It doesn’t take much to tap DJ “Daniel” Giagni’s memory.
Get him started recalling his show-business adventures and the stories roll off his tongue like the rat-a-tap-tap of a flawless tap-dance performance, of which he had many.
The famous names and historic places flow easily from his life onstage and behind the camera for both he and his famous father.
Giagni, who moved to Province two years ago, is the son of Tony Award-winning choreographer Danny Daniels. Giagni talks of working alongside and becoming friends with Gene Kelly and Liza Minelli. He taught Steve Martin (1981 movie Pennies from Heaven) and Mark Hamill (for an off Broadway show at the Goodspeed Opera House) how to tap dance.
Despite the lifetime of mostly pleasant memories, Giagni was disappointed to never have a successful show on Broadway. By 40, he said he hadn’t really made any money.
“I left show business, rented a truck and drove out to Los Angeles,” he said. “My sister was building a house. I helped out on that and learned a lot about construction. I got my contractor’s license and did that for 27 years.”
Upon his retirement, Giagni and his wife moved to Portland, where their daughter lived. It was too rainy. Pamela heard about Province, and soon they were on their way to their new home.
Giagni is teaching advanced classes for the Province Town Hall Tappers and is an instructor for three weekly classes at Desert Sun Performing Arts. Daughter Annie is working as a nurse at Exceptional Community Hospital. Son Dylan is shutting down the construction business in California, with father and son to build a log cabin in the Forest Lakes area in northern Arizona.
“That will be the best, when everybody (including their two grandchildren) is together.”
Very few of the Province dancers come with previous experience. What they do possess is tremendous enthusiasm, he said.
“They really want to do it,” Giagni said. “It’s so rewarding to work with them. I started piano at age 6 and I still play. And I write music, which is relaxing. We’re going to do a show at Province, and I will choregraph a number for a piece I wrote.”
The story, however, begins much earlier.
Giagni, 72, explains his Italian grandfather came to America through Ellis Island at age 7. A musician who played the mandolin and banjo, his grandfather also became a barber and found a client he asked to teach Daniels to tap dance.
“My father started at age 5. They would go to beer halls during Prohibition and make as much money in one night as my grandfather earned all week,” Giagni said. “When Dad was 12 or 13, my grandfather went to California with three dollars in his pocket. He was a fast talker and made things happen while he looked for auditions for his son.”
Daniels ended up with a solo performance as a 14-year-old tap dancer in the movie The Star Maker featuring Bing Crosby.
The family later returned to the Bronx with Daniels beginning his Broadway career at age 16 when Kelly selected him as a chorus member in the show Best Foot Forward. He was nominated for two Tony Awards as a dancer and four as a choreographer, winning in 1984 for his work on The Tap Dance Kid. Daniels also earned two Emmys in his career.
Despite his own success, Daniels was not a fan of his son following his career path. That changed after Giagni became a high-school gymnast.
“I got to be pretty good and went to the state championships,” Giagni said. “After Dad saw me compete, he said, ‘Maybe you should try dancing.’ I tried ballet. In the late 1960s, any male that could walk into a dancing school could get a scholarship. I went to the New York Theatre Ballet, took classes there for many years and got to be an apprentice with the company.”
All the hard work paid off a short time later.
Actor-singer-comedian Zero Mostel was on his last tour playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. When the lead dancer broke his leg, the choreographer, who remembered Giagni from the ballet school, said to send him out.
“That day, I learned three numbers and opened the show that night,” Giagni said. “I was very excited and got my Equity card.” (In general terms, an Equity card equates to union membership.)
The next steps included:
A year with the San Francisco Ballet Company before a new director instituted a height requirement of 5-foot-8 for male dancers (Giagni is 5-6). “But I had a contract and I forced them to pay me. They said I had to come in every day and not take class. So, I did, for two weeks. They got tired of seeing me and paid me off.”
He danced in France at the Ballet of Leon. “I had taken French in high school but was not very good at it. In the company, everyone spoke English to me because they wanted to practice their English. I had a great time in France. When you’re in a company, you’re in a family and everybody treats you well.”
A return to New York and two years on tour with the popular Lotte Goslar Pantomime Circus.
Working with the stars
His father, who was starting a dance school in Santa Monica, Calif., invited his son to teach ballet while Daniels handled the tap.
“That’s when I started to learn to tap. (Daniels) said, ‘You are going to have a hard time being a good tap dancer because you have to do tap first, then ballet.’ I did the opposite. But I worked hard.”
Giagni’s dedication led to new experiences as father and son worked together for 10 years doing choreography on television shows.
That’s where Giagni really met the stars.
Working with the stars typically involved two hours a day, Giagni said.
“That’s a lot for concentrated tap dancing,” he said. “If you do any more, it goes in one ear and out the other. It has to get into the body gradually.”
While his work spanned both coasts and even went international, he looks back fondly on his time in his native New York.
“It was a very exciting time, working on Broadway and being married to my wife, Pamela. We had a lot of fun,” Giagni said. “New York was a very exciting place in the 1980s.”