Evolution of Tap Dance from a Different Perspective
the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.
the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.
Somewhere around 1999 – 2001 I started writing an article I called The Evolution of Tap Dance. At the time I may have not been the best candidate to write something like that but I had things in my brain that needed out. That said, I have revised it a few times over a period of years. I was always so torn whether or not I should try to get it published or even let other people read it. As inclusive as I feel tap dance is meant to be, others see it a very different way, especially all those years ago. I believe I even nervously sent it to Acia Gray to read at one point. Unsure what to do, the document sat in my Google Docs for many years. This was way before it was attached to gmail and monikered Google Drive. I held it back because I was concerned I would never be ever accepted into the tap community if I spoke my mind on the topic. Especially after the way I, and others, were disregarded by so many important people because of our roles in Tap Dogs. I feared it would be taken as criticism rather than love. It is, after all, just one person’s personal experience and observation from a semi-inside perspective. It was, and still is, a pretty good snapshot, or representation, of the time we were in. In the article I surely expresses my feelings as a person who was a tap dancer, who was told he wasn’t a tap dancer, because he was a Tap Dog and that doesn’t count. So it sat. Never to be seen or heard from again. Or so I thought.
Fast forward to 2015 when I recently noticed a Webinar posted by Andrew Nemr (who is very knowledgeable and I look forward to speaking with again). The Webinar was on the Evolution of Tap Dance. Obviously I had to sign up. I attended and it was great. It was informative, educational, and I even got to ask a few questions. I highly recommend you do sign up for any of his webinars or events offered in the future. The experience also put lots of perspective on the backlash Tap Dogs received from many established artists in the tap community and why I felt the way I felt at the time. It surely eased some of the pain I experienced so long ago. I left the conversation getting closure on emotions I had long forgotten.
That said, I think it’s time for me to finally release that article I wrote so many years ago, flaws and all. I personally have not altered it since the last version somewhere around 2005/2007-ish. I did have two peers read it recently to explore and eliminate typos, flow of the article, and any other inconsistency that would make it a difficult read or untrue. I skimmed through it once or twice but when I do I want to “fix” things. Like making minor adjustments here or there, or including names and more recent developments such as newly recognized International Tap Festivals, the string of Independent Choreographer driven youtube videos such as Gravity by Justine Myles (click this link for a youtube playlist that is steadily growing with such examples), Hillary Marie and her new show “Soul Walking”, Sarah Reich and her Tap Music Project, or Chloe Arnold and the Syncopated Ladies who recently had major success on SYTYCD. I am a Star Wars fan and I do prefer the Original versions of those films before they were re-edited upon re-release. I get why George Lucas changed them but “as is” has a certain charm to it for those movies and for this article. Leaving it be is also a proper representation of the “sign of the times”.
So, without further ado I give you my Evolution of Tap Dance (As seen through one persons perspective during that particular time period). No more disclaimers. Fingers crossed. I hope you enjoy.
“I have always been a tap dancer. As a child, I emulated Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, James Cagney, and Donald O’Connor. I enjoyed the acrobatics that Gene and Jimmy brought to their performances. I loved the humor Donald was always sure to pull off, I appreciated the style Greg had to offer, and I loved the idea of making music with your feet. Although I was aware of these performers, and others who embraced the art form, I felt very alone for most of my career as a tap dancer. It took a variety of experiences to make me understand why I felt this way. Finally, after close to ten years performing in the show Tap Dogs, working with hundreds of dance studios, conventions, competitions, and festivals, and talking with parents, teachers, and tap students across North America, I understood. Tap dancing never evolved!
I have felt this way for years, but feared the controversy expressing my views would cause. Now, after all my travels and experience, I realize that my description of tap as a stagnant art form is not controversial at all – it is the unfortunate truth that all tap dancers, young and old, need to hear and begin to embrace.
When I was a young child in tap class I knew only one form of tap, the traditional, or Broadway, style. This form of tap is exemplified in shows such as 42nd Street and Crazy for You. All of the dancing is done on the balls of the feet, and every dancer is in unison, executing the same step, sound, and beat at exactly the same time and tempo. The great MGM musicals of the past also showcase traditional tap dance. Though I did notice a great deal of athleticism in these movies, the tap style was mostly cut from the same cloth. Although passionate teachers tried to keep this style alive, its popularity ultimately faded. As teachers became less well-rounded it suffered more and more, became weak, and wore out.
Later in my life, I discovered hoofing. Hoofing is characterized by low, fast, intricate foot work, exemplified by masters like Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, and Henry LeTang. Some great shows performed in this style were Black & Blue, The Tap Dance Kid, and Jelly’s Last Jam. Most recently, hoofing was demonstrated in the movie Tap starring Gregory Hines. Sadly, almost every legend from this film has passed on, including Hines himself.
