Tap is a form of American percussive dance that emphasizes the interplay of rhythms produced by the feet. Fused from African and European music and dance styles, tap evolved over hundreds of years, shaped by the constant exchanges and imitations that occurred between the black and white cultures as they converged in America. However, since it is jazz syncopations that distinguish tap's rhythms and define its inflections, the heritage of African percussive sensibilities has exerted the strongest influence on tap's evolution.
Unlike ballet, whose techniques were codified and taught in the academies, tap developed informally from black and white vernacular social dances, from people watching each other dance in the streets and dance halls. As a result of the offstage challenges and onstage competitions where steps were shared, stolen, and reinvented, tap gradually got fashioned into a virtuosic stage dance. Because tap must be heard, it must be considered a musical form as well as a dance form, one that evolved as a unique percussive expression of American jazz music. Tappers consider themselves musicians and describe their feet as a set of drums—the heels playing the bass, the toes the melody. Like jazz, tap uses improvisation, polyrhythms, and a pattern of rhythmic accenting to give it a ropulsive (swinging) quality. Many of tap's choreographic structures reflect the formal musical structures of blues, ragtime or Dixieland, swing, bebop, and cool jazz.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of tap is the amplification of the feet's rhythms. Early styles of tapping utilized boards laid across barrels, sawhorses, or cobblestones; hard-soled shoes, wooden clogs, hobnailed boots, hollow-heeled shoes, as well as soft-soled shoes (and even heavily calloused feet) played against a wooden, oily, or abrasive surface, such as sand. Specially made metal plates attached to the heel and toe of the shoes did not commonly appear until the early 1910s, in chorus lines of Broadway shows and revues.
Opportunities for whites and blacks to watch each other dance began in the early 1500s when enslaved Africans were shipped to the West Indies. During the infamous "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic, slaves were brought to the upper decks and forced to dance (or "exercise"). Without traditional drums, slaves played on upturned buckets and tubs. Thus, the rattle and restriction of chains and the metallic thunk of buckets were some of the first changes in African dance as it evolved toward an African-American style. Sailors witnessing these events set an early precedent of the white observers who would serve as social arbiters, onlookers, and participants at urban slave dances and plantation slave "frolicks." Upon arriving in North and South America and the West Indies, some Africans had been exposed to European court dances like the quadrille, cotillion, and contredanse, and they adopted these dances, keeping the patterns and figures but retaining their African rhythms.
Slaves purchased on the stopover in the Caribbean islands came into contact with thousands of Irishmen and Scotsmen who were deported, exiled, or sold in the new English plantation islands. The cultural exchange between first-generation enslaved Africans and indentured Irishmen—with Ibo men playing fiddles and Kerrymen learning how to play jubi drums—continued through the late 1600s on plantations and in urban centers during the transition from white indentured servitude to African slave labor.
In colonial America, a new percussive dance began to fuse from a stylistic meld of two great dance traditions. The African-American style tended to center movement in the hips and favored flat-footed, gliding, dragging, stamping, shuffling steps, with a relaxed torso gently bent at the waist and the spine remaining flexible. Gradually, that style blended with the British-European style, which centered movement in dexterous footwork that favored bounding, hopping, precisely placed toe-and-heel work, and complicated patterns, with carefully placed arms, an upright torso and erect spine, and little if any hip action.
Between 1600 and 1800, the new American tap-hybrid slowly emerged from British step dances and a variety of secular and religious African step dances labeled "juba" dances and "ring-shouts." The Irish jig, with its rapid toe and heelwork, and the Lancashire clog, which was danced in wooden-soled shoes, developed quickly. The clog involved faster and more complex percussive techniques, while the jig developed with a range of styles and functions that extended from a ballroom dance of articulate footwork and formal figures to a fast-stomping competitive solo performed by men on the frontier.
By contrast, the African-American juba (derived from the African djouba), moved in a counterclockwise circle and was distinguished by its rhythmically shuffling footwork; the clapping of hands; "patting," or "hamboning" (the hands rhythmically slap the thighs, arms, torso, cheeks, playing the body as if it were a large drum); the use of call-and-response patterning (vocal and physical); and solo or couple improvisation within the circle. The religious ring-shout, a similar countercircle dance driven by singing, stomping, and clapping, became an acceptable mode of worship in the Baptist church as long as dancers did not defy the ban against the crossing of the legs. With the arrival of the slave laws of 1740 prohibiting the beating of drums came substitutes for the forbidden drum: bone clappers, jawbones, tambourines, hand-clapping, hamboning, and the percussive footwork that was so crucial in the evolution of tap.
