Bunny Briggs: Tony-winning tap dancer who worked with some of jazz's biggest performers, including Duke Ellington

Briggs' gifts as a jazz percussionist gave him an astonishing sense of rhythm

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The Independent Online

Duke Ellington described Bunny Briggs as "the most superleviathonic, rhythmaturgically syncopated, tapsthamaticianismatist", a very Ducal translation of a common reaction to Briggs's superlative tap dancing.

With the deaths of Briggs and of Will Gaines last year, an era in tap – once a major form in African-American entertainment – has come to an end. Briggs' parallel gifts as a jazz percussionist gave him an astonishing sense of rhythm, allowing him to dance long and complex passages in semiquavers, where most dancers would have been content to dance in half-time to the band.

In 1965 Briggs was chosen by Ellington to play the part of King David in "David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might" as part of one of his Sacred Concerts at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Though Briggs' repertoire was more usually secular, there was an exalted, slightly unearthly quality to his dancing, as if he were weightless or from another realm. He had no exalted description of his own art, however, and when asked by a British journalist how he had acquired the nickname "Bunny" he said, quite logically, that it was because he had fast feet. It may also have had something to do with his teeth, which, together with large liquid eyes, gave Briggs a vulnerable look that only grew more evident with age.

He was born Bernard Briggs in Harlem in 1922. His career in dance seems to have been inspired by a visit to a Harlem theatre with his mother and aunt to watch the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson performing. "That was it," Briggs later said. "I couldn't believe how graceful he was, and how calm. To move like that, and smile. That's when I decided."

He performed as a child with a group called Porkchops, Rice and Navy Beans (sometimes given as Porkchops, Navy, Rice and Beans and was later taken up by the pianist Luckey Roberts, who had himself been a child performer in vaudeville. Briggs had apparently considered a vocation as a Catholic priest before settling on show business.

Briggs began his career at a point when the big bands were slowly losing impetus and the main creative energy of jazz was going into the hectic rhythms and harmonic complexities of bebop, which suited his technique and spurred his career at a time when tap was mostly considered old hat and a throwback to a brand of minstrel entertainment – visible in Briggs' screen debut in Slow Poke (1932) with the unctuous Stepin Fetchit – that was increasingly rejected as anachronistic. Though he kept working in clubs and theatres, his career slowed through the 1960s. In 1972 he tapped to "Mr Bojangles" on saxophonist Houston Person's album Broken Windows, Empty Hallways.

At the beginning of the following decade he married Olivette Miller, who also worked in the underpopulated margins of jazz, as a harpist; she died before him in 2003, and there were no children. Briggs, though, considered himself a kind of godfather or uncle to a new generation of dancers, notably Gregory Hines, who cast him in Tap in 1989, in a cameo alongside even older dancers such as Arthur Duncan (the first African-American to have a regular spot on a US TV show), Howard "Sandman" Sims, Steve Condos and Jimmy Slyde. The film, which starred Hines opposite Sammy Davis Jr, also featured the youthful prodigy Savion Glover, a positive sign that tap was alive and thriving.

A string of successful tap-based shows in the 1980s sustained Briggs's career and reputation – and academic attention was beginning to be paid towards the history of tap, partly fostered by the film No Maps on My Taps, in which he featured. He had parts in Black and Blue (for which he won a Tony), The Tap Dance Kid and the less well-remembered Jelly's Last Jam.

In 2002 Briggs was given a doctorate in performing arts by Oklahoma City University, and was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame. He lived latterly in Las Vegas, and news of his death only came out belatedly, confirmed by the playwright and lyricist Sandra Seaton, a relative by marriage. There was no immediate family.

BRIAN MORTON

Bernard Briggs, dancer and percussionist: born Harlem 26 February 1922; married Olivette Miller (died 2003); died Las Vegas 15 November 2014.

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