Tap dance is an art form known to many younger people only through films and stage shows. “A Chorus Line” was an enormous success. Other films worth mentioning are “The Cotton Club” (1984) and going further back “The Little Colonel” (1935) with the young Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as well as the magnificent all time classic “Singing in the Rain” with the late great Gene Kelly.
What is tap dance? Merriam-Webster’s definition is “A step dance tapped out audibly by means of shoes with hard soles or soles and heels to which taps have been added”.
There is no doubt that American tap dance originated with the slaves forcibly imported from Africa. Slave owners had a great fear of slave revolts. They knew that the language of the drums had allowed Africans to communicate over long distances in code. For this reason slave masters forbade their slaves to use drums or other native instruments in African religious ceremonies.The slaves, however, were ingenious and retained their traditional rhythms by transferring them to their feet. Very complex rhythmic patterns evolved and a subtle, complex and vibrant form of dance arose.
By the middle of the nineteenth century African Americans had combined their dance with Irish and British clogging steps. This created a style known as “buck and wing”. This was to evolve into Modern Tap dance. The term itself first appeared in print around 1928. Aluminium heel and toe taps did not come into use until after 1910.
William Henry Lane (1825-1852) alias “Master Juba” created “Juba dance” which was a mixture of European Jig, Reel Steps, Clog and African rhythms. It enjoyed its greatest popularity around 1845. Some people hold this was the period which gave birth to Tap and Jazz Dance as a form of theatre in America.
White performers copied the steps and the Shuffle dance style found fame in Minstrel shows in about the 1830’s.
In Clog contests in the ninetenth century judges would sit behind a screen or below the dance floor, judging the sounds rather than the body movements of the dancers. A characteristic of the Clog dance is that the upper body is held almost rigid with the shoulders and arms held motionless.
The Soft Shoe is a form of tap only done with soft soled shoes without metal taps attached. The dance is characterised by wit, humor and the delicate nature of the tapping which is performed in a smooth and leisurely manner. Soft Shoe is also known as Sand Dance.
“Buck Dancing” is an early tap dance performed by minstrel and vaudeville performers caracaturing African American men known disparagingly as “Bucks”.
The time step (shuffle-step, shuffle-step, shuffle ball-change, shuffle-step) is a Shim Sham tap routine still taught in most tap dance classes today.
The “Black Bottom” became an overnight sensation in 1926. It is thought to be the rhythmic prototype for modern tap dance phrasing. It is mainly danced on the “off” Beat.
Tap dance has a colourful terminology with such expressions as “spank”, “nerve tap”, “chuggy”, “paddles and rolls”, “flea hop” and “buffalo”.
The Guiness World Book of Records holder the late Roy Castle achieved 1,400 taps per minute (24 per second).
This brings me to Flamenco which can be catagorized as tap dance. However, that description does not really do justice to this exciting and expressive art form which is rich in rhythm and refined technique. Flamenco originated with the gypsies of Andulucia. who may have incorporated Indian and Moorish influences.
Tap has a number of different styles one of which is Clogg dance already mentioned. Irish popular clogg dances were performed wearing wooden “clogg shoes” the footwear of the poorest people. What is known as the English style is very light and elegant. Soft Shoe is the English style but performed without metal taps though it was often done with wooden ones.
The American style is characteristically very jazzy and down into the floor with lots of heel work and strong syncopation. In the Sand Shuffle the dancer throws a little bit of sand on the floor and dances on it. This technique is based on hits and slides.An example is Fred Astaire in “The Sand Shuffle Man.” Water Splash involves dancing on a layer of water.At the moment improvisational tap dancing known as jazz tap dancing is in vogue. Tap without musical accompaniment is known as “capella” dancing. As mentioned elswhere tap dance can be highly therapuetic.
I’d like to mention a few of the “greats”.Fred Astaire was born in 1899 and died in 1987. He was a greatly admired American and Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, actor and singer with a career which lasted for an astonishing seventy-six years. He made twenty-one musical films and with his best known partner, Ginger Rogers, he revolutionized the genre. Balanchine and Nureyev held him to be the most influencial dancer in the history of filmed and televised musicals.
Gregory Oliver Hines is more recent having been born in 1946. He died in 2003. Hines was an African American actor, singer, and dancer. Many regard him as the greatest tap dancer of his generation. When only five years old Hines and his older brother Maurice began dancing professionally often at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Hines appeared in a number of films including “The Cotton Club” and “Running Scared”. He also had his own television show. In 1992 Hines won a Tony for “Jelly’s Last Jam”.
Gene Kelly came into the world in 1912 and died in 1996. He was not only a superb American dancer but also an actor, singer, director, producer and a highly innovative choreographer. His dancing style was both energetic and athletic. His tap choreography included movements from ballet and modern dance.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born in 1878 and died in 1949. He was a pioneer and pre-eminent African American tap dancer. He began dancing for a living at the age of six as a “hoofer” or song-and-dance man. He was to gain great success as a musical comedy performer. “Bojangles” did not dance for a white audience until he was fifty. His earnings reached an estimated $3500 a week – an enormous sum for those days. He was famous for the “stair dance” which he invented. “Bojangles” was a highly succeful gambler, a generous donor to charity and he set the World Record in the 75 yard backward dash.
Politicians and celebrities appointed him an honorary major of Harlem and a mascot of the New York Giants baseball team. After the 1930s black revues became less popular but Robinson appeared in fourteen motion pictures produced by big Hollywood producers. The films had musical settings and Bojangles was given old-fashioned nostalgic roles.He frequently played the butler opposite the young Shirley Temple. His dance style was restrained and reserved. Bojangles rarely used his upper body and depended on his quick, inventive feet and his expressive face.
Ginger Rogers was born 1911 and died in 1995. Ginger was a film and stage actress, singer and dancer. Her film career lasted thirty-five years. She is now mainly remembered for her role as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in ten Hollywood musical films which took the genre to new heights.
Sammy Davis Jr was born in 1925 and died in 1990. He was one of the foremost African American entertainers of his day. He was a consumate dancer,singer,played numerous instruments, did impressions and was also a comdian and actor. He was truly one of the greats
In the late 1970’s interest in tap dance underwent a resurgence.
I hope with this overview that I have been able to give you some idea of the world of tap dancing.