Tap Dance - An International Coproduction

Besides jazz music tap dance is about the only international coproduction in culture on our planet. Almost every nation had a hand in the development of this dance form.

The Irish folk dances, the so-called ‚Jigs and Reels‘, which most recently were presented in such brilliant shows as ”Riverdance”, ”Lord of the Dance” and ”Feet of Flames”, are for example astonishingly similar to tap dance. The dancers wear shoes with metal or wooden taps that produce audible sounds. Strictly speaking the Irish folk dances are one of the ‚Grandfathers‘ of today’s modern tap dance or ,Stepdance’ as it is called in Great Britain.

Another European ancestor of tap dance is the clog dance from the Netherlands, in which the sounds are produced with wooden shoes called ‚clogs‘. The Spaniards while dancing the flamenco are also ‚making music’ with their feet. In the case of flamenco the characteristic sound is produced with shoes that have dozens of little nails in their soles. Even the German ‚Schuhplattler‘ from Bavaria can be seen as a distant relative of tap. In all European dance forms, however, one vital element of tap dance is missing: the ‚Swing‘.

If you examine carefully what exactly ‚Swing‘ is and where its roots are, the answer can be found in the dances and rites of the African continent. They contain an essential element totally missing in all European dance forms and in the music: playing with rhythm and moving the stress of a bar to an usually unstressed position. Through this special kind of syncopation and the blending of European and African cultures a totally new dance form could develop.

qgold How did ‚Swing‘ enter the dance?

The different cultures and dances of all parts of the world met during the time of immigration to America, in particular the USA. For the Europeans, however, dance and music was just one of many traditions they could take to the ‚New World‘. But the Africans had no choice. They were brought to the new continent and forced into slavery. Their entire cultural heritage was stolen from them. They were not allowed to take anything with them except their bodies so that dance and music were the only connection to their native country. Dance, being the most immediate expression of emotions, became part of their cultural identity.

Of course the Africans saw the strange European dances and blended the steps and movements with their own styles. The most important African influence, as mentioned above, was of rhythmical nature. They ‚invented‘ the ‚Swing‘ both in music and dance and with it tap dance and swinging, syncopated jazz music were born. Only the name ,Tap’ did not yet exist at that time.

qgold When did the name ‚Tap Dance‘ appear?

The new dance of the Africans was at first considered to be just a special form of Irish-Dance. Later it was called ‚Buck and Wing‘. This name originates from a certain step that was called ‚wing‘. The step and the entire dance form it belonged to was called ‚Buck and Wing‘. because it is characterized by the movement of the arms being similar to a bird beating its wings. This step was modified and is today called ‚Three Tap Wing‘. The word ,Buck’ at that time was a slang-word for a male  black person. The golden age of ‚Buck and Wing‘ was around 1880 - 1920. Today this period can be seen as the ‚Stone-Age‘ of tap.

The name ‚Tap Dance‘ only appeared in the late twenties when around 1928 tap dancing for the first time was also featured in films.

Up to the fifties it developed into dance form no. 1 and was presented in countless movies, shows and musicals in a most surprising range of different styles.

qgold Who were the stars of ‚Tap Dance‘?

Fred Astaire und Eleanor Powell

Artists became famous through the movie industry, 
e. g. Fred Astaire whose elegance and ease is still unrivaled today. Later on dancers such as Gene Kelly, Donald O‘Connor and Gene Nelson presented different athletic styles in big Hollywood productions. Women like Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller, whose specialty were the miraculously fast sounds, became the first female tap stars in the movies.

For the Afro-Americans, however, Hollywood was out of reach. Due to strong race restrictions at that time, only a few of them could make it to the movies. The most prominent was Bill ‚Bojangles‘ Robinson. With his incredibly fast feet, the clear and precise sounds and his winning personality he became the most famous tap dancer ever. Every year on 25 May, the date of Bill Robinson’s birth, tap dancers worldwide celebrate ‚Tap Dance Day‘. Besides Bill Robinson the Nicholas-Brothers, who included wild and breathtaking acrobatics into their tap routines, could make the big time in the movies. All three of them starred in a movie called ”Stormy Weather” (Twentieth Century Fox, 1943). Make sure you watch it; it is a must!

Together with his partner Buck, John W. Bubbles, who only appeared in a small number of movies in small supporting roles, played at the theater with the world famous show ”Ziegfeld Follies”. They appeared as the duo ‚Buck & Bubbles‘. Buck sang and played the piano while Bubbles tap-danced and sang as well.

John W. Bubbles is regarded as the inventor of ‚Rhythm Tap‘, a new and different style of tap. He reduced the very fast tempo played by bands at that time by almost half and achieved a much bigger rhythmic freedom for the dancer. Bubbles did like the sounds coming from the heels and developed a much more rhythmic complexity that only became possible with the strong reduction in tempo.

Some of the most prominent tap dancers of all time came from ‚Rhythm Tap‘. Dancers such as Baby Laurence, Charles ‚Honi‘ Coles and the Condos-Brothers were the most important innovators in the development of tap. 

qgold How did tap come to Germany?

In 1930 Egon Bier wrote the first German article on the topic of tap. A few years later Marika Rökk, inspired by the movies of Eleanor Powell, became the first German tap dance star. In the thirties she tapped and danced in dozens of movies and introduced tap to the general film-going public in Germany.

In the fifties Caterina Valente and her brother Silvio Francesco became famous entertainers and tap dancers all over Europe. They danced, sang, and tapped in movies like ”Und abends in die Scala” (An Evening at the Scala) or ”Liebe, Jazz und tausend Schlager” (Love, Jazz and a Thousand Songs) in which sometimes even their teacher appeared - it
was John W. Bubbles, the above-mentioned ‚Father of Rhythm Tap‘.

qgold And Today?

”Anything Goes” - the famous song best describes today’s situation of tap, because literally anything is possible: From the old classical musical piece like ”Singin’ in the Rain” up to modern jazz music or even tap to techno beats - no limits are set on the ingenuity of the tap dancer. Even the music from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven is used for tap dance performances. Besides this tap has boomed heavily within the last decade, it hasn’t been that popular since the late 40s. After it almost died in the sixties and seventies, it was remembered in the late 70s. First of all the old dancers and legends were mainly imitated, young tap dancers went to the old and already legendary hoofers to take lessons and to learn their old routines again.

Gene Kelly

The breakthrough, however, was a movie released in 1989: The best tap dancers for ever were united for the first time in a movie called ”Tap”. The word of this movie set the story. Led by Gregory Hines, who during the nineties almost on his own made tap famous worldwide again, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Slide, Steve Condos, Arthur Duncan, Fayard Nicholas, Sandman Sims and the very young Savion Glover for the first time for years appeared in this tap dance movie. The movie was followed by a show of the same name on American TV and the art of tap began to flourish again.

The final breakthrough, even for the normal audience uninterested in tap, came with the famous Irish shows which, since 1994, show that percussive dancing is much more than just a small cross-section and can play the major role in a big entertaining show. In any case it will be very exciting what we – the tap dancers – will come up with in the 21st century....