A still from the documentary American Tap

Celebrate National Tap Dance Day with American Tap

Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:

"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...

Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...

Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...

Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."

Happy National Tap Dance Day!


The congressional citation that tap dance is "a joyful and powerful aesthetic," and "a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation" is brilliantly embodied in the film American Tap, which may be the most historically comprehensive, sonically vibrant and visually spectacular tap documentary to date—and one that resonates with contemporary cultural issues.

American Tap is written (with Annunziata Gianzero) and directed by cinematographer and documentarian Mark Wilkinson, who stumbled into an underground jazz club in New York City's West Village one evening to find a crew of tap dancers, accompanied by a trio of jazz musicians, in the blasting heat of a tap jam, slapping down rhythms on a 4'X8' plank of wood. The sheer force of their artistry and camaraderie goaded him into investigating these "dancing musicians" making music with their feet. The heart of the story, however, lay in unexpected territory. "My gaze turned inwards," says Wilkinson, "to the cultural roots of this uniquely American form and to what its evolution reveals about the American multicultural and democratic experience... and about ourselves."

To celebrate National Tap Dance Day, we chose the five most eye-and-ear-opening moments from the film:

Tap has many styles, and the opening montage gives a glimpse of its range.

In this intro-montage, a pair of tap-dancing shoes introduce us to the myriad styles of tap dancing.

Tap dance is a complex, intercultural fusion that came out of the interaction of Irish indentured servants and enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean during the 1600s, African American folk and Irish American laborers in the southern United States during the 1700s, and African American freemen and Irish American performers in northern urban cities in the 1800s.

By the early 20th century, with the syncopated music of ragtime, the blues and jazz, tap dance began to fully embody its black rhythmic sensibilities, distinguishing itself from Broadway musical theater dancing by referring to it as jazz tap.

The Ring Shout was an early predecessor to tap.

As Africans were transported to the Americas, African religious circle-dance rituals were adapted and transformed. The Ring Shout was an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual practiced by plantation slaves by moving counter-clockwise in a circle while shuffling the feet, clapping hands and patting the body as if it were a large drum.

In its intersection of rhythm and spirituality, the Ring Shout was one of the early predecessors of tap dance. "It's called the black church, the invisible black church," says Dr. Cornell West about the Ring Shout.

In this clip, former slave Sylvia King describes the Ring Shout in a Works Progress Administration transcript.

Modern tap was born with Master Juba in Five Points.

In the nineteenth century, the Five Points district of lower Manhattan was a neighborhood of freed slaves and northern free African Americans and Irish immigrants. It was here that the most influential African-American dancer of the century became "King of All Dancers": William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba.

"A lively young Negro who is the greatest dancer known," wrote Charles Dickens, who in American Notes (1842) described Lane's dancing as consisting of "Single and double shuffling, cutting and cross-cutting; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning his knees…spinning on his toes and heels; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs—all sorts of legs and no legs." It was with "Master Juba" and the Five Points that modern tap was born.

In this clip, the dancing of Master Juba is animated by a motion capture of the tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith interpreting Dickens' description. The animation of Master Juba is modeled after a woodcut of him in The Illustrated London News, August 5, 1848.

Women have historically been overlooked.

Though women are prominent artists in tap today, it was not always the case. The absence of women in early accounts of tap dancing reveals a mistaken belief in the authority of the male in tap dancing that has discriminated against and been critical of women, particularly women soloists.

In fact, women—whether choreographers or dancers (soloists, sister acts, chorus dancers), teachers or producers, preservationists or proselytizers—have far outnumbered men in tap. In this clip, tap dancer Ayodele Casel says: "Historically, women didn't have the floor and it's a loss to the art form to not have known about them—all we have are other dancers' recollections of who they were." Casel honors and keeps alive the nearly forgotten black women in tap, calling out their names: Louise Madison, Cora LaRedd. Jeni LaGon, Lois Bright.

In the end, it's all about rhythm.

"At a time when America struggling with its cultural identity—when anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment boils over into outright racism and xenophobia—we are compelled to look inward, to unpack what it means to be American," Wilkinson writes in his artistic statement the to the film.

American Tap exposes the elements of our history which have had the potential to tear us apart—the stigma of slavery and the friction caused by immigration. They are, however, the same forces that bind us together and fuel our interconnectivity. This shared experience is the cultural fire that forged our nation's common rhythmic language: American tap dance.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021