Tap. It’s sound, it’s movement, it’s music and dance in one. A rousing tap number can bring a crowd to its feet in the most enthusiastic of applause. A tapper can communicate their most intimate feelings with driving, percussive, in-your-face rhythms. It’s a uniquely American art form, with roots that lie in the rhythms of African people who were enslaved. The history of tap intertwined with some of the best and worst of American history: minstrelsy, jazz, racism, Broadway, the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s persistence and innovation, heritage, community, and individuality, and testament to the resilience of its practitioners.
And yet, tappers do not always enjoy the same opportunities and prestige as their peers who practice other styles. Tap has struggled to find its place in American university dance programs, which have been slow to expand beyond the modern and ballet styles taught by their founders. Because of this, fewer dance teachers are trained in tap, which results in less tap offered in studios and K-12 schools. At studio dance competitions, judges are not always well-versed in tap, and essential equipment like tap floors and floor mics are not always provided. World-class concert halls still predominantly feature ballet and modern dance companies, perhaps because donors and board members have a preference for those styles. Tap dancers are all too often left out of the dance history cannon, and contemporary tappers do not always receive the same opportunities and recognition as their peers. There are many reasons why inequities may exist. Perhaps it’s because the roots of tap lie in African-American vernacular dance, or because tap has been so closely tied to the entertainment sector. It has been said time and time again that tap dancing is “dead” - and still, innovation, determination, and exploration kept tap dance alive and thriving.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the many benefits of tap dancing. We’ll also look at a brief history of tap dance and why it is important to include that history in your classes. You’ll hear from Thelma Goldberg, Director of The Dance Inn, creator of Thelma’s tap notes, faculty at Dean College, and professor of NDEO’s online course OPDI M24-Classic Tap Repertoire: The Shim Sham Shimmy, as well as three NDEO members: Lauren Kolmetz, Andrew Nemr, and Julie Pentz. The OPDI-M24 Tap course starts May 22nd and registration is now open.
The Benefits of Tap Dance
Tap, like all dance styles, offers physical, mental, and cognitive benefits for all participants. Tap is a great form of exercise, and can help improve balance, strength, coordination, and cardiovascular health. The percussive, driving nature of tap can be cathartic, offering a way to release stress and express emotions. The memorization of rhythmic patterns and choreography can help improve cognitive abilities. There are adaptive tap classes where dancers with limited mobility can experience tap in a seated position, making rhythms with either their feet or hands.
“Tap dance is increasingly popular with senior citizens who are seeking fun alternatives to walking and staying fit. The physical benefits are often secondary to the social, cognitive and mental health benefits experienced by dancers who choose to age rhythmically,” says Goldberg.
Julie Pentz, founder of Tap To Togetherness Across Populations and professor at Kansas State University, reiterates the idea that tap is for everyone:
“What I find most beneficial about tap dance is that a student, of any age, can begin to learn any of the styles of tap dance. And, I think that Gregory Hines said it best ‘I’m going to tap until I can’t.’ Tap dance keeps the mind sharp when needing to listen, count, move, and play music with your feet.”
But tap can have special benefits for dancers who study other styles, like jazz, modern, contemporary, or ballet. Andrew Nemr of Eagle Performing Art Center describes a few of these benefits:
“Tap dance offers a series of benefits not necessarily found in other dance forms, even other percussive dances. These include learning how to navigate immediate and unfiltered feedback, deep listening, interacting with the floor as an instrument, and navigating the required physical impact without causing the body unnecessary pain. These, of course, are above and beyond the more obvious ideas of musicality, specificity of movement, proprioception, and information management (namely, the ability to consolidate bits of information from multiple sources while creating an integrated response) that are present and often mentioned with regards to tap dance education.”
Here are just a few of the reasons why all dancers would benefit from tap as part of the training:
1. Musicality - In tap, a dancer not only learns how to dance with the music, they learn how to make music with their own bodies.
According to Goldberg, “Studying tap dance introduces students to the joys of being a musician. Baby Laurence was called a jazz musician for his rhythmic virtuosity in the 1940s and Brenda Bufalino conceived the American Tap Dance Orchestra as a tap-dancing orchestra in the 1980s. The trend to be seen as a musician is the ultimate goal of every tap dancer, whether professional or student. Teaching students to understand the relationship between the rhythms being made with their taps and the notes that each sound represents is a special skill unique to tap dance education. Studying tap dance improves musicality, phrasing, and improvisation skills in all dancers.”
