Tapping into the Legacy: Exploring the Depth of Tap Dance Tradition

Tapping into the Legacy: Exploring the Depth of Tap Dance Tradition

A Rhythmic Battle for the Ages

On a February evening in 1997, the 39th annual Grammy Awards ceremony turned into a rhythmic battle royale. In one corner stood Colin Dunn, the star of the hit musical Riverdance, representing the elegant, high-stepping tradition of Irish dance. In the other corner was Savion Glover, the dynamic choreographer and performer of the groundbreaking Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, embodying the percussive power of African-American jazz tap.

The two dancers faced off in a dazzling display of footwork, trading rapid-fire rhythms and challenging each other with ever-more complex combinations. Dunn’s crisp, precise Irish steps met their match in Glover’s raw, full-bodied “hitting” style – a fusion of jazz and hip-hop that utilized the entire foot to create a thunderous, syncopated barrage of sound.

As the audience roared with excitement, the two dancers engaged in a rhythmic repartee, interrupting and one-upping each other’s lines, until the tension reached a fever pitch. For a breathless moment, they stood glaring at each other, flat-footed, before turning away without a word – the victor left ambiguous, the rivalry unresolved.

This electrifying “tap dance challenge” perfectly encapsulates the dynamic, competitive spirit that has driven the evolution of tap dancing, one of America’s truly indigenous art forms. Tapping its roots in the blending of African and European dance traditions, tap has developed over centuries through a process of playful one-upmanship, mutual inspiration, and the ceaseless pursuit of virtuosic mastery.

The Melting Pot Origins of Tap

The origins of tap dance can be traced back hundreds of years to the cultural collision of West Africa and the British Isles on the shores of the Americas. As enslaved Africans and indentured Irish laborers toiled side-by-side on the plantations of the Caribbean and the American South, their respective rhythmic traditions began to intermingle and evolve.

On the decks of slave ships crossing the Middle Passage, Africans were forced to “exercise” by dancing to the sounds of fiddles, harps, and bagpipes played by their captors. These impromptu dance parties became a crucible for the first stirrings of a new percussive idiom, as the rattle of chains and the rhythmic slapping of bodies against wood and metal began to infuse the European dance forms.

Similarly, on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants lived, worked, and even rebelled side-by-side. As they shared music, dance, and storytelling traditions, the rhythmic patterns of the Irish jig and the West African gioube (a sacred and secular stepping dance) began to fuse into a new hybrid form.

This cultural exchange continued as these populations migrated to the American mainland, where the rhythmic and percussive elements of their respective dance traditions continued to intermingle and evolve. By the early 19th century, this syncretic style of rhythmic stepping had coalesced into a recognized African-American dance form known as “jigging.”

The Minstrel Show and the Birth of Tap

The minstrel show – a popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America featuring white performers in blackface – became a crucial crucible for the development of tap dance. Although the minstrel show relied on racist stereotypes and caricatures, it also served as a vehicle for the dissemination of African-American music, dance, and performance styles to wider audiences.

One of the most influential figures in this regard was William Henry Lane, known as “Master Juba.” Born a free man in New York City, Lane grew up immersed in the vibrant cultural milieu of the Five Points district, learning to dance from an African-American jig and reel dancer named Uncle Jim Lowe. Honing his skills through competitive “challenge” dances, Lane went on to tour with all-white minstrel troupes, becoming the first African-American dancer to perform without blackface makeup for the Queen of England.

Lane’s virtuosic fusion of African rhythms and the exacting techniques of European jig and clog dancing forged a new percussive idiom that would form the foundation of tap. As African-American performers gained greater access to the minstrel stage after the Civil War, they infused this emerging tap vocabulary with a wide range of new steps, rhythms, and choreographic structures drawn from their own social dance traditions.

The Roaring Rhythms of Ragtime

The arrival of ragtime music in the late 19th century precipitated another major transformation in the evolution of tap. The syncopated, duple-metered rhythms of ragtime melded European melodic and harmonic elements with distinctly African-American rhythmic sensibilities, giving rise to the earliest forms of jazz. Tap dance, in turn, absorbed these rhythmic innovations, evolving into a new “jazz tap” style that mirrored the propulsive energy and improvisational spirit of the music.

