Show Tap: A Spectacular Style

November 30, 2009

In the final number of the movie musical Broadway Melody of 1940, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell and George Murphy’s feet click away to the Cole Porter song “I’ve Got My Eyes On You.” Look at their fast-moving taps and you’ll recognize pull-backs, shuffles, back essences and flaps. Dancing on the balls of their feet, with relaxed but supported arms, they seem completely at ease. The three perform directly to the audience, showing off bright smiles and a playful demeanor.

This number, in which tap dance is presented as effortless and fun, epitomizes classic show tap. When Broadway Melody of 1940 was released, show tap had been the driving force of Hollywood musicals for more than a decade. Beginning in the 1930s, as popular entertainment moved from the stage to the silver screen, audiences fell in love with the poise, grace and fleet-footed talent of show tappers. Read on to learn about a classic style of tap.

Elements of Style

Although show tap, rhythm tap and hoofing (which emphasizes intricate rhythmic footwork) overlap and influence each other, some general distinctions can be made. The building blocks of show tap are the same steps you’ve learned in class: maxi fords, shuffles, flaps, time-steps and essences, among many others. Show-tap style adds a full-body performance, facial expressions, an upright torso, choreographed arm placement and a welcoming stage presence.

The style also calls for an effortless feel and requires performers to direct their energy out to the audience. Powell’s cameo ap

pearance in the 1950 film Duchess of Idaho demonstrates this. Her solo features taps so light and fast you can hardly see her feet move. But she doesn’t let the difficulty show: Her face only changes from a slight smile to a coy grin when she pulls off a tricky step.

This kind of control comes from ballet training, another essential element of show tap. Choreographer and Broadway veteran Randy Skinner describes hoofing as a heavier style, whereas show tap is “pulled up” like ballet. Ray Hesselink, tap teacher, performer and choreographer who often works in the show tap style, adds, “The number one thing is plié. And you have to send energy out in all directions.” Being pulled up and using plie, as in ballet, can help support the delicate footwork of show tap, which is performed on the ball of the foot.

Hoofers, like Savion Glover, focus on creating complicated rhythms, often letting their upper bodies hang loose. In contrast, Hesselink says show tap is defined by “dancing with the whole body.” Shea Sullivan, tap teacher, choreographer and performer agrees: “Show tap is about connecting from head to toe.” Imbuing even the smallest movements with grace creates a polished look. “Astaire and Gene Kelly are so balanced,” says Mike Schulster, teacher, tapper and choreographer of the tap show Revolution. “If you watch them it looks like the music won’t move until they do.”

Show tap choreographers also create interesting visuals by using amplification, or many dancers performing the same steps at once. While the individual tap steps may not be ultra-challenging, the difficulty lies in achieving unison. Busby Berkeley, who directed the original film version of 42nd Street in 1933, is famous for using this technique. His films feature hundreds of chorus girls moving in kaleidoscopic patterns.

The Evolution of Show Tap

In 1933, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their Hollywood debut in the film Flying Down to Rio, adding elements of ballroom to show tap. In “The Carioca” routine, Fred and Ginger dance together in a ballroom frame. With balletic ease, they float across the floor. That visual made what’s now known as show tap popular in mainstream culture.

Along with Fred and Ginger, there were other, equally important contributors to the form. African American brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas (the Nicholas Brothers) were captivating performers who embodied key aspects of show tap like athleticism, high-energy style and animated stage personalities. Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, a vaudeville performer who made the leap to film, was known for his delicate footwork.

During the golden era of show tap, which lasted until the mid-1950s, studios like MGM and Warner Bros. used big band and jazz music, the popular music of the period, as the score for their movies. George Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” was written for the 1937 Fred and Ginger movie Shall We Dance. It was later covered by jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Using familiar music with this type of crossover appeal helped solidify show tap’s place in the cultural landscape. When audiences saw dancers skimming across the floor to music they recognized, there was an instant connection with the performers—and style!

Show Tap Today

For more than 20 years, tap dominated the silver screen. But the seeds of change were planted when Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943. Choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the musical’s famous dream ballet integrated character motivation with the movement. Suddenly ballet and modern were the chosen vehicles to convey character development. Tap numbers once held this function, but later in show-tap’s prime they became more about entertainment. With this role, the style remained popular for another decade, in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953). But in 1957, Jerome Robbins furthered de Mille’s groundbreaking work with an innovative blend of jazz and ballet in the Broadway premiere of West Side Story. It set the standard for later musicals, which often used the same styles as narrative tools. Tap fell out of fashion and with it went most jobs for tappers. For the next few decades, Broadway and Hollywood relied more on modern and jazz than tap dance to enhance the narrative in musicals.

Then, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, tap made a comeback. In 1980 42nd Street, choreographed by Gower Champion, premiered on Broadway and introduced a new generation to show tap. Randy Skinner, one of Champion’s assistant choreographers who also worked with Ginger Rogers in the 1980s, helps keep the show tap tradition alive today. He considers the original production of 42nd Street the reemergence of show tap. “The show brought back that big MGM-style number,” he says. “You could see dresses flying and people whirling, the elements you saw in those movies.”

Show tap’s resurgence also couldn’t have happened without the late Gregory Hines, who combined the best qualities of hoofing and show tap. “Gregory was a bridge between the two styles,” explains Sullivan, who studied with Hines. Sullivan adds that Hines had show tap’s easygoing presence and hoofing’s elaborate rhythms. He gave tap a new level of recognition with performances in Broadway shows like Eubie!, Jelly’s Last Jam and the film Tap.

Today, show tap has a strong foothold in the dance world and can often be seen in musicals set in the 1930s and ’40s, when the style was in its heyday. Recently, Skinner choreographed the musical Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, set in 1954. Like the film of the same name, it uses Irving Berlin’s standard tunes. Plus, he re-created 42nd Street with Champion’s choreography for a critically acclaimed 2001 Broadway revival.

At the 2001 Tony Awards, show tap took center stage as the cast of the revival of 42nd Street performed the title number. It opens with the curtain a few feet off the stage revealing gold tap shoes performing time-steps in unison. When the curtain pulls up, the dancers prance up a giant, illuminated staircase. With breezy confidence they belt out, “Come and meet, those dancing feet. On the avenue I’m taking you to, 42nd Street.” This is show tap at its best, still kicking after all these years.

Katie Rolnick is an NYC-based freelance writer. She is pursuing an M.A. in journalism at New York University.