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The missing scholarship of American tap dance

Tap dance, our first American vernacular dance form, and the most-cutting edge on the national and international stage, has suffered a paucity of critical, analytical, historical documentation. While there have been star-centered biographies of such tap dancers as Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Savion Glover, there remains but a handful of histories exploring all aspects of the intricate musical exchange of Afro-Irish percussive step dances that produced the rhythmic complexities of jazz tap dancing: Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968), Jerry Ames Book of Tap: Recovering America’s Long Lost Dance (1977), and my book, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010), are but three.

Why has tap dance as an art form suffered a mere flickering of scholarly attention?

One bluntly sobering answer is that tap dance, which evolved from the rhythmic and social exchange of transplanted Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in the 1500s, has a long and contested legacy of racism and classism. Tap dance developed through plantation jigging competitions staged by white masters for their slaves, challenge dances in the walk-around finale of minstrel shows, and juried buck-and-wing contests on the vaudeville stage. Tap’s artistic tradition was never, and never will be, separated from its long history of hardship–from slavery to blackface. European traditions continue to be favored over the improvisatory African-American forms. Considered mostly a popular entertainment on the vaudeville and variety stage and in the movies, tap, until very recently, has been placed in the category of “low” art, unworthy of the concert stage, and of scholarly attention.

Moreover, the absence of women in early accounts of jigging competitions forces a consideration of gender in the evolution of tap which, for most of the twentieth century, was dominated by men. As Gene Kelly stated in a 1958 CBS television special, “Dancing is a man’s game… and if he does it well, he does it better than a woman. I don’t want this to sound as if I’m against women dancing, we must have to remember that each sex is capable of doing things the other can’t.” Men’s claim to (tap) dancing as their exclusive province, which has been perpetuated by critics who foreground the masters, points to an “aristocracy of sex.” Thus male authority in tap dancing has discriminated against and been critical of women, particular women soloists.

Tap dance, moreover, has been invisible in the scholarly canon because it continues to be characterized as a constantly dying art form. Tap enjoyed nearly four decades of popularity on the American stage, from the turn of the twentieth century to its heyday in Swing-era of the 1940s. Then it “died out” in the 1950s, in a period that was commonly referred to as “tap dance’s decline,” or what Honi Coles called “the lull,” when tap waned in popularity as the sheer number of live performances diminished, tap dancers found themselves out of jobs, and venues for tap performances shifted from the live stage to the television screen. Tap was then “revived” in the 1970s during the so-called tap resurgence or tap renaissance. By 1989, and with the award-winning Broadway musical Black and Blue, tap dance was again “resurrected,” and its masters–most all in their sixties and seventies–inspired a young generation of dance artists who would “vivify” the form with yet unrealized rhythmic inventions. That tap was finally regarded as a national treasure was confirmed by the passage of the US Joint Resolution, on 7 November 1989, declaring May 25th “National Tap Dance Day.”

With the 1971 revival of the 1925 musical No, No Nanette, directed by Busby Berkeley (who had been the musical director for the 1933 tap musical film Forty-second Street), and the casting of sixty-two-year-old Ruby Keeler (who had starred in that film) as Nanette’s star, tap’s rising in popularity came on the wings of nostalgia. “What we love about the show, and what we have been missing so long is its playfulness,” wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Times. “It’s like a puppy without a purpose. It’s free, and off and skipping… No, No Nanette is irresponsible. Like all musicals it grew up with, it just wants to be happy and to make you happy too.”

If this infantalizing of tap could be dismissed as 70s nostalgia, check out the selection of vintage clips New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay “discovered” and comprised as a “tap history,” which goes no farther than the 1930s.

More troubling is Joan Acocella’s speculation, writing about tap dance in The New Yorker, that “It could die…. The classic dance forms of India… have almost no audience outside the festivals. The same could happen to tap. In that case, it will go down in the history books as a marvelous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions, mostly in the twentieth century.” Acocella is cynical and dismissive of the legacy of tap that continues to inspire youngblood tap dancers. She points to one reason why tap has received little scholarly attention: “Dance itself, because it mostly went unrecorded, was little studied in a serious way, and there was no reason that tap should have been an exception.”

A new chronology of tap dance for the Library of Congress sets the record straight and dismisses critical commentary that has rendered tap dance history virtually invisible. It will, hopefully, quell uninformed commentary by dance critics who now have the opportunity to acquaint themselves of tap’s long and brilliant history.

Featured image: “tapped out” by Pabak Sarkar. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Constance Valis Hill

    Thank you to Oxford University Press for allowing this most pressing issue of the paucity of tap dance scholarship to be expressed.

  2. Joanna Faraby Walker

    Great post. I learned some really interesting things. Makes me want to learn more about the history of tap…which is definitely NOT a dying art form!

  3. Susana Loza

    Fantastic post. Thank you for chronicling this important and little-known history! Viva La Tap!

  4. Barbara

    Thank you Constance for defending our great art form!!

  5. Sue Samuels

    Thank you for your truthful writing.

  6. Acia Gray

    Thank you Constance for your knowledge, your passion, and your undying support of this incredible art form and especially for your support of those of us as female choreographers and cello artists. Your voice is so important!

  7. Michele Hardesty

    Excellent post! And I’m excited to check out the LOC database – that kind of work is so crucial and needs to be celebrated more!

  8. […] last week, Constance Valis Hill gave as good as she got, managing to both refer to Siebert’s work and render it […]

  9. Ellen Oliver

    Thank you Constance! This work is so important.

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