Tap dance, it is an art that has seem to be forgotten. Often called America’s second past time, it has become a lost art in the African-American culture. It is an art form that has died off in popularity when competing with other art forms of today’s modern society. However, it is not an art form to be completely forgotten and buried. Tap dance was once a movement rich in aestheticism and talent. It brought life to many jazz songs during the 1940’s and it produced many great names and moves that are still known in today’s culture of dance.
This is my ode to a lost history of the art of tap dance:
The roots of tap dancing are intertwined among many cultures including the British, Irish and African Slaves. The Irish culture had clog dancing which involved fast foot movements performed in wooden clog shoes. These same movements are similar to those found in tap dancing. African slaves that plantation owners called “leveed” dancers, would beat out rhythms using mainly their hands and feet producing rhythm and steps that are still incorporated in tap dance today.
These movements spread slowly with the beginning of “blackface” performers who mocked the African slaves. White performers would paint their faces black and imitate moves of the African slaves while on stage. In the 1830’s Thomas “Daddy” Rice was one of the first blackface performers to premier a tapping dance in his show. He performed with hard metallic soles on his shoes which was quickly imitated by other blackface performers. Tap dance became a form of entertainment.
William Henry Lane might be a familiar name early on in the history of tap. He was one of the earliest known African-American rhythm dancers who performed alongside white dancers. Also there was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who is best known for dancing alongside Shirley Temple. He was one of the best known tap dancers of his time. He not only did stage performances, but also appeared in Hollywood on-screen productions as well. Harold Daniels and Leslie Irvin also made up the famous tap dance duo Slap and Happy. This was just the beginning of many talented dancers to come in later years as tap progressed.
Tap dancing really experienced its golden years when it was combined with the sounds of jazz music during the 1940’s. Originally tap dancing involved mainly the feet, leaving the upper body of the performer stiff. However with the addition of jazz, performers added more full movements of the body that incorporated movements of the hands and arms to emphasize the new rhythms of jazz. It was during this era that more tap dancing steps emerged such as the shuffle, ball change, brush and slide tap. Variations of these movements make up more complex moves of tap dance. Some famous tap dancers during this era who paved the way for others include Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Hollywood productions also helped to popularize tap dancing as well in films such as All That Jazz and The Bandwagon.
After the 1940’s people lost an interest in tap and the art form found itself slowly fading. This may have been due to the controversy behind tap dancing. Many African-Americans felt that tap dancing originated as a mockery of the black culture and took offense to those who participated in the art. Also other more popular dance forms sparked a greater interest to the American culture, tap dance simply couldn’t keep up with the times.
However during the late 80’s, early 90’s a small revival of tap dancing did occur through two creative dancers; Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Gregory Hines is most famous for being an actor and dancer. He helped revive tap dance in such films as The Cotton Club and Tap in the early 80’s. He also won many Tony Awards and starred in many Broadway productions. Savion Glover is one of today’s more contemporary tap dancers. He’s best known for his appearances on Sesame Street and in Broadway productions such as “Black and Blue” and the “Tap Dancing Kid.” He is also responsible for the dance movements behind Mumble in the film Happy Feet. Glover has also won a Tony Award as well and his latest project has been to restore tap dance in the context of the African-American culture.
Modern-day tap dancing in the African-American culture involves a more urban edge that incorporates today’s hip-hop music and dance moves. It has moved away from simply being a form of entertainment and has evolved over the years into an art form of dance. As the historical context of tap dancing evolved, it became less about degrading a race in satirical comedy shows and more about celebrating the talents of African-American performers and their coming of age. The following is an exert from a paper written by Alice Grey who better describes the metamorphism of tap dancing during the later years:
“Interest in tap dancing was rekindled in the 1980’s, and it gave rise to new forms of the dance. African-American artists were able to take advantage of new political freedom, and to break out of the prison of stereotypes. Along with the emergence of a hip-hop and rap boom, tap dancing changed and adapted to the times. With the success of African-American dancers like Alvin Ailey, came a new push by African-American tap dancers to be regarded as artists rather than purely as entertainers (Hill 246). Harriet Jackson, a writer for Dance Magazine, described the 1980’s phenomenon as artists “emerging from the minstrel-vaudeville cocoon” giving way to “the Negro dancer and choreographer who no longer feels he must be confined to dancing ‘Negro Roles’ (246).” The movie Tap (1989) starring Gregory Hines put the reality of an evolution of mainstream tap on the big screen.”
My ode to tap dance: an art form never to be forgotten.
Below is a video of the both Hines and Glover performing in the movie “Bojangles”