Tap: An Under-Appreciated Art Form

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It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a tap dancer. Today, I purchased a pair of Capezio FlexMaster tap shoes (pictured above) after my poor introductory shoes finally broke down after ten years of wear-and-tear. I’ve never been a competitive dancer, but I have been dancing for over half my life; I dabbled in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and pointe, and tap was the dance form that truly resonated with me. Syncopated rhythms and intricate footwork were easier for me to latch onto than, say, the flexibility required in a jazz straddle. I got to college and participated in the tap dance team there for all four years of undergrad, co-directing the team my senior year. It’s a huge part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing it.

But I find that, especially recently, tap has kind of fallen to the wayside. The #NationalDanceDay hashtag on Instagram and Twitter (July 25th) depicted images mostly of ballet dancers jette leaping in the air, or contemporary dance routines emphasizing emotion and metaphor. And that’s wonderful. Dance is an amazing form of expression and I don’t regret exploring other dance forms in the least–I stuck with them for a decade at the same dance studio, after all!

But seriously. What about tap? This dancer blogged on Tumblr this past week lamenting that her studio cut their tap program. Companies in major cities like Boston and New York haven’t updated their websites in months. And speaking from experience, when you say you’re a tap dancer, people tend to assume you’re an import out of 1950s Broadway and expect you to finish your sentence with, “and golly, isn’t it just a hoot!”

The fact is, though, tap isn’t stuck in any time period. It moves with the times. Out of ballet came contemporary and lyrical dance forms to accommodate modernized, varied expansions on what ballet can achieve performatively. Tap, I argue, has always been that way. It’s a fusion of a plethora of cultures, dance types, and histories. People have stolen and modified and exchanged tap steps since the first shuffle-off-to-Buffalo was tapped out, and tappers haven’t stopped creating new combinations of rhythms yet.

So why is it so overlooked? Sure, people still do it, and do it well (Savion Glover tours the country with his company and performs sold-out shows). But it bugs me that when people think “dance,” they don’t think “tap.” I don’t have an answer as to why that is, but I have a few ideas. Some are nicer to think about than others. But I’m going to lay them all out here, regardless, and hopefully start a conversation.

Tap is a uniquely American art form. What makes it American is it has a wide and deep-rooted history in all different cultures. I’ve done a lot of research on tap over the years, both for academic and personal purposes. For my English class on the Harlem Renaissance in my last semester at Wheaton, I wrote a paper on dance as it related to African-American identity during the Harlem Renaissance. An excerpt of my paper explaining tap’s role in that construction of identity is as follows:

The dance form is known for its combination of many influences including European and Irish roots, as well as links back to minstrelsy in the nineteenth century. Tap rose high in popularity during the Harlem Renaissance, due in no small part to a number of innovative black dancers. Most important to this discussion of identity through dance, however, is that tap was considered a very well-respected dance form by whites—and its roots are full of African influences, too. African dance consists of “gliding, shuffling and dragging steps” which led to the tap steps known as “slides, drags, draws, and chugs” today (Knowles 23). […] we see how African tradition permeates the kinds of dance we see today—and how it functions to preserve cultural identity.

Irish, African, and black minstrel influences. What does that tell you? Tap is a dance type constructed by people who, at one point or another, were (or still are) considered minorities. One could argue that there is a race narrative–perhaps a racist narrative–in how the image of tap dance has been constructed over the last couple of centuries. Tap was not really considered a performative dance until white dancers in the 1800s used blackface and showcased their interpretations of African-American dancing. So, tap started out as a white appropriation of black dance–until black dancers like John Bubbles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson reclaimed it as a sophisticated art form with powerful, elaborate moves and footwork. Opposite these dancers you had Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and other white dancers that added their own “clean” and “crisp” steps and styles to tap. Thus, tap became representative of a fusion of black and white American cultures rather than an attempt to appropriate either way. But tap is, and always will be, rooted in the African-American’s rise to create identity in the performance space. What does that say about it being cast aside? Is it not deemed a “legitimate” art form because its roots are so entangled in different places around the globe? Irish step-dancing has its influences on tap, as well, especially with all the hop-stepping and time stepping (there is a tap step called “the Irish”)–what makes it more legitimate, though, than tap? Are ballet, with roots in France and Russia, or jazz stemming out of the Roaring 1920s, more “acceptable” because we can clearly trace them back to a few sources? These are questions to consider.

You also don’t really hear about tap-induced injuries (unless you attempt a bell-kick and knock the heel of your tap into your ankle. Which I’ve done. Ow). Let’s be honest–risk of injury really adds to the prestige of any athletic pursuit. In a 2003 study done in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, research showed that “calculated injury rates among the tap dancers were substantially lower than those previously reported for other dance and athlete populations” (source). So. Because you’re dancing so low to the ground and don’t typically involve your arms and legs too much, tap is less risky. From an outside perspective it just looks like someone moving their feet really fast. While that’s an accurately simplified depiction of what tap is, it doesn’t do tap justice at all. There is a method to each rhythm produced with the taps on the foot, even when moves are improvised. Also, I’ve watched tap dancers leap off of very high blocks onstage–it’s all up to how crazy a choreographer wants to get!

Tap also isn’t very conventional in terms of dance as artistic expression. When we think “dance,” we think grace and ballet barre. Tappers, especially these days, tend to stamp-stomp around like they own a place–not exactly what you had in mind, is it? She’s beauty and she’s grace…she’ll tap you in the face… 

In reality, there’s a whole lot of grace involved in tap, too–did you know in order to produce crisp sounds, a tapper should essentially be up on the balls of their feet at all times, unless a move indicates otherwise? Bojangles coined the balls-of-the-feet style, and Fred Astaire and tons of dancers afterwards followed his lead. There has to be something in it, right? Of course there is: balance, technique, and a sense of rhythm. I’d call a person who has all those skills very graceful indeed.

There is so much history embedded in tap, and so much to learn from it. And just like any other dance form, it’s a valid form of creative expression. It’s even been effectively used in dance-movement therapy, according to a 2011 study. And however cliche it sounds, there’s something in it for everyone, regardless of skill level. I’d also argue tap is about community. Sure, talented and enthusiastic dancers compete with tap numbers all over the world, and there are competitions exclusively for tap. But more often than not, you see gatherings of tap dancers. Conventions. Places where people come together to just have fun and exchange ideas. I wouldn’t trade that opportunity for anything.

I hope people come to recognize just how powerful an art form tap is, as it was in the early twentieth century. There are so many more rhythms to be made, more footwork to be learned. Why slow down now? Let’s tap it out.

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2 thoughts on “Tap: An Under-Appreciated Art Form

  1. Great post! I had no idea about the origins of tap dancing, this was really interesting. I used to tap years ago and still now sometimes I’ll find myself tapping around my house. Hope you continue to have lots of fun with it!

    Like

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