History, Herstory, Our Story

November 9, 2008

Jason Samuels Smith—the first tapper to win an Emmy award for choreography since Hermes Pan in 1958—performs at the cutting edge of tap, but he still holds an enormous respect for the past. “Tap culture is all about celebrating the past and accumulating its vocabulary over time,” he says. “If we don’t maintain our history, we lose what’s valuable about tap.”


He’s not the only one who thinks that way. Performer/scholars like Professor Ann Kilkelly from Virginia Tech have also been working hard to preserve the past. “Tap history is mostly an oral tradition,” Kilkelly says, “and a single definitive history has not yet been written.” Still, she and others like her are working hard to uncover the truth about how the artform developed.

The Early Days

The common theory is that tap began in the 1840s, when two groups—emancipated slaves and Irish immigrants—met in NYC. As Kilkelly notes, both groups were poor and ostracized from mainstream society, but they also shared something else—a love of percussive dance. By blending their knowledge, they created an early form of tap dance. From Europe came steps typical of clogging and Irish step dancing, and from Africa came the syncopation, phrasing and “feel” of tap, meaning its sense of looseness, its groundedness and its use of a crouched (as opposed to an elevated) stance. African dancers also contributed an improvisational element.


The best dancer in this new style was William Henry Lane, who went by the stage name “Master Juba.” Lane won all but one of a series of challenges against John Diamond, the preeminent Irish dancer of the time, and was famous not only in America, but also in Europe—the result of an article written by English novelist Charles Dickens, raving about Lane’s dancing. Lane could not only imitate the best dancers of the era, he could improvise his own steps. Critics noted his grace, execution and endurance, but especially praised his mastery of the new dance form’s unique rhythmic elements.


Tap dance developed throughout the early 1900s, primarily in vaudeville. While male tap dancers acted as headliners, women tappers filled out the chorus lines. Though many of their names have been lost, these women were incredibly versatile and talented. Headliners often did the same act week after week (or even year after year), but the chorus had to learn a new routine every few weeks, often working with props and in outlandish costumes, performing as many as four shows a day.


Vaudeville produced the man known as perhaps the greatest tap dancer ever—Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Though he toned down his talent to dance on film with the young Shirley Temple, he is remembered for his “stair dance” and his uncanny ability to sound the same on both the left and right foot. His skill also paved the way for the golden age of tap. Technically precise, with clean and clear sounds, he sat beautifully in the groove, never having to rush or resort to theatrical moves to win the audience over. Instead, he would watch his feet, “croon and laugh with them,” as one critic put it, seemingly just as amazed as his audience at the sounds they produced.


The Golden Age of Tap

During the 1930s and 1940s, tap dance was hot. Dancers found work in film, on Broadway and in jazz clubs around the country. Hollywood made stars of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, all of whom combined fantastic feet with the kind of style and innovation that turns a tapper into an icon. African-American dancers were barred from performing in mainstream movies except as novelty acts (though rumor has it that Gene Kelly insisted on working with the Nicholas Brothers, whom he considered the greatest tappers alive, in the film The Pirate) but flooded the nightclubs and starred in movies aimed specifically for black audiences.


Dancers during this era vied to come up with the flashiest, most difficult, most surprising acts. Fred Astaire danced with canes, hat racks and firecrackers. With his acrobatic background, Gene Kelly swung on rigging and leapt on and off furniture. Both of them combined tap with other forms of dance, such as ballroom and ballet. The Nicholas Brothers had all the pizzazz of a “flash act”—the splits, the leaps, the lightning-fast feet—but had the style and full-body control that epitomized a “class act.”


“Fred and Gene were instrumental because they got men in America dancing,” says Bessie Award–winning tapper Sam Weber. “But Astaire was particularly important because he was so natural in his movements and really helped define the vocabulary of tap.” Still, Weber realizes that singling out individual dancers is problematic. “The best-known people were not necessarily the first or only people doing a particular step or style,” he says, particularly during a period of racial segregation.

The Tide Turns

In the late ’40s, the work for tappers began to wane and by the early ’50s it had totally dried up. Oklahoma!, with its innovative dream ballet sequence, was a huge success on Broadway, and tap dance was no longer in. The baby boom meant people stayed home with their families, closing nightclubs and putting jazz tappers out of a job. During the 1960s and 1970s, just about the only tappers with a steady gig were Sammy Davis, Jr., who was so cool he could do anything, and Arthur Duncan, who appeared regularly on the Lawrence Welk show. All of the other great tap masters had disappeared.


The 1980s saw the resurgence of tap through the festival movement (see “Tap’s Renaissance,” p. 78) and by the early 1990s, percussive dance was back, with Stomp, Tap Dogs and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk touring the country and the world. Today, tap artists have many more opportunities. They can work with live musicians in the pure jazz tap tradition or create conceptual performance pieces. Though solo work exists, there are a growing number of companies dedicated entirely to tap.


Still, tap remembers its roots. Educated dancers not only know historical breaks and rhythm patterns, they are able to recognize them when other dancers quote these lines in a dance. “It’s like a code or secret language,” says Samuels Smith. “Outsiders may not recognize the reference, but educated dancers know it and appreciate it.” Tap also remains a uniquely American artform. “Although global influences have started trickling in,” says Weber, “the impetus of tap is still from the U.S. out.”


Though tap is proud of its past, today’s artists recognize that history has not always been entirely inclusive as a matter of race or gender. “Now we’re at a time when we can change that,” says Samuels Smith. “We can recognize and celebrate the foundation of why we’re all here.”