Productions like the all-black Broadway musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) showcased this exciting new fusion. Composer Will Marion Cook’s ragtime-infused score provided a rhythmic foundation for choreographer Ernest Hogan’s percussive, offbeat movements – including the trademark “cakewalk” step, which had originated as a satirical imitation of white plantation owners’ mannerisms.

Tap also found its way onto the vaudeville stage, where performers like Bert Williams and George Walker dazzled audiences with their virtuosic blending of the shuffle, the strut, and the cakewalk. In the early 20th century, tap dancers had to prove their mettle in competitive “buck-and-wing” and “cakewalk” contests in order to gain entry into the profession and onto the Broadway stage.

The Tap Kings of the 1920s

The 1920s saw tap dance reach new heights of popularity and sophistication, as the rhythmic innovations of the jazz age swept the nation. Tap masters like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles (of the legendary duo Buck and Bubbles) captivated audiences with their unique styles, each leaving an indelible mark on the art form.

Robinson, born in 1878 in Richmond, Virginia, had honed his craft performing for nickels and dimes on the streets before finding fame on the vaudeville circuit. His elegant, delicate style – featuring intricate footwork, whimsical gestures, and a keen rhythmic sensibility – helped elevate tap into a true concert art form. Langston Hughes famously described Robinson’s taps as “human percussion,” likening the dancer’s subtle, expressive footwork to a virtuosic jazz solo.

In contrast, John Bubbles pioneered a more percussive, full-bodied approach that he dubbed “rhythm tapping.” Bubbles, born in 1902 in Louisville, Kentucky, developed a style that featured a greater emphasis on the dropping of the heels and the use of the entire foot to create complex, improvised rhythmic patterns. His rhythmic innovations opened new doors for tap, paving the way for the virtuosic “bebop” tap styles that would emerge in the decades to come.

These two titans of tap, along with a host of other master hoofers, would hone their craft at the legendary Hoofers Club in Harlem – a veritable crucible of rhythmic innovation where dancers would gather to share, steal, and challenge each other’s steps. It was here that the essence of tap’s competitive, collaborative spirit was forged.

The Decline and Resurgence of Tap

Tragically, the golden age of tap would not last. By the 1950s, the art form had fallen on hard times, victims of the decline of vaudeville, the rise of television, and shifting musical tastes. Many veteran tap dancers found themselves out of work, taking jobs as bellhops, bartenders, and carpenters to make ends meet.

As tap historian Howard “Sandman” Sims lamented, “Tap didn’t die – it was just neglected.” For over a decade, the rhythmic legacy of tap seemed on the verge of being lost, save for the occasional television special featuring the likes of Ray Bolger or John Bubbles.

But in the 1960s and 70s, a new generation of dancers and choreographers – many of them white women inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements – rediscovered the power and artistry of tap. Pioneers like Jane Goldberg, Brenda Bufalino, and Lynn Dally sought out elder tap masters, determined to preserve and expand upon this vital American tradition.

Through festivals, documentaries, and innovative stage productions, these tap revivalists helped reintroduce tap to wider audiences, reestablishing it as a viable concert art form. By the 1980s and 90s, tap was enjoying a full-blown renaissance, with virtuosic young dancers like Savion Glover leading the charge and pushing the art form in bold new directions.

Tap’s Enduring Legacy

Today, tap dance is recognized as a quintessentially American art form – a living, breathing repository of the nation’s complex cultural history. From its Afro-Irish origins to its embrace of jazz and hip-hop rhythms, tap has continuously evolved, mirroring the rhythms and stories of the communities that have shaped it.

And the legacy of tap’s competitive, collaborative spirit lives on. Tap jams, battles, and festivals continue to draw dancers from around the world, who gather to share, steal, and challenge each other’s virtuosic footwork. The ghosts of tap’s pioneering legends – Bojangles, Bubbles, Coles, and Glover, among others – linger in every syncopated step, their influence felt in the work of a new generation of hoofers.

As you explore the rhythmic riches of tap dance, I encourage you to visit the Musical Theater Center – a hub dedicated to preserving, teaching, and celebrating this quintessentially American art form. Through classes, performances, and educational programming, the Center aims to keep the spirit of tap alive, inspiring new generations of dancers to join the never-ending rhythmic conversation.

So lace up your tap shoes, settle in, and get ready to be swept up in the thunderous, syncopated poetry of tap – a dance form that has been tapping into the heart of the American experience for over 300 years.

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