‘A Bit of a Step, a Bit of Soul’

Is There Anyone Who Hasn’t Danced with Chester Whitmore?  

That slight old man walking past you on Hollywood Boulevard may not seem like anyone outstanding but stop and talk to him and you’ll find out he partnered with Cyd Charisse, worked with Prince and danced to music played by Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

Slow. Slow. Quick Step. Slow. Again. 

Slow. Slow. Quick Step. Slow.

That quick step got added in by a black dancer. Some of the origins of the most creative dance moves were added by African Americans, and their additions created a specific style of American dance.

“We simply added a bit of a step, a bit of soul,” smiles Chester Whitmore.

Is he that mythical Mr. Bojangles? He might be.

At 69, Chester Whitmore keeps moving, keeps dancing, keeps teaching. A man of many hyphenates, he’s a drummer, band leader, dancer, teacher, choreographer, performer, stunt man and all-around entertainer.

He not only loves to explain to young people what a vinyl record is, he loves to tell behind-the-scenes stories of all-time favorite movies to seniors.

At a recent senior center in Hollywood, Chester spent the entire day talking about the history of dance and showing clips that many people have never seen.

“Tap dancing was called buck dancing at first and back in the 1800s slaves on the ships were forced to do a dance called the jig,” Chester explains. “If you didn’t do it,  and if you didn’t have rhythm, you were tossed overboard.”

Chester bursts out with a hearty laugh and beams an infectious smile as he relates the history of dance to his audiences. 

“I love telling my stories, and teaching people about dance, I’d be going to senior centers every day if I could,” says Chester.

At this particular event, Los Angeles City Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez greeted Chester, and said, “I love watching live performances, and there’s nothing better than learning something about history too.”

Chester has all the stories. He talks about taking a class with classic performer Eleanor Powell, finding a mentor like Fayard Nicholas of the incredible Nicholas Brothers dance team, and working with Prince, Bad Bunny and Boyz II Men.

Chester’s Black Ballet Jazz company performed with Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and the Duke Ellington orchestras. His choreography appears in music videos by Weird Al Yankovic, Teena Marie and most recently Sugar Ray.

It’s important for Chester to explain how black dancing masters taught the greats like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ann Miller. Those three in particular were taught by Willie Covan.

“Nobody heard of Willie Covan. Willie Covan was the first black that was at the MGM motion pictures,” Chester explains. “He had his own dance studio on the lot.”

He tells stories he knows firsthand of the Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated ballroom, located in Harlem in New York. 

Chester not only knows, but he shows. He can do some eccentric dancing, rubber legs, walking the dog, the ham bone, the Lindy, the cake walk and more.

And he warns: “We are losing our cultural events and certain historical values of people that were important, that was never in the history books or certain other books, and it is left to me to explain who these people are.”

Chester is keeping the history of dance real, alive, and in proper step.

You can reach the author at mikeszy@aol.com.

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