Tap dance is much more than learning the steps

Has Philly lost touch with the true musical roots of tap dance?

5 minute read
Hetherington, a white woman, and Roberson, a Black woman, perform together, each dancing on their own low wooden platform.

For my whole life, I’ve been hearing that “tap dance is a dying art form.” As the artistic director of the Philadelphia Jazz Tap Ensemble, I beg to differ, but a troubling experience early in my career demonstrated the problem.

About 15 years ago, I started showing my first tap works in Philadelphia and was one of a few chosen choreographers at a dance festival held at the University of the Arts. I was thrilled. I spent many hours creating a polyrhythmic piece of tap choreography to an original score accompanied by live piano. At the conclusion of the piece, the audience was invited to give feedback. There was dead silence until an esteemed mid-career modern-dance choreographer raised her hand and said, “I can’t really comment because this is the first time I’ve ever seen tap dance performed.” Not even in movies, on TV, or on stage? It seemed not, and she shared this fact in earnest. I didn’t have the skills yet to save the moment, so the audience stared at me and my musician, and we left the floor in awkward silence.

The irony of this experience is that UArts was the post-secondary teaching home of the late, legendary LaVaughan Robinson; as a precocious teenager in an adult evening extension class, that’s where I first encountered him. UArts was also the place I thought that all tap dance happened. Even before I met Robinson in 1995, I could often be found tap dancing in the basement of the old “309 South Broad” building with Delphine Mantz, Brian Vernon, and Cheryl Willis. The latter two are career academics, and Willis has penned two of the most important research books about tap dance available.

Much more than “steps”

Today, you will be hard-pressed to find a tap dance major or minor in any post-secondary department here in Philadelphia—because there isn’t one. Tap dance has been forced out of Philadelphia academic institutions and others like them because it questions the underlying principles of postmodern dance, primarily its detachment from musicality. If there is tap dance offered at all in higher education, it is often conscripted to the practice of derivative technique. That means it’s disconnected from the creation and interaction with live music, a disconnection that is the antithesis of the original art form. Tap dance is many things, but there is one thing it is not: “steps.”

People enter into their experience of tap dance in all kinds of ways. Most of us who study it as children start in a dancing school environment. One of my dance teachers, Miss Rita Rue, was primarily influenced by the dancing she saw in movie musicals, which I also devoured as my primary way of actually seeing tap dance and tap dancers. But I did not know until many years later that these dancers had been influenced and taught by uncredited Black tap dancers. It was my own ignorance, too, that hid from me the realization that my primary tap dance teachers had been white women and what that implied for my training.

Dance studios in Northeast Philadelphia of my era taught “Broadway tap.” Tap steps are pretty cut-and-dried in that there are not hundreds of defined steps. You can learn the entire atlas of tap step names in just a few classes. In the space between Broadway tap and jazz tap lies the understanding and connection of the music in relation to the dance and, therefore, in one’s proficiency to improvise. We make mistakes when we try to define the styles qualitatively because just as jazz musicians practice scales and learn tunes, technique is how we dancers express the music. Your entry into tap is your first lens on the genre and your place in its history. Eventually, if you have the itch to learn more, you look for better glasses.

Philly tap falls behind

The elimination of tap dance from post-secondary education, either in dance or jazz departments, has put Philadelphia tap dance far behind the large majority of American cities in two ways. First, it’s hard to produce professional-level tap dancers who understand and contribute innovative works to the scene. Second, we lack critics who can provide keen analysis, understand tap as an improvisational form that exists symbiotically alongside live music, and aptly review new works in the context of the larger local and international scenes.

Generally, professional-level tap dance advances and innovates by collaborating with musicians (who often compose new music as a result) and by offering new ideas, structures, and choreographic forms for individual artists to create on stage. By comparison, amateur tap dance centers imitation and eschews improvisation, often relying on recorded music. For example, amateur tap students may perform classic tap dances like the Shim Sham or the BS Chorus in concerts as the main focus of their work, akin to how a young piano student might memorize the Moonlight Sonata. But tap dance evolved alongside live music accompaniment, and it will not persist into the future without it. As one of the cultural leaders of tap dance in Philadelphia, I argue that any public presentation of the art form to recorded music should not be reviewed as a professional contribution to the scene because it is an incorrect representation of the art form.

“A forgotten art”?

So, is tap dance “dying”? I have a Philadelphia Inquirer write-up hanging on my wall that details a massively attended tap festival I produced in 2019, accompanied by the headline, “Tapping Into a Forgotten Art” (insert eye roll here). I wonder if tap dance continues to be perceived as moribund because very little good criticism is written about it, and by self-fulfilling prophecy, very little interesting work is made that can compete with every other art form that’s out there. In dance alone, internationally, there are hundreds of modern, ballet, hip-hop, contemporary, and world dance companies that compete for presenters and audience dollars. Are there enough tap dancers willing to do that intense work? If so, maybe the critics will follow.

Above: Pamela Hetherington (left) performs with Bethlehem Roberson in 2022’s Trouble the Water at Fairmount Waterworks. (Photo by Tim Caldwell.)

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