By 1800, "jigging" was a term applied to any black style of dancing in which the dancer, with relaxed and responsive torso, emphasized movement from the hips down with quickly shuffling feet beating tempos as fast as trip-hammers. Jigging competitions that featured buck-and-wing, shuffling ring dances, and breakdowns abounded on plantations and urban centers where freedmen and slaves congregated.
Though African-Americans and European-Americans both utilized a solo, vernacular style of dancing, there was a stronger and earlier draw of African-American folk material by white performers. By the 1750s, "Ethiopian delineators," most of them English and Irish actors, arrived in America. John Durang's 1789 "Horn-pipe," a clog dance that mixed ballet steps with African-American shuffle-and-wings, was performed in blackface. By 1810 the singing and dancing "Negro boy" was an established stage character of blackface impersonators who performed jigs and clogs to popular songs. Thomas Dartmouth Rice's "Jump Jim Crow"—which was less a copy of an African-American dance than it was Rice's "black" version of the Irish jig that appropriated a Negro work-song and dance—was a phenomenal success in 1829. After Rice, Irishmen George Churty and Dan Emmett organized troupes of blackface minstrelmen who brought their Irish-American interpretations of African-American song and dance styles to the minstrel stage. By 1840, the minstrel show as a blackface act of songs, fast-talking repartee in black dialects, and shuffle-and-wing tap dancing became the most popular form of entertainment in America.
That the oddly cross-bred and newly emerging percussive dance was able to retain its African-American integrity is due, in large measure, to William Henry Lane (c. 1825–1852). Known as Master Juba, he was perhaps the most influential single performer in nineteenth-century American dance. Born a free man in Rhode Island, Lane grew up in the Five Points district of Manhattan (now South Street Seaport). An accomplished Irish jig dancer, Lane was unsurpassed in grace and technique, popular for his imitations of famous minstrel dancers, and famous as the undisputed champion of fierce dance competitions. This African-American dancer broke the whites-only barrier of the major minstrel companies, and as a young teenager he toured as the featured dancer with four of the biggest troupes. Lane was an innovator who grafted authentic African-American performance styles and rhythms onto the exacting techniques of jig and clog dancing. Because of his excellence, he influenced the direction of tap, and because he was so admired and imitated during his life and after his death, he fostered the spread of this new dance style.
When black performers finally gained access to the minstrel stage after the Civil War, the tap vocabulary was infused with a variety of fresh new steps and choreographic structures that spurred its growth. The "Essence of Old Virginia," originally a rapid, pigeon-toed sliding step, got slowed down and popularized in the 1870s by Billy Kersands, then refined by George Primrose in the 1890s to a graceful soft shoe. From the minstrel show came the walk-around finale, dances that included competitive and improvisatory sections, and a format of performance that combined songs, jokes, and specialty dances. By the late 1800s, big touring shows such as Sam T. Jack's Creole Company and South Before the War brought black vernacular dance to audiences across America. With the success of Clorindy (1898), which featured a small chorus line of elegant and fashionably dressed women,, and the Creole Show (1889), which replaced the usual blackface comedians with stylish cakewalk teams like Johnson and Dean, the stereotypes set by minstrelsy began to be displaced, and new images of the black performer were formed.
Turn-of-the-century medicine shows, gillies, carnivals and circuses helped establish the black dancer in show business and provided seeds for the growth of professional dancing. During the late 1890s, touring road shows like In Old Kentucky featured Friday night "buck dance" contests (another early term for tap dancing). Black Patti's Troubadours featured cakewalkers and buck-and-wing specialists, while the "jig top" circus tent had chorus lines and comedians dancing an early jazz style that combined shuffles, twists, grinds, struts, flat-footed buck, and eccentric dancing. Tap dance incorporated rubber-legging, the shimmy, and animal dances (peckin', camel-walk, scratchin') from social dance, as well as an entire vocabulary of wings, slides, chugs, and drags.
Performing opportunities increased with the rise of vaudeville (a kind of variety show). Vaudeville, which began in the 1880s, was the most popular form of stage entertainment in America by 1900. It was controlled by syndicates that brought together large numbers of theaters under a single management, which hired and toured the various acts. Because of racist policies, however, two separate vaudevilles developed, one black and one white.
