Obituary: Paul Draper

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The Independent Online
Paul Draper was the pioneer who introduced tap-dancing to the concert-hall. Uniquely, he combined modernistic interpretation and ballet movements with stylishly elegant tap performed to jazz and to classical music.

"He created an entirely original genre," the producer C.B. Cochran said, "by embroidering the more or less static movements of the tap dance with the grace and flexibility of the ballet and a discriminating choice of good music." He appeared on Broadway and in films, but is best known for the series of concerts he performed with the harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, which brought them world fame until McCarthyism blighted their careers.

He was born in Florence in 1909, to American parents who were artistically prominent - his mother was a writer and lecturer, his aunt the monologuist Ruth Draper, and family friends included Picasso, Henry James and Artur Rubinstein. At four, he was taken to the United States, where his home was filled with classical music. He developed an interest in tap-dancing but disliked the "cacophony of metal- plated shoes".

Self-taught in the rudiments of dance, he obtained a job as ballroom instructor at Arthur Murray's, where a fellow teacher taught him the time- step. He started devising dances for himself to the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin but could not interest New York producers, so in 1930 he embarked for Europe. He toured Britain in Sensations of 1932, then appeared at Le Buf sur le Toit, the Paris night-club designed by Cocteau, where he danced on a round marble pedestal 3ft high and 2ft wide.

Returning to the US, he established himself in Vaudeville. "I had little competition," he said later. "There were a lot of ballroom-dancing acts, but almost nobody danced alone." An attempt to introduce Handel minuets and Bach into his act did not work, so he attended the School of American Ballet, after which he graduated to such cabaret spots as New York's Plaza and Waldorf.

His work now included satirical sketches in dance and an acclaimed piece entitled "Sonata for Tap Dancer" in which he danced without music, his feet becoming in effect a solo instrument. Vilma Ebsen, half of a star dancing act with her brother Buddy, called him "The Horowitz of tap".

He made his Broadway debut in the revue Thumbs Up (1934), and in 1936 appeared in the film Colleen. Draper's number with Ruby Keeler, "You've Gotta Know How to Dance", was overlong and disjointed, though Keeler later stated, "Lee Dixon and Paul Draper were the best partners I ever had", and in 1942 the couple were re-teamed in a two-reel short, Six Hits and a Miss. Draper's only other feature film was The Time of Your Life (1948), based on William Saroyan's play, in which he won praise as a compulsive dancer in the role Gene Kelly had played on Broadway. Two years earlier he had been given his finest film opportunity, a starring role with Bing Crosby in Blue Skies, but its producer who had cast him died six weeks into production and he was replaced by Fred Astaire, reputedly because of his stammer.

When Draper and Larry Adler appeared on the same bill at Radio City in 1933 the two discovered they were admirers of each other's work. Adler had already partnered Fred Astaire in the show Smiles (1931). In 1939, when Draper and Adler were at last able to get together for a concert in Syracuse, New York, their success started a partnership which became world famous as they toured concert-halls for several months every year. Each performed solo, then joined forces at the end of each act. Their version of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" was a show-stopper, another highlight being a request spot where audiences chose the music and Draper ad-libbed a routine to Adler's playing.

Their partnership was to end in 1948 (though they remained close friends) when the infamous McCarthy had them blacklisted. Both had long been associated with left-wing causes - at the Roxy Theatre in 1948 Draper performed "Political Speech", a dance satirising politicians' cliches, and was booed by the audience. Over 30 years later Draper stated, "I did do the things and belong to the organisations they said. I was happy to, and am still proud of it."

Engagements evaporated with the blacklist - Ed Sullivan not only cancelled their appearance on his show but publicly apologised to his sponsors for booking them - and Draper moved to Geneva, returning to the New York stage in 1954 to receive a standing ovation. All In One (1955) was a triple bill of Bernstein's one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, a Tennessee Williams play and a dance programme by Draper, but was too rarefied an evening for popular appeal. The same year he played the title-role in Stravinsky's ballet Histoire du soldat, and from 1967 to 1978 he was a Professor of Liberal Arts at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. He and Adler were historically reunited for one performance in June 1975 at Carnegie Hall, prompting the New York Times to state:

Draper's dancing remains impeccably musical and impressively limber. He seemed barely to be touching the floor at times. One thinks naturally of Astaire and Bolger when Mr Draper is in full flight, but his style is so intense and serious that comparisons are not really to the point.

Draper himself saw the dancer's art as "shaping space". "The dancer," he said, "envisages, and dreams, and conjures up the space he wants."

Tom Vallance

Paul Nathaniel Saltonstall Draper, tap-dancer: born Florence 25 October 1909; married; died 20 September 1996.

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