Tap into America

Despite only occasional glimpses of the mainstream, tap dance remains an iconic American art form.

Nothing exemplifies American multi-culturalism (or multi-tasking) like tap. And for dancers, it's like nothing else.

Pam Hetherington: It's like an addiction that never dies. There's always another thing to try, to practice, like another inspiration that you get, and it just takes hold.

Elizabeth Burke: There's nothing quite like using your body to make music."

Robert Burden: Every time I walk down the street I gotta tun, tun, tun. You know I got something going on in my head.

Michelle Dorrance: That this instrument is on your feet, and that we are so responsible for every single movement. You can hear the nuance of every single one of those moments, it's exceptional.

Michelle Dorrance is among the most exceptional contemporary exponents of tap. A 2016 MacArthur Genius Award winner, she's doing things that have never been tried before with this more than century old art form.

Dorrance: I think of the origins of hip-hop, the origins of breaking specifically, are rooted in tap dance, particularly the Nicholas Brothers. A lot of the footwork and a lot of, like, vernacular movement, if you will. So, like, vernacular jazz which is also rooted in tap dance / existed alongside tap dance, played into house and hip-hop and a lot of these cultures that are club and street forms now. So, I love seeing the way the footwork from this form influenced that form and then cycling it back into tap dance, so that you can see this aesthetic that might feel contemporary, or street, or these things. But, really it's rooted in this form.”

And the roots of tap, like those of the blues, can be traced back to the plantation.

Dorrance: They're the first American art forms. You know blues as the — or spirituals into blues — and the early percussive dance and then tap dance. So these are the two trajectories of the original american forms.

And just as the blues was an expression of the deepest human angst, tap connected dancers with that most intuitive of percussion instruments, the human body.

Robert Burden is a senior statesman of American tap, having been mentored directly by the 20th century master, LaVaughn Robinson.

He says that unlike other dancers, whose only concern is movement, tappers are also musicians.

Burden: So you can't forget about the basic side, you can't forget about the showing it off side. But, first thing’s first: it better sound good.

Dorrance: This is the dance of the creation of those sounds, and that's exciting. Like my mentor Gene Medler, from North Carolina, always says, the form follows the function. And I repeat this constantly, because that's what's exciting about tap dance. This is the way the dance looks, because this is how you have to articulate it to hear it this way.

Pam Hetherington: You have to push yourself very hard to become a musician, and to be accountable for timing, for tempo, for sound.

Pam Hetherington, having also learned at the feet of LaVaughn Robinson, is acutely aware that, since it's beginning, tap has endured as one of America's few truly cross cultural pursuits.

Hetherington: American tap dance, which is an art form comes from a different blend of
many cultures, but mainly African American influences and Irish influences.

Dorrance: So Irish indentured servants, and maybe also some Scots, were the only whites
quartered with slaves, period. That's it, that's one point of origin. And then you have areas like the Five Points neighborhood here in New York where, you know, Irish were called blacks. You know, you look at that cross cultural thing that was happening in the
1800s and you're like, ‘oh wow.’

Hetherington: So you see a lot of early tap dance was very up on the toes, that comes directly from Irish step dancing influences.

Dorrance: And then you have syncopated African musical sensibility, and movement, and approach to the floor. You also have groups of people who can't communicate except through this. So you have that immediate blending of culture, and also communication, based around something that doesn't involve words. So that's also powerful.

And just as the blues would morph into mainstream popular music, so, too, would tap become a mainstay of popular entertainment. First in clubs and vaudeville shows, later in the movies.

Yet tap's organic evolution is continuing away from the spotlight on the streets of cities like Philadelphia.

Hetherington: People would compete at different street corners, and you would compete at these various, I guess, like lesser, second tier street corners. And the corner you wanted to get to, to compete was Broad and South Street. And if you got to Broad and South Street, and you won, you were the best hoofer in the city.

And the competitive spirit of these street corners would also define how tap was passed down.

Robert Burden: You had to have the eye and the ear at the same time (snapping), and pick it up quick, and then have the ability to change it a little bit. So if somebody said ‘you stole my step,’ you'd be like, ‘no, your step was like this, this is how I did it.’ That little nuance changed everything.

And even in more formal settings, like the classroom of the late, great LaVaughn Robinson, you had to stay on your toes to pick it up.

Hetherington: He never got up to the front of the room and was like, ‘this is how you do a shuffle.’ He just did it. He was like ‘that's the sound, that's what you're trying to achieve.’

Burden: So he would go, (tapping sound effects and snapping), that would be us. So it was like a call and response.

Hetherington: You know, if you were able to grab that while you were there, good for you, but if you missed it…hope you were listening (laughing).

Throughout its history, tap has been pronounced dead or dying on many occasions. But every generation seems to find a new way to connect with it. Whether it's Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s, Gregory Hines, who would become a bona fide international star in the 1980s, or Stomp, the 1990s Broadway phenomena that featured a young Michelle Dorrance.

And now in her mid 30s, she's at an age when dancers from other genres are facing retirement. But for Dorrance, like for many tap dancers, her best days may well lie ahead.

Dorrance: We die with our shoes on, man. So, you know, people are still tap dancing into their 90s. Yes, your approach will change and shift, and there will be things that I ask someone to do that I won't necessarily do, or maybe I won't even want to do them anymore soon, five, ten, how ever many years. But I'll learn that as it comes.