Unfortunately, I was never able to find a teacher who actually taught hoofing in a traditional studio setting. Teachers of traditional tap always “broke down” the steps, while hoofing required students to simply “watch and learn”. This greatly reduced the number of students able to carry hoofing into the next generation. However, some famous dancers were able to learn hoofing from the masters. Savion Glover, Roxanne Butterfly, and Jason Samuels Smith are all modern hoofers. The show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, as well as some excellent Jazz-Tap shows and yearly festivals carry on the hoofers’ style, steps, and techniques. Shows such as these, as well as River Dance, Stomp, and Tap Dogs, have brought tap back into the light. Many tap dancers say, “Those shows prove that tap is alive and well,” or “We are honoring people like Buster Brown with doctorates from places like Oklahoma City University. Tap is fine.” Well, that is only half true. Yes, we are honoring our past, but tap is not alive and well, especially compared to other styles of dance. “Alive and well” should indicate growth and new directions. Bring in ‘Da Noise was terrific as far as choreography goes, but I disagreed with what feels like or can come across as negativity towards Billy BoJangles and the Nicholas Brothers. Also, the tap showcased in this show was predominantly hoofing and self-acknowledgement, and not an evolution of the presentation of art form. It feels like if you aren’t “this” type of tap dancer then you aren’t a tap dancer. River Dance (except for one small scene), Stomp, and Lord of the Dance do not even contain tap dancing, so they cannot be considered when analyzing tap’s evolution. The majority of the dancing in River Dance and Lord of the Dance is Irish step-dancing, which is its own genre, and Stomp showcases musicians with unusual instruments. Tap is not alive and well, as evidenced by tappers’ eagerness to pass off other styles of dance as “evolved” tap. Tap has not evolved.
The only show that has helped tap evolve during my lifetime is Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs. The first time I saw Tap Dogs was the first time I noticed a change in the art of tap dancing. The show embodied traditional ideas and techniques, hoofing, extreme athleticism, energetic rock music, and cannons, phases, and cross-rhythms. It was the first show to combine all of these elements of tap dance. I was blown away. While watching all I could think was, “These guys are freakin’ nuts” and “How the hell did they just do that for 116 minutes?” When my shock wore off, I realized something. It was the first time in my adult life that I had been amazed by tap dancing. I suddenly did not feel alone anymore, but I wondered, “Why wasn’t this show playing everywhere and why wasn’t it on every dance studio’s radar?”
I kept wondering why tap never evolved while other styles of dance grew and changed. Traditional jazz became Fosse, Hatchett, MTV, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Madonna. Would we have “vogued” without the benefit of our jazz roots? Jazz later evolved into breaking, poppin’, lockin’, and years later, hip hop. Ballet created modern Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Limón. Even MGM musicals led to movies such as Chicago, Saturday Night Fever, Breaking, Step It Up, and more. What happened to tap? Why did it remain stationary while both jazz and ballet evolved themselves to keep up with the changing times?
As I became more and more involved in the dance world, I continued to think about why tap had been left behind as other dance forms evolved. During the next few years I was blessed with the opportunity to meet many famous tap dancers, such as Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen. Gregory came to see Tap Dogs when we performed at the Union Square Theatre in New York City. After the show he came backstage and spent over an hour and a half chatting with the cast. I was both amazed and impressed by his sincere interest in our presentation of his beloved art form. Months later, I had the honor of seeing him after the premiere of Steel City at Radio City Music Hall. I was elated at the amount of time we spent on the street in New York City, just talking. He, the amazing Gregory Hines, was talking to me, just a tap dancer in the hot show of the moment. I felt insignificant standing next to him, but he made me feel as important to the legacy of tap dancing as he already was. He told me to teach, in order to pass on what I knew to others. When I was teaching at the Dance Teacher Summer Conference in New York City, Ben Vereen was the keynote speaker, and he gave the same message as Gregory: Teach! Pass on what you know. Make it last. Get kids interested. If you love what you do, do it to the fullest. It was the second time in my life that I had been greatly inspired by a person I respected and looked up to as a tap dancer and a performer. Both of them praised teaching and the progression of tap as an art form.
As my career continued, I added more classes to my schedule, attended more workshops and conventions as a master teacher, and expressed the importance of teaching dance. I encouraged teachers to seek out ways to be better so that their students could be better, to use updated music that students can relate to, and find steps that complement their dancers, not discourage them. Today, I teach my theory on the evolution of tap dance to all of my students. I use old names, new names, recent news, old news, current music, older music, music on the radio, and everything I have learned in my 35 years as a tap dancer. I am still learning and hopefully will learn forever. A good student makes a better teacher. My approach to teaching is what I call the “Christopher Columbus Theory”. If we only taught students that Columbus discovered America, we would only be teaching them part of the story. It would provide a good starting place, but it would be a gross negligence in the long run if it was the only story we taught. Similarly, why teach just one form of tap when we can encompass many different tap styles in our teaching? I believe that it is imperative, now more than ever, to bring tap into the present. My continuing tap series is like an updated version of Al Gilbert’s records. I am hoping these DVDs will allow me to reach out and help get some teachers back on track, while giving others that spark of creativity most could really use throughout a dance studio year. In return? The teachers get better, the students improve, and tap will have the potential to become exciting and influential again.
It took us years to recognize the legends that are now passing away. Some will pass on without recognition, and some will never be known at all. Will the tap dancers of today share the same fate? When I look at dance magazines, I see only the names of people who embrace the history of tap and traditional, well-established forms of tap. I believe that all tap should be embraced – the new as well as the old. The history of our art is rich, and the future could be wealthy. The future of tap will be determined by how the old embraces the new. If more well-respected tap dancers and traditionalists spoke positively about the importance of new forms of tap, the evolution of tap would be acknowledged and more widely accepted.
Overall, the evolution of tap dance is evident if you know where to look. I have students, and I have connections with master teachers, parents, and studio owners around the world who share my views. Now we must get the rest of the industry on board. When we achieve unity as a tap dance society, the future of tap can be solidified.”
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