Because of the nature of vaudeville, where performers spent years perfecting their acts before audiences, tap artists were able to refine the steps and styles that expanded tap's vocabulary. The black vaudeville syndicate, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), offered grueling schedules and hard-earned but widespread exposure for such artists as the Whitman Sisters and the Four Covans. Although many black artists—such as "Covan and Ruffin," "Reed and Bryant" and "Greenlee and Drayton"—crossed over to appear on the white vaudeville circuits, they were bound by the "two colored" rule, which restricted blacks to pairs.
Rising from the minstrel show and vaudeville, "Williams and Walker" (Bert Williams and George Walker) introduced a black vernacular dance style to Broadway that was an eccentric blend of the shuffle, strut-turned cake walk and grind, or mooch. Other important contributions were made by younger tap stylists, such as Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson and Bill Bailey, whose styles were descendants of the flat-footed hoofing of King Rastus Brown. The combined contributions of many such artists added to tap's endowment and, equally important, helped shape another stage dance, Broadway jazz.
The Darktown Follies (1913) serves as an example of how black shows disseminated African-American dance styles to the wider culture. Opening in Harlem's Lafayette Theater, Darktown Follies introduced the Texas Tommy, forerunner of the lindy hop, and tap dancer Eddie Rector's smooth style of "stage dancing," Toots Davis's "over-thetop" and "through-the-trenches" (high-flying air steps that would become the tap act's traditional flash finale). Then the black musicals Shuffle Along (1921) and Runnin' Wild (1923) on Broadway created rapid-fire tapping by chorus lines dancing to ragtime jazz, combining tap and stylish vernacular dances such as the Charleston, while the speciality solo and duo tappers blended tap with flips, somersaults, and twisting shimmies.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson gained wide public attention on Broadway in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 at the age of fifty, although he had performed in vaudeville houses since 1921. Wearing wooden, split-soled shoes that gave mellow tones to his tapping, Robinson was known for bringing tap up on its toes, dancing upright and swinging. The 1920s also saw the rise of John "Bubbles" Sublett, credited with inventing "rhythm tap," a fuller and more dimensional rhythmic concept that utilized the dropping of the heels as bass accents and added more taps to the bar. The team of "Buck and Bubbles," formed with Ford Lee "Buck" Washington, was a sensation in the Ziegfield Follies of 1931. White Broadway stars had African-American dance directors, such as Clarence "Buddy" Bradley, who created routines that blended easy tap with black vernacular dance and jazz accenting. Bradley coached such stars as Ruby Keeler, Adele and Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell and Paul Draper.
While white dancers learned tap in the classroom, black dancers developed on their own, often on street corners where dance challenges were hotly contested events. If tap had an institution of learning and apprenticeship, it was the Hoofers Club, next to the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, where rookie and veteran tappers assembled to share, steal, and compete with each other. During the 1930s, tap dancers were often featured performing in front of swing bands in dance halls like Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. The swinging 4/4 bounce of the music of bands such as those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington proved ideal for hoofers, while the smaller vaudeville houses and intimate nightclubs, such as the Cotton Club, featured excellent tap and specialty dancers and small (six- to eightmember) tap chorus lines like the Cotton Club Boys.
Tap was immortalized in the Hollywood film musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, which featured Bill Robinson, Robinson and Shirley Temple, Buck and Bubbles, the Nicholas Brothers, and the Berry Brothers. However, these were exceptions, and for the most part, black dancers were denied access to the white film industry. Because of continued segregation and different budgets, a distinction in tap styles developed. In general, black artists like John Bubbles kept the tradition of rhythm-jazz tapping with its flights of percussive improvisation, while white artists like Fred Astaire polished the high style of tapping seen on films, where rhythms were often less important than the integration of choreography with scenography.
As tap became the favorite form of American theatrical dance, its many stylistic genres got bunched into loose categories: The Eccentric style was comedic, virtuosic, and idiosyncratic, exemplified by the routines (progenitors of later breakdancing moves) of Jigsaw Jackson, who circled and tapped while keeping his face against the floor; or the tapping of Alberta Whitman, who executed high-kicking legomania as a male impersonator. A Russian style, pioneered by Ida Forsyne in the 1910s, popularized Russian "kazotsky" kicks. This style was taken to Broadway by Dewey Weinglass and Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson. (A profusion of similar kicks and twisting, rubbery legs reemerged in hip-hop dance).
