Each month, a new dance style is celebrated. View videos and learn about the heritage and history of different dance styles. This month we celebrate “Tap” and indulge in its history and tradition as well as its remarkable ability to capture the passion of people of all ages, genders, nationalities and more…the perfect style to radiate our theme this year : Unity Through Dance. Enjoy this month’s “Dance Genre Buzz”!
Tap dance is a form of dance characterized by using the sound of one’s tap shoes hitting the floor as a percussive instrument. As such, it is also commonly considered to be a form of music. Two major variations on tap dance exist: rhythm or jazz tap and Broadway tap. Broadway tap focuses more on the dance. It is widely performed as a part of musical theater. Rhythm tap focuses more on musicality, and practitioners consider themselves to be a part of the Jazz tradition.
The sound is made by shoes with a metal “tap” on the heel and toe. Tap shoes can be bought at most dance shops. There are different brands of shoes which sometimes differ in the way they sound.
“Soft-Shoe” is a rhythm form of tap dancing that doesn’t require special shoes, and wh
ile rhythm is generated by tapping of the feet, it also uses sliding of the feet more often than modern rhythm tap. It preceded what is currently considered to be modern tap, but has since declined in popularity.
Tap dance has roots in African American dancing such as the Juba Dance, English Lancashire Clog dancing, and probably most notably Irish stepdancing. It is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. White performers would imitate Southern blacks and satirize their dance forms while incorporating step-dancing. In later minstrel shows, black performers in blackface would play roles in which they imitated the Irish imitation of black dance forms, further mixing the two. Famous as Master Juba, William Henry Lane became one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel troupe, and is widely considered to be the most famous forebear of tap dance.
As the minstrel shows began to decline in popularity, tap dance moved to the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage. Due to the two-colored rule, which forbade blacks from performing solo, the majority of Vaudeville tap acts were duets. This gave rise to the famous pair “Buck and Bubbles,” which consisted of John “Bubbles” Sublett tap dancing and Ford “Buck” Washington on piano. The duo perfected the “Class Act”, a routine in which the performers wore impeccable tuxedos, which has since become a common theme in tap dance. The move is seen by some as a rebuttal to the older minstrel show idea of the tap dancer as a “grinning-and-dancing clown.”
Another notable figure to emerge during this period is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Well versed in both Buck and Wing dancing and Irish Step dancing, Bill Robinson joined the Vaudeville circuit in 1902, in a duo with George W. Cooper. The act quickly became famous, headlining events across the country, and touring England as well. In 1908, however, the two had an altercation, and the partnership was ended. Gambling on his popularity, Robinson decided to form a solo act, which was extremely rare for a black man at that time. Despite this, he had tremendous success and soon became a world famous celebrity. He went on to have a leading role in many films, notably in the Shirley Temple franchise.
During the 1930s tap dance mixed with Lindy Hop. “Flying swing outs” and “flying circles” are Lindy Hop moves with tap footwork. In the 1950s, the style of entertainment changed. Jazz music and tap dance declined, while rock and roll and pop music and the new jazz dance emerged. What is now called jazz dance evolved out of tap dance, so both dances have many moves in common. But jazz evolved separately from tap dance to become a new form in its own right. Well-known dancers during the 1960s and 1970s included Arthur Duncan and Tommy Tune.
No Maps on My Taps, the Emmy award winning PBS documentary of 1979, helped begin the recent revival of tap dance. The outstanding success of the animated film, Happy Feet, has further reinforced the popular appeal National Tap Dance Day in the United States, now celebrated May 25, was signed into law by President George Bush on November 7, 1989. (May 25 was chosen because it is the birthday of famous tapper Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.) Prominent modern tap dancers have included Brenda Bufalino, The Clark Brothers, Savion Glover, Gregory and Maurice Hines, LaVaughn Robinson, Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold, and Dianne “Lady Di” Walker Indie-pop band Tilly and the Wall also features a tap dancer, Jamie Pressnall, tapping as percussion.
Tap dancers make frequent use of syncopation. Choreography typically starts on the eighth or first beatcount. Another aspect of tap dancing is improvisation. This can either be done with music and follow the beats provided or without musical accompaniment, also known as a cappella dancing.
Hoofers are tap dancers who dance primarily “closer to the floor”, using mostly their footwork and not showing very much arm or body movement. This kind of tap dancing, also called “rhythm tap”, was part of the dancing of slaves in America. Because the slaves were generally not allowed to practice their own culture and customs, they mixed their form of dancing with Irish step dance to create tap dances that they managed to sneak by slave owners and over-seers. This is the origin of tap and what later evolved into (what most people know as tap now) “show tap” because it uses more arm movement. This form evolved because show tap was thought to be more exciting to watch and became famous when show tap was put on Broadway. Rhythm tap is not well known although the history of it is important to know as rhythm tap is often considered the “father of show tap.”
Steve Condos rose out of his humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, PA to become a master in rhythmic tap. His innovative style influenced the work of Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and Marshall Davis, Jr. The majority of hoofers, such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Glover, Hines, and LaVaughn Robinson are African American men, although today the art form transcends racial and gender stereotypes. Savion Glover is the best-known living hoofer, who helped bring tap dance into mainstream media by choreographing and dancing for the major motion picture Happy Feet, a film about a tap dancing penguin. Another well-known tap film is 1989’s Tap, starring the late Gregory Hines and many of the old-time hoofers.
Early tappers like Fred Astaire provided a more ballroom look to tap dancing, while Gene Kelly used his extensive ballet training to make tap dancing incorporate all the parts of the ballet. This style of tap led to what is today known as “Broadway style,” which is more mainstream in American culture. It often involves high heeled tap shoes and show music, and is usually the type of tap first taught to beginners. The best examples of this style are found in Broadway musicals such as Anything Goes and 42nd Street.
Common tap steps include the shuffle, shuffle ball change, flap, flap heel, cramproll, buffalo, Maxi Ford, single and double pullbacks, wings, Cincinnati, the shim sham shimmy (also called the Lindy), Irish, Waltz Clog, the paddle roll, the paradiddle, stomp, brushes, scuffs, riffs, and single and double toe punches, hot steps, heel clicks, single, double, triple, and double-triple time steps, over-the-tops, military time step, New Yorkers, and chugs. In advanced tap dancing, basic steps are often combined together to create new steps. Timesteps are widely used in tap and can vary in different areas. These consist of a rhythm that is changed to make new timesteps by adding or removing steps.
Tap dancing can also be done using an a cappella method. Similar to singing without instrumental accompaniment, tap dancers are not dancing to any music but creating a rhythm by using different steps at the same time. In a tap a cappella, the steps are normally kept simple (such as the most common steps listed above) and easy to control. The group of dancers must work together to create the sound keeping their steps at the correct speed to match each other.
Check out a “A tap dancer’s craft” by Andrew Nemr featured on TED Education TV
Are you a tap dancer? Do you know of or are part of an amazing TAP dancing group that would be interested in being a party of Dance Parade this year? TAP is one of the few popular dance styles that has strangely been missing from our grand spectrum of dance styles from all over the world and we would certainly like to change that immediately!