By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection
Explore the complex history of this rhythmic style of dance
Tap Dancing is a career choice very few would think existed in this day and age. Let’s be honest, many people probably believe that tap dance is a lost art in 2019. What’s worse, is that most believe it to be a lost novelty, implying that its significance in America was short-lived and has little bearing on the present day. For me, tap dance is not a novelty. Tap dance is a style of dance, an art form with a rich history, and part of the American narrative that should not be understated. Tap dance is more than making sounds with one’s feet.
The origins of tap dance
When you stop to think about it, tap dance is a coming together of cultures and traditions. With roots across several continents and more than 300 years of cultural exchange, appropriation, and assimilation, it requires a lot of unpacking. If we were to examine its history with a broader lens, tap dance shares a parentage consisting of African tribal dances, English clog dancing, and Irish jigs.
A prominent influence of tap is from the juba – a dance of stomping and slapping of the arms and legs. The juba was originally brought by the Kongo people to Charleston, South Carolina and routinely performed on Southern plantations by the enslaved people. They creatively sidestepped laws that banned communication through instruments like drums, by using their bodies instead.
Bill Robinson (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
A complex history
Tap dance’s complex history with the African American narrative continues beyond its origins and into the 1800s with its associations with minstrel shows, which consisted of dancing, skits, and stunts and were popular at the time.
It grew famous in Louisville, Kentucky, when white dancer/actor Thomas Dartmouth (also known as Daddy Rice) was propelled to stardom playing a character called “Jumping Jim Crow”, a parody he performed in “blackface” to demonstrate this “new slave dancing” as part of his minstrel routine.
In 1844, a free-born black dancer William Henry Lane became one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel troupe. He fused European steps with African rhythms in front of white audiences and is recognized by dance scholars as "the first tap dancer". Known by his moniker “Juba, King of All Dancers”, Marshall Stearns declared him in his important book, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, as "the most significant figure in 19th century American dance."
By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection
BIll Robinson (Bojangles) at Cafe Zanzibar (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Progress for tap dance
William Henry Lane was a key figure in transcending racial barriers in the entertainment and dance world. Ironically his appearance in the minstrel troupes paved the way for white audiences being “comfortable” with black performers on stage, thus leading to the elimination of the need for black face at all.
Bill Robinson, also known as “Bojangles”, was one such tap dancer who followed Lane’s footsteps in breaking racial barriers, and ultimately became one of the most influential performers in Hollywood history despite his skin color.
In Vaudeville circuit, a theatrical genre of entertainment which took over from minstrel shows in the 1900s, there was an unspoken agreement known as the “two-colored rule”. It suggested that no black performer could be a soloist, but Robinson broke that supposed protocol. Robinson was a great success and soon became a world-famous celebrity. His fame reached the heights of Hollywood, where he became a star through leading roles in films with fellow tap dancer star, Shirley Temple. Audiences had never seen anything like Temple, a young white girl, dancing with Robinson, an adult black man.
Shirley Temple (1945-05) by Martha HolmesLIFE Photo Collection
Shirley Temple by Martha Holmes (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Tap dance in Hollywood
Tap dance was America’s dance, so it soon became a prominent feature in Hollywood films. Robinson came to Hollywood just as it was taking off, and he and many fellow performers were provided with lots of opportunities. These golden years saw now iconic films being produced including Dixiana (1930), starring Bill Robinson; Forty-Second Street (1933) starring Ruby Keeler; The Little Colonel (1935), starring Robinson again with Shirley Temple; Swing Time (1936) featuring Fred Astaire; Atlantic City (1944) with tap duo Buck and Bubbles; Lady Be Good, featuring the Berry Brothers, Stormy Weather (1943), starring Bill Robinson with the Nicholas Brothers; and The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946), featuring the Condos Brothers.
While the inclusion of these dancers in big blockbusters was a sign of progress, black dancers still struggled in the white-dominated film industry due to segregation. Some distinctions in tap styles began to take shape. Black dance artist John Bubbles continued rhythm tap’s tradition of specialized moments of improvisation; while white artist Gene Kelly evolved a balletic, showman style of tap dancing in which rhythms were less important than the integration of dance into the musical narrative. But of course these examples allude to the individual styles of these dancers and in fact there were many crossovers and styles adopted by dancers.
Gene Kelly (1944) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection
Gene Kelly by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Tap’s enduring relationship with jazz
Tap dance and jazz music are like peanut butter and jelly. Both can be used in other endeavors but they fundamentally belong together. Tap dancers consider themselves musicians, not just dancers.
During the slave era in America, slaves were separated from others of the same tribe (so they couldn’t communicate) and as mentioned there were laws prohibiting the use of instruments in order to avoid rebellion. Just as tap evolved from slaves using their bodies and feet for percussion, jazz music has the same origin story. What this means is the same forces that make American pop culture dance (the combination of European and African elements) is the same thing that makes American pop culture music. They’ve just been expressed in slightly different ways.
According to W.C. Handy (AKA the Father of The Blues), jazz and tap dance came “down the same drain” of minstrelsy, while origin stories for ragtime include the syncopated stepping of ‘buck-dancing blacks.’”
This was easy to see when looking at the bills of great music venues in New York or Chicago during the 1920s. When Louis Armstrong played with the Fletcher Henderson band in New York for instance, tap dancers were also on the bill “contributing to this rhythmic innovation”. This continued throughout the 30s and 40s, where the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Count Basie were accompanied by tap dancers “who played jazz with their feet.”
W. C. Handy, 1956 by Carnegie Hall ArchivesCarnegie Hall
W C Handy (From the collection of Carnegie Hall)
Tap dance is timeless
For the modern tap dancer, jazz music still plays an integral part in their training. A tap dancer must be familiar and comfortable with jazz music and its history. However, tap is not limited to just one genre of music. Since a tap dancer is a musician with their feet, they can dance to anything with a musical structure to it.
American dancer and choreographer Gregory Hines really pushed the boundaries of what people thought you could use for music for tap. Up until Hines, people thought it was strictly a jazz thing. He changed all of that during a renaissance of tap in the late 1970s and opened the gates for others like American tap dancer Savion Glover to come along later and use hip hop. This is a natural progression as tap has travelled all over the world now, and is no longer just an American art form, so other choices of music are available.
This development allows tap dance to prevent itself from becoming dated, as it can be applied to any music. This is necessary for the dance form to remain relevant, but it naturally keeps up with popular music of the age. So the question to ask yourself is, “what gets you moving?" and try dancing to that.
Duke Ellington Orchestra (1946) by William Gottlieb. Used by permissionSFJAZZ Center
Duke Ellington Orchestra (From the collection of SF JAZZ Center)
Tap dance breeds community
Tap dance is a social dance. Just like hip hop, tap developed through people listening to and watching each other in the street, club, or dance hall where steps were shared, taken, and reinvented. Technique in tap is transferred through stories and relationships between dancers and musicians, mentors and students, or between friends. This organic and social exchange is an invaluable factor in the growth and evolution of the form.
Elders are highly respected and revered, and the prominent figures are propped up and remembered. In a fashion very similar to African traditions, one is not merely dancing for themselves but rather they dance for the community and their ancestors.
When you say you are a tap dancer, you are tapping (no pun intended) into a large well of human experience and expression.
Kenji Igus tap dancing by Alessio Belloni