The Acrobatic style made famous by Willie Covan, Three Little Words, and the Four Step Brothers, featuring flips, somersaults, cartwheels, and splits. A cousin of this form, the Flash Act—brought to a peak of perfection by the Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard)—combined elegant tap dancing with highly stylized acrobatics and precision-timed stunts.
Comedy Dance teams such as Slap and Happy, Stump and Stumpy, Chuck and Chuckles, and Cook and Brown inculcated their tap routines with jokes, knockabout acrobatics, grassroots characterizations, and rambunctious translations of vernacular dance in a physically robust style.
The Class Act brought the art of elegance and nuance, complexity and musicality to tap. From the first decades of the century, the debonair song-and-dance teams of Johnson and Cole and Greenlee and Drayton, as well as soloists such as Maxie McCree, Aaron Palmer, and Jack Wiggins, traversed the stage, creating beautiful pictures with each motion. Eddie Rector dovetailed one step into another in a graceful flow of sound and movement, while the act of Pete, Peaches, and Duke brought precision and unison work to a peak. Coles and Atkins (Charles "Honi" Coles and Cholly Atkins), certainly the most famous of the Class Act tappers of the 1930s to 1960s, combined flawless, high-speed rhythm-tapping with the slowest soft shoe in the business. Lena Horne said that Honi Coles made butterflies seem clumsy.
By the mid-1940s, big bands were being replaced by smaller, streamlined bebop groups whose racing tempos and complex rhythms were too challenging for most tappers, who were accustomed to the clear rhythms of swing. However, led by the greatly admired "Baby" Laurence, who meshed into bop combos by improvising and using tap as another percussive voice within the combo, many younger tappers took flight with bop and made the transition. These early tap bopsters of the 1940s and 1950s broke ground for the rapid and dense tap style that gained popularity in the 1990s.
By the 1950s, tap was in a sharp decline. This has been attributed to various causes: (1) the demise of vaudeville and the variety act; (2) the devaluing of tap dance on film; (3) the shift toward ballet and modern dance on the Broadway stage; (4) the imposition of a federal tax on dance floors which closed ballrooms and eclipsed the big bands; and (5) the advent of the jazz combo and the desire of musicians to play in a more intimate and concertized format. "Tap didn't die," says tap dancer Howard "Sandman" Sims, "it was just neglected." In fact the neglect was so thorough that this indigenous American dance form was almost lost, except for television reruns of old Hollywood musicals.
Those hoofers who lived through tap's lean years reveled in tap's resurgence. Jazz and tap historian Marshall Stearns, recognizing the danger of tap's imminent demise, arranged for a group of tap masters to perform at the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival. It was viewed as the last farewell, but it actually marked a rebirth that continued with Leticia Jay's historic Tap Happening (1969) at the Hotel Dixie in New York.
By the mid-1970s, young dancers began to seek out elder tap masters to teach them. Tap dance—previously ignored as art and dismissed as popular entertainment—now made one of the biggest shifts of its long history and moved to the concert stage. The African-American aesthetic fit the postmodern dance taste: it was a minimalist art that fused musician and dancer; it celebrated pedestrian movement and improvisation; its art seemed casual and democratic; and tap could be performed in any venue, from the street to the stage. Enthusiastic critical and public response placed tap firmly within the larger context of dance as art, fueling the flames of its renaissance.
The 1970s produced a number of video documentaries on tap, such as Jazz Hoofer: The Legendary Baby Laurence, Great Feats of Feet, and No Maps On My Taps, while the 1980s exploded with the films White Nights, The Cotton Club and Tap; tap festivals across the country; and the musical Black and Blue on Broadway. On television, Tap Dance in America, hosted by Gregory Hines and featuring tap masters and young virtuosos such as Savion Glover, bridged the gap between tap and mainstream entertainment.
In the 1990s, tap dance became concertized art form, danced, though not exclusively, to jazz music and infused with upper-body shapes of jazz dance and new spatial forms from modern dance. Incorporating new technologies for amplifying sounds and embellishing rhythms, new generations of tap artists are not only continuing tap's heritage, but forging new styles for the future.
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constance valis hill (1996)
sally sommer (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
"Tap Dance." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tap-dance
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