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Non-ballet: Tap Dance

EDIT: More on clog dancing here.


Don't forget to see our other posts in the non-ballet series, including our introduction to Bob Fosse.



Tap dance is a relatively modern form of dance which emerged in the US at the start of the 20th century. It is characterized by using various parts of the feet to strike the ground and create different patterns or rhythms. Modern tap shoes have metal plates attached to the toe and heel to create the loudest and cleanest possible sound.

Tap dancing was not the first percussive style of dance, in which rhythms are created with the feet. Many countries have a tradition of dancing in clogs or wooden-soled shoes. One of the more famous styles in England comes from Lancashire. Here is a horse performing a Lancashire clog dance:


In Frederick Ashton's version of La Fille Mal Gardée there is another very funny clog dance - we have already posted that here.

Another style of percussive dance is Irish step dance which was made very famous by the show Riverdance in the 90s. Here is an 8 year old Ukranian boy giving a very accomplished demonstration of Irish step dancing on the TV show Ukraine's Got Talent (the actual dancing starts at 1.50):

If anyone is able to translate this video we will try and arrange subtitles. Thanks.

But these traditional European styles of dance alone did not evolve into modern tap dancing. Tap dancing was also hugely influenced by black styles of dance such as the djouba. While Irish dancing is done with a very upright body position (as you can see above), many West African dances use a more casual body position, bent at the waist, with lots of sideways motion and use of the arms. You can get a feel for it by watching a bit of this modern African dance:


All these different styles were brought together in North America when Europeans settled there and blacks were brought over from West Africa as slaves. Just as different musical traditions fused together to create jazz, so tap dancing emerged combining the syncopated, swinging rhythms of African dance with the techniques of European dance.

As tap emerged as its own form it soon appeared on stage, beginning with the minstrel shows. By the late 19th Century there were tap shows on Broadway and it soon made the natural progression from Broadway to film. For a large part of the 20th century many musical films featured dazzling tap dance sequences.

It is hard to pin down the exact dates that tap dancing emerged not least because the fusion of different styles was a naturally occurring phenomenon in many different places. Right from the beginning, therefore, there were many different styles of tap dance. Unlike classical ballet which is a codified art form, meaning great dancers have set down the right and wrong way to move, tap dance is a far freer art form open to new influences.

Fred Astaire danced in a style heavily influenced by ballroom dancing, for instance. Astaire was one of the greatest dancers ever (and an enduring fashion icon). The famous ballet dancer Baryshnikov said it was frustrating watching Fred Astaire while growing up because he was "just too perfect". You can see his ballroom style in action in this clip from Swing Time (1936):


For a complete contrast, here's a clip from a film called Stormy Weather (1943). Fred Astaire himself once called this "the greatest dance number ever filmed". The dancers are the Nicholas brothers and their style is very different from Astaire's. Astaire dances with a measured, controlled elegance and uses the balls of his feet a lot; the Nicholas brothers' hoofing style is much more energetic (their arms go everywhere!) and they often uses the whole foot flat on the floor. They also dance on the tables and on the piano.

The dancing starts at 1.40 - well worth the wait.



Tap dance continues to evolve and adapt. One contemporary tap dance star is Savion Glover who has incorporated elements of hip-hop rhythm and style into his dancing. Here he is dancing a free solo a few years ago:


And to finish, one final example of how tap is adaptable to other styles. Here is a Russian sailor-style dance (we posted some typical examples here) jazzed up with tap. Many features of the Russian style remain such as the strong use of turn out (just like ballet) and the arm swinging - but the tap gives a rather different feel. There is a great release of tension at 0.35 when the tapping starts.



I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code,
a tap dancer would drive you crazy.
Mitch Hedberg

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