Taps for the Hawk

May 27, 1994|By JAMES D. DILTS

''Civilization is the Fall from Grace, and one of the worst things it has done is to divide us into dancers and non-dancers. We were all dancers once.''

Elizabeth Ashley, interviewed by R. H. Gardner, Baltimore Sun, February 19, 1975.

Louis ''The Hawk'' Hawkins, who died here last week, was definitely among the dancers. Not a polished or sophisticated performer, he was a practitioner of the rough-and-tumble comic and eccentric dance styles that suited his lifelong trade: the ancient art of busking.

''Do I know the term -- are you kidding?'' asked James ''Buster'' Brown, who hung around with the Hawk in their early days. Mr. Brown, a Baltimore-born tap dancer, has lived most of his life in New York where he was a member of the Copasetics, the floating tap ensemble led by the late Charles ''Honi'' Coles. At 81, he is still dancing; he claims it's great exercise.

''The Hawk made a big business out of this busking thing,'' Mr. Brown said. ''We used to go around dancing and passing the hat. This was when were still in high school. I had to sneak out of my house in South Baltimore. We would go to Baltimore Street, the street of night clubs, the Oasis and the Club Charles [on Charles Street near Preston] -- I'll never forget that.

''The first show was at 10 o'clock. We'd go in and ask if we could do our stuff. The band would play and the people would throw money. We'd make $5 or $10 a night. It depended on the people's mood. Most of the audiences were appreciative, but some clubs didn't allow anybody in except performers in the show. There were several guys that did this. The Hawk as the main one. We used to call him the Midnight Hawk. And he could dance!''

The Hawk was a busker until he died, at age 78. Dazzling in a high-profile suit, usually with a hat (boater, beret or pork-pie), and sometimes in a special two-tone tuxedo accompanied by a ruffled shirt and bow tie, he was audibly conspicuous as well. The Hawk wore his taps loose, so they sounded tinny like an old-time upright piano, and when I lived in Fells Point next to a bar, I could always tell when he was in the neighborhood by the scrape and jingle of his shoes on the pavement. The afternoon cries of the Arabbers, backed on the stereo by Miles Davis' haunting ''Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab,'' from Gershwin's ''Porgy and Bess,'' and the Hawk's night sounds, put me, in my reverie, as close to Catfish Row as I could ever get.

Having arranged with the bartender or band beforehand to play an appropriate tune (most could at least manage ''Mr. Bojangles''), the Hawk would announce his presence with a stentorian knock on the door: All of a sudden there he was, moving up and down the length of the bar, ''walking the dog -- oh hell, yeah,'' or introducing his sometime dancing partner, Michael ''Toes'' Tiranoff.

''He didn't do a lot of talking,'' Toes remembered. ''He wanted to do a couple of numbers, pass the hat and go on to the next club. We might start at 8:00 at night and go to 1:30 in the morning, from the Mount Royal Tavern to the 8 x 10 in South Baltimore -- we danced to a punk band once, the Hawk was game for anything -- to Bertha's and John Steven's in Fells Point. We'd split maybe $150 a night. And we'd take the bus. The Hawk would say 'Come on, we got to get to that corner right now so we can make it to the next club.' He had figured out the bus schedules and also knew when the performers would go off in the clubs so they could put us on. He was very good with scheduling.''

The Hawk was indeed a man with a mission that brooked no interference; he brought dance to the people and he did it with energy and commitment. Born in Baltimore, he began dancing for coins on Howard Street at age 14. In the 1930s, he won amateur contests at Baltimore's Royal Theater and New York's Apollo, appeared with several big bands and formed the Hawksteppers with George Hurley. He toured the borscht circuit for the next two decades. Tap dancing then entered a general decline and the Hawk spent several years as the doorman-intermission entertainer at the Club Les Gals on Mount Royal Avenue.

Enter Toes, former member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. ''I met the Hawk in 1978,'' he said. ''I was tap dancing in Fells Point. People said I should look him up, but every time I went to a place where he supposedly performed, he had always just left. I even had dreams about it.'' Finally, they connected.

Now dancing in New York, Toes has appeared at Lincoln Center and organized several tap-dance revenues, one of which took place last weekend to mark the preview of his sister Louise's documentary film ''Milt & Honi,'' featuring bassist Milt Hinton and Honi Coles, with narration by Gregory Hines.

''I hoped to have Hawk come up for the week-end,'' Toes said. ''He was my mentor. He taught me how to incorporate comedy into my style and how to use steps to bring the audience along with you instead of just displaying technique that went right past them. We used to do a thing where we would tap apart from each other, then look like we were going to come together and shake hands but go on by, and finally turn and say 'Oh, there you are.' ''

James D. Dilts is a Baltimore writer.

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