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By Max Pollak
One of my favorite tap scenes from a movie is a crazy up-from-underneath-through-a-glass-floor shot of three guys in tuxedoes wearing oxford shoes without taps in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza from the 1930s. It shows up close the flying feet, stomping soles, and the seemingly floating torsos of three great dancers executing a breakneck wing combination. This ingenious shot sticks in my mind because it illustrates two powerful aspects of tap dance: the rock-solid athletic dexterity, and the sophisticated musical confidence necessary to pull off such technical wizardry with style and grace.
What makes tap so different from other dance styles, even percussive ones like flamenco and Irish step dancing? It displays the ingenuity of people who over the last 160 years or so have merged several very different movement aesthetics from distant continents into a brilliantly versatile form of expression immediately recognizable as born in the U.S.A.
Many of us traveling ministers of the percussive sole are often asked about the history of tap dance. We usually answer to the best of our knowledge about the shared roots in Africa and the British Isles and try to explain the parallel development of jazz music and its sibling who can’t sit still: tap. The ultimate challenge is that there are virtually no written historical sources before the advent of the moving picture. Performance reviews of early tap champions like William Henry Lane (a.k.a. “Master Juba,” born a free black man in 1825) are scarcely accurate technical analyses.
From what I gather, Lane had learned Irish jigs and reels and combined them with his personal movement style and phrasing rooted in African traditions, laying the foundation of what would become the basic vocabulary of tap. Historically, the melding of African and Anglo-European movements can be traced to poor urban neighborhoods following the Civil War. Recent immigrants and freed slaves would challenge each other to show off their best moves. The Irish jig, English clog, and African shuffle fused into a uniquely American art form, marked by looser articulation, swing phrasing, improvisation, and relaxed body language. Unfortunately, as soon as buck dancing (as tap was called then) showed signs of commercial profitability, white impressarios and performers took advantage of it and presented it to a white audience nationwide, largely excluding black performers.
Since the early days, tap was dominated by versatile and charismatic figures. All of them were superb entertainers, multitalented, graceful, and often hilariously funny.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, with his crisp sound, thick ragtime groove, and impeccable elegance, defined the era of the split-clog. This shoe-instrument sported a loosely attached wooden sole under the front part and usually a solid wooden heel. While the sound was beautiful, the wood had to be replaced often.
The technological upswing of the 1920s left an indelible mark on the way we dance today: the aluminum tap. The much louder and more resilient aluminum on the balls and heels of the shoes opened possibilities for speed and musical advancement.
John Bubbles, with his multisound rhythm turns, athletic over-the-tops, and multiple heel drop cramp rolls, forecast bebop’s blossoming. My mentor Carnell Lyons (1917–1992) told me he used to dance on Kansas City street corners as a child in the 1930s with bottle caps between his toes, trying to emulate the sound of the new taps. The use of bottle caps was also common in other cities like Chicago and New Orleans where to this day you can find young dancers who fashion “recycled” taps for their own shoes.
With the heyday of vaudeville and variety theater came the element of fierce competition. Whoever had the most sensational eight-minute act got the job. High-class acts like the Nicholas Brothers, the Berry Brothers, Tip Tap and Toe, and the Four Step Brothers brandished unbelievable acrobatic feats. They tastefully incorporated steps like toe stands, splits, and slides into the rhythmic flow of their routines.
Elegant soft-shoe dancing to slower, more understated music, as epitomized by Charles “Honi” Coles (1911–1992) and Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913–2003), became a popular contrast to hyperenergetic numbers. It required superior balance and delicate melodic control, deepening the form’s dynamic and artistic sophistication. Originally a novelty aspect of the soft-shoe, sand dancing used different foot movements to produce the wistful swishing sound that’s similar to the brushes on a snare drum.
Vaudeville tap greats like Willie Covan and Buddy Bradley began coaching and choreographing for white movie stars like Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller. In doing so they helped shape the world’s image of tap. Ultimately what drew so many people to tap in the golden decades were the chorus dancers who made it look like anybody could do it.
“Baby Laurence” Jackson (1921–1974), Teddy Hale, and Juanita Pitts in the late 1940s and Jimmy Slyde in the 1950s revolutionized tap by leading the art form back to its jazz roots: improvisation. This meant creating a continuous rhythmic line or solo reacting to the other musicians.
This innovation carries over to the present day, having shaped the styles of many artists who are defining where tap is going in the future. The one and only Gregory Hines took his rock and funk drumming knowledge, applied it to traditional tap technique, and then let it flow. Savion Glover followed on Hines’ path and tripled the speed.
Luckily today tap technique is being passed on, blurring the racial lines that marked earlier chapters. Great women dancers including Brenda Bufalino, Lynn Daly, Heather Cornell, Linda Sohl-Ellison, and Jane Goldberg helped bring the masters of past generations back to public attention in the 1970s and ’80s. Today they are fervently teaching all over the world. Younger dancers (Melinda Sullivan, Michelle Dorrance, Kendrick Jones, Jared Grimes, Joseph Wiggan, and many more) are now pushing the boundaries of the humanly possible. More and more tappers are finding inspiration in unusual musical forms and diverse ethnic traditions, which leave an imprint on their sound and movement (see “Global Tap,” May 2007). What we all share is the need to express ourselves in movement, theater, and music.
Tap dance is a highly personal art form. Ever since Master Juba, the technique has served one purpose: to make the audience hear what you have to say.
Max Pollak is artistic director of RumbaTap and a freelance writer.
Photo © Martha Swope, DM Archives.