In the end, Paul Kennedy — a community force as a tap teacher and choreographer — suffered the cruelest of fates for a hoofer: He lost his feet. That would be akin to taking the hands of Oscar Peterson, denying poetry to Shakespeare or stripping Martin Luther King Jr. of his pulpit.
Doctors sacrificed Kennedy’s feet and then took much of his legs in attempts to save him. Kennedy finally succumbed March 16 at the age of 61 to an army of ailments, leaving a legacy of dancing feet all over the world, through students he trained across a lifetime, the last 20 years at the no-frills, no-nonsense Universal Dance Designs, the school he ran with his sister Arlene at the intersection of San Vicente and Olympic boulevards.
His students have tapped lead roles on Broadway; his troupe of teens amazed locals for years with their energy and technique. In 1998, ballet master Alicia Alonso invited the Kennedy Tap Dance Company to Cuba after it performed for her in Los Angeles. The trip marked the first time in at least 17 years that a group of American children traveled to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange; they were the only children to perform in a festival that included the Bolshoi Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble.
Kennedy could not go along. He missed other star turns as well because of dialysis that required eight-hour-a-day treatments, which he endured for six years. But you wouldn‘t know that, to see him teach or laugh; he embodied a cheerful robustness and vitality that defied medical reports.
”He never considered himself a sick man,“ said his brother Lenardo Bradic. ”He would never use the word sick. He might say he felt a little weak on some days.“
Besides, he was too busy sharing dance steps and dance history. It was typical Paul Kennedy on a day in 1992, when he graciously took charge of a loosely organized memorial to fellow tapper Eddie Brown at the Ebony Showcase Theater. Kennedy transformed instantly from fellow mourner to respectful master of ceremonies, overseeing an event that rightly displayed more taps than tears.
The old black tappers, such as Brown, noted Kennedy, ”knew they were good. They got jobs, but they didn’t get what they should have for being as good as they were.“
The same would apply to Kennedy, who began as the proud protege of his mother, Mildred Kennedy Bradic, who taught dance for more than 50 years. With his younger sister Arlene, Kennedy took over their mother‘s Boston studio in 1966. Twelve years later, Kennedy came to Hollywood to choreograph for Gladys Knight and the Pips, where he also staged other dancy Motown acts, including Marvin Gaye.
But tap dancing hasn’t been a a sound career choice for 50 years or so, and for nearly all black artists it never offered fame or financial security. Kennedy persisted because it was in his genes and his heart. ”Instead of being the star, he is the star maker,“ said his brother Lenardo. ”He was in the studio seven days a week.“
His youngest charges were called the diaper crew, because they started literally in Pampers. Former student Derick Grant grew up to perform in Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, eventually replacing Savion Glover in the lead role. ”Since Derick could walk, Paul was shuffling Derick‘s feet,“ said Arlene Kennedy.
In the late 1990s, tap enjoyed a limited renaissance through Glover, a remarkable jazz-tap improvisator, who combines blistering speed, hard stomping and hip-hop attitude. Kennedy loved Glover’s NoiseFunk, whose small cast included three former students. ”I like the freeness and the soul-searching, the style and the improvisation,“ said Kennedy, while also expressing one caveat: ”This is what they do, and there is a sense, a message, that this is what everybody should do from now on, and I don‘t agree with that part of it. I don’t believe you can or should get away entirely from choreographed routines and show pieces.“
After all, Kennedy‘s mother had directed students to make their arms ”look just like the Nicholas Brothers’,“ the dance team that combined gymnastic athleticism with elegant styling. Kennedy took issue with NoiseFunk‘s portrayal of the Nicholas Brothers and the legendary Bill Robinson as sellouts: ”They got to Hollywood on their talent.“
Again, the same could be said of Kennedy, despite some disappointments — he never got the musical that he co-wrote to Broadway and he could never quite make his renowned studio financially secure. A fund-raiser for the studio and dance company is being planned. Near the end, Kennedy was busily scribbling down a syllabus to guide future teachers and students. He planned to keep teaching, but he also understood that even without him, the show must go on.
Services held at First AME Zion Church, 1449 W. Adams Blvd.; Saturday, March 23, 11 a.m.