I’ve been tap dancing for over a decade, but taking a technique class this fall has reminded me that there’s always more to learn. I’ve noticed that with every class I’ve taken since I started at age eight, though, that the number of participants has consistently and considerably dwindled.
Tap’s sheer complexity, as well as the stylistic associations with which it’s been linked over the years, make it appear inaccessible to the average person who appreciates theatre and live performance. On the outset, tap seems like a whole other planet in the dance universe, brought out of Broadway and Harlem Renaissance narratives. With its complex history, a lot of dancers – professional or otherwise – find tap intimidating or even old-fashioned, and thus tend to shy away. Increasingly since the 1940s, we’ve traded off-beat rhythms for neat, even, 8-counts we can understand in the form of ballet, jazz, and contemporary dance…while tap shuffles along the wayside. And in doing so, I think, we ignore a huge, multifaceted component of dance culture.
Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but tap doesn’t have to be a lost art. In fact, in the last decade, it’s been rejuvenated by artists like Sarah Reich from California and Savion Glover from New Jersey, who bring modern beats together with tap rhythms in their performances and in their teaching. Reich is currently touring with the Postmodern Jukebox Band to sold-out crowds, and Glover has been teaching and performing all over the world for decades–even performing for the Clintons in 1998 and as the rhyming tap dancer on Sesame Street. These are just two modern tap dancers who have kept tradition alive while infusing it with their own experiences and styles.
And they had to start somewhere, right?
Don’t let the complicated (though impressive) sequences on So You Think You Can Dance scare you, don’t let the grayscale footage of time-stepping flappers throw you off. Tap is far from dated, and, if you give it a try, far from overwhelming. It all starts with one brush of your foot.
In case you’re still not convinced, here’s my list of five reasons to give tap a shot.
1. It’s great exercise.
Remember the jazzercise trend of the ‘80s? (Of course you do, and you have neon green legwarmers to prove it.) It’s since been replaced by Zumba classes and barre intensives, but I posit that tap, while less well-known, is just as good for exercise as any other dance form. Whether you’re starting out with beginner’s basics or moving through intermediate/advanced classes, you’re inevitably constantly moving. The basics of tap involve bending your knees (to get the best sounds out of your shoes, of course), loosening your ankles, and altering your posture depending on the style. So, in learning tap techniques, you also practice stretching out those leg and foot muscles and effectively keeping your balance. With all of that, of course, comes the cardio workout of moving across the floor practicing certain steps in repetition. Depending on the style of your instructor, you might practice arm movements that work your biceps and triceps, as well. I wear a Fitbit to class, and I always end up logging at least another 6,000 steps in my daily fitness report by the end of the hour. There are even fitness programs that pair tap with other cardio workout techniques!
2. It’s part dance, part art, part history.
The history of tap is an expression of powerful, subversive cultural fusions – and it’s still going. More often than not, your teacher will provide the context for and history behind what she’s teaching you, and from there, you can expand not only your dance knowledge, but your understanding of performing arts as reflections of cultural history. Specifically, dance provides a unique, tactile means for understanding its roots – for there are always multiple – and can broaden your global perspective. Tap has a wide range of influences including Irish stepdance, African tribal dance, and Spanish Flamenco dance. During the Harlem Renaissance, it served as a platform (literally) for African-Americans like John Bubbles to take the stage despite the bigoted postwar America standing in their way. In the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, dancers like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Gene Kelly introduced tap into the American theatre and movie-musical scene, bringing about some of the stereotypical associations we make with tap today that are nonetheless hugely important to its development.
And it didn’t stop there. Tap history is always in the making; contemporary dancer Sarah Reich currently tours with the Postmodern Jukebox Band, a YouTube sensation that fuses modern music and stylistic attributes with 1940s big-band structure. To match their innovation, Reich incorporates classic American tap with new, contemporary styles and, together, the band and the dancer evoke both nostalgia and new inspiration. No one influence can be credited to any step, except the occasional step created by a specific choreographer – and even then, there are variations. Tap builds on itself; since its very inception, it’s been passed along and modified across generations and cultures. And for that very reason, it’s never too late to join in on its stylistic journey – it’s still going.
3. It teaches you about rhythm.
Tap has a language of its own. There’s even a specific sequence – called the time step – that was historically used for a tap dancer to count in the tempo for the live band behind her. Different steps and styles require different understandings of rhythm, and because tap is so versatile, even marginally immersing yourself in the basics can teach you how to find the beat in any music. Tap also teaches you that there’s rhythm to be found in between and beyond the standard counts. Within the simple eight counts of a time step, there are many miniscule microbeats that you can hit, filling in the blanks with crisp sounds in practically infinite combinations. This is how tap dancers have innovated many quintessential steps over the years – Gene Kelly, for example, found a way to incorporate a bunch of extra sounds and steps into a single time-step framework, creating his signature time step that many dancers aspire to conquer.
4. You can start at any age.
As a dancer, I would encourage anyone to pick up any dance form at any age. However, dance types like ballet and jazz often require some previous experience and a certain degree of flexibility built up over many years. While tap requires a flexible mind – and probably some relatively flexible ankles – it’s a popular recreation form across age groups because all you need is a pair of shoes with those metal taps to make some noise. Starting a little later might seem intimidating, but there are loads of adult tap classes offered anywhere from major city studios where you can sign up for drop-ins (i.e., Broadway Dance Center), or free classes at your local YMCA. No matter where you live, it’s likely tap dance is accessible and offered at a variety of levels, so jumping in (as noisily as you’d like) couldn’t be easier.
5. You can make it your own.
Tap is unique in that there isn’t one way to dance it. You’ll often find that in dance history, there is “traditional” Russian or French ballet or “traditional” ballroom dance – but if fifteen years of dance has taught me anything, it’s that the word traditional doesn’t really apply to tap. We can trace the origins of certain steps, and we can pinpoint those dancers in history who made a universal impact on stylistic choices, but at the end of the day, tap is versatile enough that it’s yours. It’s mine. It’s everyone’s who takes a shot, because each new application of each technique creates an individualized style.
Search “tap dance routine” on YouTube, and you’ll come across all sorts of mix-and-match styles. As with any art, when people choreograph dance, they put a part of themselves into their work. Tap dancers are transparent in the way they do this, for no move looks exactly alike; every count is an opportunity for variation. If you like the early Broadway-themed styles, you can make them your own, adding your own personality and flare. If you find you’re more of a rhythm tapper, you can expand to any new rhythms you like and discover where your niche is.Once you learn the basics, the rest is all you. The rest is instinctive. The rest is feeling.
What are you waiting for?
As we move into fall and toward the end of the year, there’s no better time to discover your dance potential. Whether you’re a tap dance vet or someone looking to try something new, grab a pair of tap shoes and get started. The more people get into tap, the more we can ensure it carries on and continues to grow with the times – and with us.
If you’d like to learn more about tap in a historical and cultural context, check out Mark Knowles’ Tap Roots, Constance Valis Hill’s Tap Dancing America, or my personal favorite, TAP! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955 by Rusty Frank.