Raising the Curtain on… Tap Dancing

Seen frequently in musicals, tap dance is a percussion dance produced by the metal slates that are attached to the heels and the toes of the shoes. Closely linked to jazz, tap dancing relies on the thwacking of the heels and toe onto the ground, which creates a dance form but additionally, creates music as well.

Tap dancing duo Sean & Luke dancing to “Classic” by MKTO, a more modern take of the classic dance form

 

We see it all the time in performances and musicals, where tap dancing is displayed with light-heartedness, joviality and fun. Gene Kelly splashing puddles as he dances along on the streets in Singin’ in the Rain, or when Mia and Sebastian experience a romantic connection for each other in La La land, as they tap away with their happy feet. We cannot help but feel a sense of joy from these scenes and to want to be a part of it.

Mia & Sebastian tap dancing in La La Land

 

However, the history of tap dancing started in early 19th century America, during the slave trade, as the country became a melting pot with the influx of immigrants. To avoid any possibilities of a revolution, drums were banned because of its utility as a revolutionary device. Despite the prohibition, the African-American immigrants found a different way of communicating, through their body and feet. With the mixture of different cultures, the combination of Irish jigging and African traditional dances led to the birth of tap dancing. As such, the dance form became a medium of expression for those who were segregated, a form of communication for the African-Americans to share their pain, their roots and their souls together.

Nevertheless, during the mid 19th century, tap dancing was often shown in minstrel shows, a comedic variety show which commonly presented African-Americans in caricature. Minstrel shows capitalised on mocking the race, and the inclusion of tap dancing performances made African-Americans the source of entertainment for white Americans. This is especially problematic when you know that tap dancing was how the African-American community expressed their feelings about oppression. One famous tap dancer within these minstrel shows was William Henry Lane, or better known as Master Juba. Master Juba was famous for his talent in producing rhythm with his feet, which gave him the opportunity to tour with the white minstrel shows, becoming the first ever African-American to do so, as previous minstrel shows consisted of white men portraying African-Americans in blackface.

William Henry Lane, or Master Juba

 

Nonetheless, the political history of tap dancing was soon forgotten when it was popularized within pop culture in the 1930’s and the 1940’s, as the dance form was incorporated into musical films and Broadway shows. As such, the development created two types of tap dancing; the original rhythmic tap dance and the musicality of the shoes’ percussions that was better associated with jazz; and the tap dancing portrayed in musical theatre, which is more closely related to Broadway dance. Furthermore, the wooden made platforms of the shoes had also changed to metal plates to create a better sound as the shoes’ hits the floor. By this period, we could say that “white Broadway and Hollywood tap dancing” began to deviate from the dance’s roots in jazz and African-American culture. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were amongst the famous tap dancers within Hollywood and Broadway.

Actors and dancers, Fred Astaire & Eleanor Powell tap dancing in the 1940’s musical “The Broadway Melody of 1940,” for the number “Begin the Beguine”

 

Hence, such is the background of the tap dancing and its transition into the musical performances we know of today. Who would’ve thought that the joyous and rhythmic music of the shoes being brushed, tapped and chug on the floor came from such history?

I hope that shining a light onto the untold history of this beautiful, intricate dance form proves informative and that this article creates a bigger appreciation for the art of tap dancing, where the creation of music through dance had once conveyed the passion, soul and sentiments of oppressed African-Americans. Though tap dancing has transitioned into the mainstream musical theatre realm, let’s never forget its passionate roots that were nurtured from those who were marginalised for they found a way to express themselves in ways words could not.

Now, let’s end this article on a good note by watching this 5 minute TEDx video of dancer and actor Baakari Wilder speaking, and dancing, about his passion towards tap dance. There is just something beautiful to watch and listen to someone being passionate about their art.

Actor & dancer Baakari Wilder displaying the “Art of Tap Dancing”

 

Header image source: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CZfRO3bCXQ

William Henry Lane image source: Common-place-archives

 

By Hamidah Abd Rahman

Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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