The Beat on Tap
Published on 06/04/2017
Tap dance is a unique art-form. Both movement and music, tap dance creates its own percussive sound as it is performed. It’s said to have its roots in the social dance habits of West African and Irish people, both of whom loved creating movement with special rhythmic qualities. What distinguishes tap from Irish hard sole dance, however, is the performance style and pattern of the movements, which evolved predominantly through the form’s relationship to jazz music.
Metal cleats (tap plates) screwed onto the soles and heels of the shoes enhance the sounds and rhythms created by the various movements of the foot hitting the floor or performance surface. The best technicians of the genre can create the most intricate patterns with what appears to be very little physical effort.
These great exponents of tap are often referred to as “hoofers” and one of the most famous - who brought notoriety to the genre in its early days - was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878 – 1949), who honed his craft performing in vaudeville and on Broadway. Robinson is best remembered for those cherished dance sequences with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel.
Other iconic movie moments that show off the genre include the duet between Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Begin the Beguine, Gene Kelly’s performance in Singin’ in the Rain and the Nicholas Brothers famously acrobatic tap sequence in Stormy Weather - which Astaire referred to as “the greatest dance number ever filmed”.
The glory years of tap dance are considered to be the 1920s – 1950s, when the genre was featured everywhere - in movies, in musicals, in vaudeville and in the clubs.
Gregory Hines, the son of a jazz drummer, brought the spotlight back onto the craft in the ‘80s and even held his own in that sensational dance-off scene between his character and that of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s in White Nights.
By the early ‘90s many people suggested that tap dance had “had it’s day” but two young, passionate artists, on opposite sides of the globe, changed that when they created original productions that introduced their individual styles of tap to the world. They were Dein Perry, who first showcased his highly industrialized brand of tap in Tap Dogs (1995), and Savion Glover (a protégé of Hines) with Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (1996). The work of these two tap artists can be credited with sparking a renaissance for this much-loved craft.
Female artists, such as Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance, have also come to prominence in recent years and especially not to be overlooked the sisters Chloe and Maud Arnold who have elevated the art of Tap through film and documentaries and their own Foundation. Currently the two sisters are working on a special edition of tap shoe for Bloch which will be released internationally in the coming months.
Another talented artist is Jason Samuels Smith, who has collaborated with Bloch since 2010, to create a professional standard shoe for dancers who wish to hone their craft. The Jason Samuels Smith tap shoe features specially developed metal bonding procedures to ensure that screws will not loosen without modification. That means less need to constantly adjust your plates or for that tool kit all tappers carry.
Try it yourself!
“Shim Sham” – a simple heel toe combination that became a tap dance anthem in dance halls across the world, with choreographic credit attributed to Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant. Check it out here, to teach your self the moves:
- May 25th was declared “National Tap Dance Day” in 1989. The date was selected in honour of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who was born on that day in 1878.
- The tap dancers featured in Dein Perry’s segment of the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, wore 500 pairs of Bloch Techno Tap plates.
By Sally Clark
Sally Clark, is an Event Director/Choreographer with theatre and dance performance credits including: “Cats”; “Anything Goes”; “Nine – the musical”; and “Follies”. She has been a regular contributor to Dance Australia magazine since 1999.