2. Coordination - Tap dance challenges all of the body’s coordination pathways. In particular, tap can improve upper-body/lower-body coordination as tappers must balance the percussive and fast paced movement of the legs with a relaxed upper body. To achieve that fast footwork, tap dancers need the support of strong core-distal, body-half, and cross-lateral coordination as well.
3. Agility - Tap dance requires dancers to navigate quick weight shifts from foot to foot and among the ball, heel, toe, and sides of the foot. Tappers develop a strong sense of balance and the ability to transition their weight with ease and speed.
“Tap is an important skill to have as dancers, as it teaches rhythmic dexterity and agility,” says Lauren Kolmetz of Gulf Coast State College in Florida.
4. Creativity - Tap dance is inherently a creative art form. The history of tap is filled with dancers who evolved the field by pushing boundaries, taking risks, and experimenting with their own approach and style.
As Nemr accounts, “Regardless of the skill level, tap dance provides a unique approach to the idea of a dancer, one responsible for both physical and audible representation, even creation, especially for the improviser. This approach stretches the skill set of the whole dancer, which in turn can be applied in any other form. The jazz, modern, ballet, or hip-hop dancer who understands music and their body in the way tap dancers are often required, becomes a different kind of dancer.”
5. Attention to Detail - The beauty of tap is in the details, both in the look and sound of the movement. Tap training helps students develop the ability to keenly observe movement, listen to rhythms, and embody what they are seeing and hearing. This attention to detail will help dancers stand out in auditions and rehearsals for any dance style.
6. Stage Presence - There is no denying that some of the most exciting performers in American history have been tap dancers. Both Broadway and Rhythm style tappers have to be able to engage audiences. Tap teaches dancers how to use movement, sound, and performance style to communicate and entertain.
According to Pentz, “In all styles of dance, the performer needs to look great when executing the work whether in class or on stage. Tap dance adds an additional challenge in that you also have to sound great. I would argue that tap dance is the most difficult style to prepare for and perform.”
7. Improvisation - Improvisation is often an important part of tap training and performance - whether it is showing off your best rhythmic inventions in a dance challenge like Henry William Lane and John Diamond, or jamming with your fellow tappers in a call and response pattern inspired by jazz tap. When students improvise, they learn to think quickly, take risks, express themselves, and apply what they know in new ways.
8. Tap is History - When we study tap, we experience dance history - and American history. A great tap teacher can imbue their lessons with information about how tap developed, how it evolved - and why it matters. In the rest of this blog post, you can learn more about the history of tap, and how it corresponds to American history.
The Origins of Tap Dance
The roots of tap dance are found in the percussive dance styles of African people who were enslaved. When enslavers prohibited drumming, people who were enslaved developed a dance style called hambone or juba, in which they made percussive beats by stomping or slapping their chests and thighs. In the 1870s and 1880s, African-American hamboning was mingled with the clog-shoe dances of the British Isles, Irish jigs, and hornpipe dances. Dancers from these distinct cultures mingled in urban settings like the Five Points District in New York City, where they danced as entertainers in saloons and faced off in dance competitions. The result of this fusion was a unique form of movement and rhythm, originally known as “jigging,” or the “straight jig”: a percussive dance set to syncopated music in 2/4 or 2/2 time, rather than the typical 6/8, 9/8 or 12/8 meters of Irish jigs.
Two of the earliest known jig dancers were William Henry Lane, also known as Master Juba, one of the first Black performers in the United States to appear onstage for white audiences, and John Diamond, an Irish-American dancer and blackface minstrel performer. Throughout the 1840s, the two would frequently compete in dance challenges, with Lane winning all but one. The world of jigging was not limited to men, however. Upon her death in 1893, Kitty O’Neill was acclaimed by The New York Times as "the best female jig dancer in the world."
