Dianne Walker, jazz tap dancer known for her elegant and fluid style of dancing that is delicate yet rhythmically complex, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother remembered that her infant daughter had a keen rhythmic sensibility. At age fifteen-months, she contracted polio and spent three months in the hospital and several months in quarantine. When she was released, for the proper exercise of her legs, she was sent to study dance with Ethel Covan, whose forte was ballet, but little Dianne’s interest was tap. At age of seven she was referred to Mildred Kennedy (Bradic) who ran the Kennedy Dancing School in Boston, and whose first teacher was Doris Jones, whose Jones-Haywood School of Ballet gave black youngsters in Washington, D.C., the chance to study classical ballet. Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” Mildred Kennedy had been a professional tap dancer, with a successful performing career on the New England and New York vaudeville circuits. With the high standard of achievement she set, everyone in the school excelled.
After her mother remarried, Walker was forced to leave the Kennedy school at age ten– when the family moved to the West Coast, first to the Edwards Air Force Base in Los Angeles County, California, where she attended elementary and middle school, and then to Okinawa, Japan, where she attended high school. Moving back to Boston in 1968 she finished her last year in high school and one year later, at age eighteen, married Rodney Walker, and set her life to raising a family.
In 1978, Walker was a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two, living in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, and working as a staff psychologist at Boston City Hospital when she attended a social affair at Prince Hall Masonic Temple. There, she met the black vaudeville tap dancer Willie Spencer, who sent her the very next day to the studio of Leon Collins. “I walked into the studio and I see this little man sitting at his desk with a screw driver adjusting his shoes, and in the background his Baby Laurence album was playing, and he looks up at me and he says, ‘Hi dumplin’, I’ve been waiting for you– Willie called me and told me you wanted to learn to tap dance.” Collins began his teachings with his Routine #1, which Walker learned in increments, progressing to Routines 2, 3, and 4, which altogether comprised the core of his teachings. Eager, talented, and mature, Walker soon found herself teaching tap to Collins’s Saturday children’s class. She soon became his protégé.
In 1982, Collins & Company was founded with Collins, C. B. Hetherington, Pamela Raff, Dianne Walker, and pianist Joan Hill. That same year, Walker attended Jane Goldberg’s By Word of Foot II (1982) festival in New York City, and was disappointed to see the paucity of black dancers. She returned to Boston with the intent of teaching and helping to revive the form for the young (young blacks included).
For young blacks in Boston in the 1980s, inculcated with the new rap and hip-hop with little understanding of their roots to jazz, the inspiration of jazz tap was not there. Still, Walker was indeed impressing some young dancers. In 1982, Cab Calloway’s band played in Boston on a promotional tour of George Niremberg’s new documentary film, No Maps On My Taps, with the film’s star dancers Chuck Green, Sandman Sims and Bunny Briggs. Walker was asked to find three young dancers who could portray each of the veteran hoofers and perform with them; she the eight-year-old Derick Grant (Sims), Dwayne Jones (Green), and Rashan Burroughs (Briggs). Grant would become a principal dancer with the Jazz Tap Ensemble (1992-2008); star in the Broadway and touring production of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (1997); and conceive and choreograph the full-length tap musical Imagine Tap! (2006).
In the Spring of 1985, Collins was hospitalized, too sick to attend the upcoming International Tip Tap Festival in Rome, Italy. He asked Walker to attend the festival, and to perform his classic work, Flight of the Bumblebee, to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. That was her first gig as a tap soloist. In 1989 Walker was featured in Great Performances: Tap Dance in America, hosted by Gregory Hines, dancing a solo to the swinging up-tempo Latin “Perdido.” She snapped into her elegant arms-open-wrists-dropped pose and sailed into her one-chorus solo– tapping the first A section with double-time stomps lifted onto the tips of the toes; then a scatting scissor-steps; and matching her murmuring cascade of rhythms, in the stop-time bridge, to the screeching accents of brass instruments, she finished with light-skipping trench steps. Looking insouciantly over her shoulder as luscious rhythms spilled from her feet, Walker was both demure and debonair– at thirty-eight years old, she had the radiant, authoritative ease and expertise of a veteran hoofer double her age.
Given the star power that she exuded in that one-chorus 50-second solo, Walker seemed be a relative newcomer to the tap resurgence scene– even while getting notices in tap shows that she was not in. When she made an appearance at the after-show jam session of Sole Sisters (1985, Greenwich House, New York City), for instance, Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times described Walker as “a tapper from whom steps and moves flow like music, she has an easy warmth of presence that makes her dancing incandescent.” Walker had appeared as one of the Shim Sham Girls, along with Dorothy Wasserman and Jane Goldberg, in the movie Tap! (1989), but she was not the film’s star (the non-tap-dancing actress Suzanne Douglass starred opposite Hines in the film). Walker was not a modern dancer, a tap choreographer, a director of a tap company, or a guest artist in other companies, but she was nevertheless ubiquitous in the 1980s. As a black woman, she was committed less to making “art” than to making social connections with the young generation of African-American dancers who had not yet been ignited by the resurgence of (black) rhythm tap.
Walker is considered by many female black tap dance artists as the transitional figure between the young generation of female dancers– such as Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Germaine Ingram, Ayodele Casel– and the “forgotten black mothers of tap,” such as Edith “Baby” Edwards, Jeni LeGon, Lois Miller, and Florence Covan. The opportunities (for service to the field) that opened in the mid-1980s positioned Walker as the link from the old to the young, the “transitor” in passing on the rhythms and musicality of the old generation. She was also considered the griot, the holder of the classical black rhythm “canon,” bestowed on her when she worked as principal dancer in the Paris production of Black and Blue, as well as principal and assistant choreographer in the Broadway production. That show is today considered the quintessential black-rhythm tap musical of the century.
Walker received the Dance Magazine Award in 2012 for lifetime achievement in dance.