W hen visitors come to Memphis, they sometimes get no farther than the Rendezvous, The Peabody, and Beale Street. But often some of Beale Street’s favorite characters become the face of Memphis for guests who are just passing through.
“Dancing George” Nettles is one of them. Most weekends, he can be found tap-dancing along Beale, expressing himself with his feet. He is passionate about keeping the art of tap alive in Memphis.
“He is one of the last tap dancers,” says Bud Chittom, club owner and Beale Street entrepreneur. “By and large, that style of tapping is a lost art.”
Nettles usually works the doors up and down Beale. He taps for the crowd, coaxing smiles and cheers. Performers like “Dancing George” offer tourists and locals some authentic entertainment.
“Tap is one of the most classic dances of all times,” says Nettles, 62. A few years ago, he returned to Memphis from New York. There, he says, tap is still big; people can still be found tapping in the subways.
He strolls up and down Beale until he feels something he can tap to. “It’s automatic, it just clicks in,” he says. “If I hear good music, my feet just start moving to the beat.”
Between routines outside the Old Daisy Theatre, his favorite place to perform, he pauses to reflect. “I just think here, in the black community, that kind of dance was lost,” he says, and he wants to rekindle tap in Memphis. “I want to get the kids interested,” he says, as he demonstrates his steps to a fascinated teenager from Cordova.
To this end, Nettles has been doing workshops in Orange Mound and Glenview Community Centers. He recently started working with Bennetta Nelson West of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance. West asked Nettles to be a dance teacher at the arts center in early April. “His knowledge spans the gamut from the old black masters, who do traditional hoofin’, to the contemporary jazz tap of Broadway,” she says. “He is a wonderful teacher, has a great passion for it, and he enjoys sharing it. He is a treasure for us here in Memphis.”
West remembers Memphis legend Rufus Thomas introducing her to Nettles back in the early 1980s. Thomas was his mentor.
Nettles can also be found occasionally in the front line of the Beale Street funeral processions. Chittom recalls the dancer trying to cheer up June Dunn, the widow of Duck Dunn, bass guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs, during Dunn’s funeral in 2012. “His widow was all broken up,” Chittom says. “George kept grinning at her and by the end of the street she had a smile on her face.”
Chittom believes dancers like George Nettles are what people want to see when they come to Beale Street. “George takes the blues away. Makes the sun shine on a cloudy day,” says Chittom. “That’s ‘Dancing George.’”
“Dancing George” Nettles and other street performers are often the first thing many visitors encounter when they visit Memphis. Nettles works his way up and down Beale Street, offering an authentic Memphis experience as he tap dances for tips. On this day, a young visitor could not resist joining Nettles in a dance. Ava Thienel snuck away from her parents, joining “Dancing George,” while her parents were eating lunch on Beale street.
Some days Nettles has to compete with loud music and other entertainers on Beale Street to get the attention of the passing crowd. Sometimes, just across the way, there will be kids from the neighborhood who flip their way down Beale Street. Nettles says he would like to teach some of them to tap dance, old-style.
“Dancing George” makes his way back onto Beale Street after resting inside one of the clubs. Tap dancing requires stamina, and at 62, he admits he has to work hard to stay in shape so that he can do several dances in a day.
Nettles says he tapped while he lived in New York City, but since coming home to Memphis, he finds dancing on Beale Street for tips to be a lucrative venture. The pavement, however, causes his taps to break, so he often has to stop and screw the taps back into his shoes.