The Evolution of Tap Dance
Different variations on jigging emerged throughout the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. Soft shoe, popularized by George Primrose, was a slower and more elegant take on percussive dancing, involving sliding of the feet in leather-soled shoes in 4/4 time. The sand jig or sanding was a soft-shoe dance performed on a stage covered with sand, which gave the movement a unique sound. Harold “Sandman” Sims kept up the sanding tradition through the late 1900s with his performances at Harlem’s Apollo theatre. Buck-and-wing was a fast-paced dance with sliding, gliding, stomping, jumping, and kicking set to complex rhythms performed in wooden-soled shoes. It was not until the early 1900s that dancers began putting metal plates or “taps” on the balls and heels of their shoes. In the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, the entire chorus wore “tap shoes” on stage for the first time, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of tap dancing.
From its early roots on plantations and street corners, jigging and its different variations quickly became a staple of stage entertainment. Starting in the early 1800s, it was featured in minstrel shows, theatrical entertainments in which performers in blackface presented stereotyped and harmful portrayals of Black people and African-American culture. Minstrel shows waned in popularity by the early 1900s, coinciding with the dawn of the Jazz Age and the rise of Vaudeville. Jazz music influenced dancers, who adopted improvisation and more complex syncopated rhythms into their movement. This influence led to the development of jazz tap, with an emphasis on precision, lightness, and speed. The popularity of tap-infused chorus dancing in early Broadway shows cemented the role of dancing in the emerging industry of musical theatre. In nightclubs like the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom, dancing acts like The Nicholas Brothers performed exuberant swing tap numbers punctuated with acrobatic moves. John Bubbles added off-beat heel drops, unusual accents, and complex syncopations that would eventually become synonymous with rhythm tap. Tap made the jump to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, becoming a hallmark of movie musicals. Dancers like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly blended the rhythmic footwork of tap with ballet and ballroom dance styles, creating a new style that would become known as Broadway tap.
Tap Dance in Recent History
When the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals ended in the early 1950s, tap dancing started to wane in popularity. In the late 1970s and 1980s, dancers like Brenda Buffalino, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover helped to usher in a resurgence of tap in popular culture through Broadway shows like Glover’s The Tap Dance Kid and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, movies like Hines’ The Cotton Club and White Nights, and performance groups like Bufalino’s American Tap Dance Orchestra. Today, tap is experiencing yet another revival of sorts, thanks to the popularity of companies like Dorrance Dance, founded and directed by Michelle Dorrance, and Syncopated Ladies, a female tap dance band created by Chloe Arnold.
Help your students discover all the benefits of tap
As dance teachers, it is important that we introduce students to the history of the dance forms that we are teaching. It helps keep the legacy of the dance form alive and honors the individuals who helped make it what it is today. “Tap history should be an integral part of all tap classes. Learning about tap history provides a unique and compelling story of the individuals, what some teachers call “heroes,” that responded to discrimination by maintaining, as the Whitman Sisters did, high standards of professional conduct and integrity, in both performance and in life,” according to Goldberg. In addition, teaching history can help engage students in the learning and make connections between dance and the world around them. As Goldberg continues, “Tap students respond with enthusiasm when they learn about Jeni LeGon’s fight to be treated equally with her white peers or about Peg “Leg” Bates and his ability to rise above a disability.”
Julie Pentz remind us, “As tap teachers, we are training our replacements. Our tap students are the future of tap dance. It is important to instill tap dance history with tap dance technique, and then have students connect that to what is happening now. Tap is more than just a style of dance, a performance art, or entertainment.”
NDEO’s online course OPDI M24-Classic Tap Repertorie: The Shim Sham Shimmy offers an exciting peek into the history of tap alongside a deep dive into one of the most widely-recognized tap dances in the world. The Shim Sham Shimmy is a classic piece of tap dance repertoire that dates to the 1920s (Vaudeville era). This course introduces you to the early history of tap dance and this classic piece of repertoire, the steps of the Shim Sham Shimmy, and the important individuals who created it and have kept it alive for almost 100 years! This class is perfect for tap teachers who want to discover new ways to include tap dance history into your classes.
As Goldberg asserts, “Knowing the story of Leonard Reed, Willie Bryant and the Chorus Girls of the Vaudeville years brings a deeper satisfaction and respect when dancing the Shim Sham Shimmy, considered to be the “National Anthem” of tap dancers around the world.” The course is also great for studio owners or program directors who are curious about the benefits of tap and learning more about why you should offer it to your students. You can register for the class at: https://www.ndeo.org/Learn/Online-Courses/Upcoming-Courses
Stage photo courtesy of Andrew Jackson High School Dance Department