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09/14/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST

Ethel Bruneau. Montreal's Queen of Tap, on why dancing 'is a religion'

"Listen to my feet," said John W. Bubbles, the father of rhythm tap dancing, "and I will tell you the story of my life."

That certainly holds true for Ethel Bruneau. She's widely known as Montreal's "Queen of Tap," and her feet have quite the tale to tell.

She's been performing for 75 years, and she's taught dance to thousands of people of all ages – from kindergarteners to senior citizens.

"I believe in God, I pray every day, but tap is a religion for me," says Bruneau.

When Bruneau was three years old and living in Harlem, her mother did what a lot of other moms in the neighbourhood did: she sent her daughter to the Mary Bruce dancing school.

"Every kid in Harlem took tap dancing," says Bruneau. "That was the big thing: tap dancing, ballet and acrobatics."

The pre-schooler took to tap dancing like a duck to water, and no wonder: Harlem was alive with people making music with their feet. Tap pioneers "Peg Leg" Bates, the Nicholas Brothers and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson regularly packed the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom.

"I would be playing outside, and I would be dancing," says Bruneau "and I would say, 'Oh watch me. I can do these steps,' and [passersby] would stop and give me 25 cents."

By the time she was a teenager, Ethel had danced in Carnegie Hall and been on television across North America on The Ed Sullivan Show as a bona fide hoofer.

"Hoofing is putting steel into the floor," says Bruneau. "You do not need to have music, because it is already music."

Heading north

How Ethel moved from Harlem to Montreal at the age of 16 is a story she loves to tell.

In 1953, she accompanied a friend to an audition for the Cab Calloway orchestra. The band was heading on the road and was hiring dancers, and her friend wanted to be part of the traveling show.

"I was not going to dance. I was just going to pump her up and make her do it," says Ethel. "I was just sitting watching, and one of the ladies who was in charge came over and said, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I sing. I tap dance,' and she said, 'You do?' So I danced and sang the Fats Domino song Darktown Strutters' Ball."

I wanna be there when the band start playing
Remember when we get there, honey
Two-step, I'm gonna have them all
Gonna dance out of both of my shoes
When they play the 'Jelly Roll Blue'
Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutters' Ball

"So I went back, and I sat down," says Bruneau, "and the lady came over and said, 'Would you like to go to Canada?'"

Bruneau convinced her parents that she was ready for the adventure in Montreal.

"It was a two-week engagement, and they held us for another week, and then all of a sudden I am tapping the third week and in walks this agent and he says, 'You are really good.' He said, 'I bring in all the big stars. I bring in Red Skelton, and I bring in Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. You are so good – would you like to work 365 days a year?' And sure enough, the first club he booked me into was the Gatineau Golf and Country Club."

Then it was back to singing and dancing in the clubs of Montreal: Rockhead's Paradise, the Aldo, the Black Bottom, the Cavendish Club, the Maroon and dozens more. Bruneau was billed as "Miss Swing" and "The Queen of Afro-Cuban."

Bruneau likens the atmosphere in Montreal at the time to Las Vegas. "Nobody slept. People would go to a nightclub, and they would come out at 5 o'clock in the morning ready to go to work."

Meeting 'Red'

Then, in 1956, when she was performing at the Main Café on St. Lawrence Boulevard, she found another reason to stay in Montreal. She fell in love with Henri "Ti-Rouge" Bruneau.

"They said he was the best waiter in Montreal," says Bruneau. "Everybody called him 'Red.'"

They married. In 1961, Bruneau and Ti-Rouge had a daughter, and Bruneau decided to open a dancing school in a Montreal suburb. "And all of a sudden, we had, like, a hundred kids."

For the last three decades, she has put on an annual dance review.

"When I teach, I talk: 'Bop dee bop dee dee bop bop dee dee bop dee bop.'

Everything you say with your mouth goes into your feet," says Bruneau.

Seventy-five years after her first dance lesson in Harlem, Bruneau says tap is still her obsession.

"I love the rhyme, the beat, the movement. I stay up all night and watch Gene Kelly dance movies. I go to bed at six o'clock in the morning. I rewind, I watch, I rewind, I watch. This is what I do."

All five Bruneau grandchildren are tap dancers. That, says Bruneau, is her legacy.

While she's still dancing and teaching, she now walks with a bit of a limp.

"I fell 20 years ago and cracked my hip," says Bruneau. Her doctor wanted to put in an artificial hip.

"I said, 'Can I tap with that hip?' And when the doctors said, 'Oh, we don't know,' I said, 'Never mind. Forget it.'" She would do it anyway.

Somebody once asked Bruneau what she will do if her bad hip means she has to use a wheelchair. She said she'll simply tap in her chair.

"When I leave [this world], I leave with my tap shoes."

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