. I highly recommend this for its clarity and thoroughness.

    To order Tapworks from the author, write her at 1336 Garrett Ave., Niagara Falls, NY 14305 ($35 plus $5 shipping–New York residents add $2.45 sales tax); or you may order [Pi] from Dance Masters of America, Inc. (national).

    Al Gilbert’s Tap Dictionary is also an invaluable aid for every dance student and studio owner. The renowned and beloved dance educator and tap legend has used his years of experience to lay out thorough, easy-to-follow, progressive instructions. He has also filled this book with information far beyond a dictionary of tap terms and abbreviations. This manual also includes different styles of tap routines. musical terms and theory, and theatrical terms. Gilbert includes a section on how to read and write tap dance notation, which he has so generously provided his students with for more than fifty years.

    Known as the “Pied Piper of Dance,” Gilbert continues to pioneer educational dance material from his graded tap technique, his Stepping Tones recordings, and now, his long-awaited tap dictionary.

    Al Gilbert’s Tap Dictionary is available through Stepping Tones Ltd. Books, P.O. Box 35236, Los Angeles, CA 90035; (323) 965-5500; fax (323) 965-7717. ($40 plus $5.50 postage–California residents add $3.30 sales tax).

    The Tap Dance Dictionary, by Mark Knowles, published by McFarland & Company, Inc., limits itself to a brief introduction on how to read tap notation and then launches into a dictionary description of tap from chugs, flaps, and the shim-sham to the zank and zink. It may be ordered from the publisher at Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640 ($49 postpaid); (910) 246-4460; fax (910) 246-5018. If you ask your local bookseller to order it, refer to ISBN: 0-7864-0352-7.

    Debbi Dee, a protegee of Henry LeTang, is now a master tap teacher, choreographer, and producer of instructional recordings.

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