Tap Classes

On Tap and How It Happened

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Ilia Guzei (c) 2010

Tap dance is a dance of sound and movement. Its origins grew out of a fusion of African polyrhythms, Irish step dancing and North American folk dance.

Its birth in the United States dates to the pre-Civil War era. However, its roots, beginning ruminations, can be traced to even earlier times when the United States was still an English colony. African slaves were a valued commodity in the new world during the 17th century. When they were transported by ship to the Americas they danced for the pleasure of their owners. They were forced to dance for their lives — to stay strong so that they could bring a good price once in the New World. As slaves, Black Africans carried their wonderful traditions of movement and polyrhythmic music with them. This they never lost.

The rich history of the New World and the United States mirrors the development of North American tap dance. The influence of the culture of the Caribbean, with its Afro-Cuban elements, plays a strong role in the growth of North American tap dance, as does the Irish, European and French Canadian dancing of the 19th century.

Many events shaped the growth of tap dance in this country. One very interesting occurrence took place in the 1730s near Charleston, South Carolina, on a plantation. A few slaves decided to run away from their plantation and used drums as they set off for places south. The white, dominant power structure believed that these Africans used their drums for an insurrection, which grew.  They were joined by numbers of other indentured Africans who fled. Called the Cato Rebellion, this resulted in the banning of the use of drums. The main instruments of communication of Africans were thus forbidden. This had a singular effect on the culture, on the music, and on the dance.

Communication among people is vital. Black slaves have always had ways to make music and dance and communicate. Body patting, playing rhythms on the body, emerged. Tap dance emerged. The blend of the diverse cultures of the New World help make the fusion that eventually became North American tap dance.

Jazz music, an outgrowth of African music, has had a singular influence on tap and vice versa.

In the early 1820s, William Henry Lane, a freed Black known professionally as Master Juba, danced in Europe as well as in the states. He brought a lot of attention to what was called tap dance at that time and was reported to be a phenomenal dancer, musician, and performer. He died before the age of thirty.  With the appearance of Minstrel Shows in the mid to late 19th century, tap found a presence on the American stage.

It was, however, in Black Vaudeville that tap dance reached a pinnacle of development. In the 1920s, many Charleston dancers became tap dancers. These dancers incorporated the movements of the popular vernacular dances of the day into their tap work. With the swing era, the heyday of the big bands in the 1930s, tap flourished.

There were venues for all kinds of tappers. Many bands had dancers who traveled with them. When bebop music emerged in the mid to late 1940s the rhythms of tap changed as well. The great drummer, Max Roach, has credited tap as a major influence on bebop. However, in the 1950s tap, though still practiced and performed here and there by great rhythm dancers, seemed to fade from public view. Film, where popular tap had flourished, no longer used the form. The big bands began to disappear. The dance hall tax made the presenting of music nearly prohibitive. Television emerged. Popular stage dancing changed from tap to a more balletic-modern kind of dance. Rock and roll entered the picture.

For nearly 20 years tap dance took a decided rest from the public view. In the early 1970s tap dance began again to take its place once again in American cultural life. A substantial number of women also began to explore and perform tap dance.  Men had dominated the form for more than 100 years. The venues for tap changed from the early days. Music and dance festivals included tap and tap began to take its place on the concert stage.

Today, in the 21st century, tap dance is once again a vital part of our artistic life. The traditions are continuing and bold new experimentations are occurring.

Appreciation is so important to the growth of tap dance. Through education and exposure people can learn to understand the nature of this wonderful dance — that it’s about time and all the intricacies of movement and music together.

–Donna Peckett