Tap dance is an indigenous American dance genre that evolved over a period of some three hundred years. Initially a fusion of British and West African musical and step-dance traditions in America, tap emerged in the southern United States in the 1700s. The Irish jig (a musical and dance form) and West African gioube (sacred and secular stepping dances) mutated into the American jig and juba. These in turn became juxtaposed and fused into a form of dancing called “jigging” which, in the 1800s, was taken up by white and black minstrel-show dancers who developed tap into a popular nineteenth-century stage entertainment. Early styles of tapping utilized hard-soled shoes, clogs, or hobnailed boots. It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that metal plates (or taps) appeared on shoes of dancers on the Broadway musical stage. It was around that time that jazz tap dance developed as a musical form parallel to jazz music, sharing rhythmic motifs, polyrhythm, multiple meters, elements of swing, and structured improvisation. In the late twentieth century, tap dance evolved into a concertized performance on the musical and concert hall stage. Its absorption of Latin American and Afro- Caribbean rhythms in the forties has furthered its rhythmic complexity. In the eighties and nineties, tap’s absorption of hip-hop rhythms has attracted a fierce and multi-ethnic new breed of male and female dancers who continue to challenge and evolve the dance form, making tap the most cutting-edge dance expression in America today.

As Africans were transplanted to America, African religious circle dance rituals, which had been of central importance to their life and culture, were adapted and transformed (Stuckey 1987). The African American Juba, for example, derived from the African djouba or gioube, moved in a counterclockwise circle and was distinguished by the rhythmic shuffling of feet, clapping hands, and “patting” the body, as if it were a large drum. With the passage of he Slave Laws in the 1740s prohibiting the beating of drums for the fear of slave uprisings, there developed creative substitutes for drumming, such as bone- clapping, jawboning, hand-clapping, and percussive footwork. There were also retentions by the indentured Irish, as well as parallel retentions between the Irish and enslaved Africans, of certain music, dance and storytelling traditions. Both peoples took pride in skills like dancing while balancing a glass of beer or water on their heads, and stepping to intricate rhythmic patterns while singing or lilting these same rhythms. Some contend that the cakewalk, a strutting and prancing dance originated by plantation slaves to imitate and satirize the manners of their white masters, borrows from the Irish tradition of dancing competitively for a cake. And that Africans may have transformed the Irish custom of jumping the broomstick into their own unofficial wedding ceremony at a time when slaves were denied Christian rites.

The conceptualization of tap dance as an Afro-Irish fusion, fueled by the competitive interplay of the challenge in a battle for virtuosity and authority, puts into focus issues of race and ethnicity; and inevitably takes on the painful history of race, racism, and race relations in America. In addition, there are issues of class, in which tap was considered a popular entertainment and placed in the category of “low-art,” and therefore not worthy of being presented on the concert stage. Moreover, the strange absence of women in early accounts of jigging competitions forces a consideration of gender in the evolution of tap dance which, for most of the twentieth century, was considered “a man’s game.” That has become a kind of mythologized truth, given the plethora of tap histories that have blindsided women. By inference or direct statement, women were told they were “weak”; they lacked the physical strength needed to perform the rhythm-driven piston steps, multiple-wing steps, and flash and acrobatic steps that symbolized the (male) tap virtuoso’s finish to a routine. Women were “nurturers,” not competitors,” and therefore did not engage in the tap challenge. A woman’s role was not as a soloist but as a member of the chorus line.

Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree

Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree was born on Nassau Street in New York City in 1847, and raised in California during the Gold Rush, where she learned ballet, fandangos, and the Highland fling.  Since in the 1850s half of California’s population was Irish, her teachers made sure she excelled at the jig. As a dancer touring mining camps, she was introduced to an African-American dancer who taught her breakdowns, soft-shoes, and buck- and-wing dances. Crabtree’s fame spread throughout the country, as she was as a performer of jigs and reels, with acrobatic flourishes. Her only competitors were the three Worrell sisters, Irene, Sophie, and Jennie, who performed in clog-dancing shoes. When it was later discovered that Jennie Worrell’s clogs had trick heels (heels that were hollowed out with tin-lined boxes placed inside and holding two bullets), that made it sound like she was dancing faster than she really was, Crabtree had no peers when it came to jig and clog. “She can dance a regular breakdown in true burnt cork style and gives an Irish Jig as well as we have ever seen it done,” wrote the New York Clipper in 1864 (Rourke 1928).  In her later years she became a popular actress and the toast of Broadway. While she retired from the stage in 1891 at the age of forty-four, her renown as a female jig and breakdown dancer lasted into the early decades of the twentieth century.

Ada Overton Walker

Ada Overton Walker was born on Valentines Day in 1880 in New York’s Greenwich Village. As a child she received dance instruction from a Mrs. Thorp in midtown Manhattan. Around 1897, after graduating from Thorp’s dance school, she toured briefly with Black Patti’s Troubadours. A girlfriend invited her to model for an advertisement with Bert Williams and George Walker, who had just scored a hit in their vaudeville debut at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. She agreed to model for the ad and subsequently joined the men to dance in the cakewalk finale. After joining John W. Isham’s Octoroon, a critic for the Indianapolis Freeman declared, “I had just observed the greatest girl dancer.” With Grace Halliday she formed the sister dance act of Overton and Halliday. They performed as the pair of Honolulu Belles in the Williams and Walkers’ The Policy Players (1899), and from there, Overton began to develop as a soloist with more substantial roles. In the musical comedy The Sons of Ham (1900) she sang and danced “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and “Leading Lady”; and in its second edition, “Society” and “Sparkling Ruby” which brought her jubilant acclaim. James Weldon Johnson wrote that she “had a low-pitched voice with a natural sob to it, which she knew how to use with telling effect in putting over a song” (Johnson 1933). Tom Fletcher remembered her as a singer who did ragtime songs and ballads equally well; and as a dancer “who could do almost anything, and no matter whether it was buck-and-wing, cakewalk, or even some form of grotesque dancing . . . she lent the performance a neat gracefulness of movement unsurpassed by anyone” (Fletcher 1954).

Text Source: Library of Congress

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