Friday, February 19, 2016

2/50: Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing

Tap Roots is Mark Knowles's examination of a uniquely American art form. Although it could only have developed here, in the cultural stew of the 19th century, none of its parent cultures originated here, and Knowles travels back across centuries and continents to look at each of the traditions that fed it. Having always heard that tap grew from the intermingling of Irish cloggers and free African Americans in the Five Points district, I learned more than I was expecting about Morris dancing and Indian dance.

Tap history is race history, and there is grim stuff in here. Some forms of tap came about as clandestine religious ritual, some as ways to mock slave owners to their faces. Knowles really digs into the different parts of slave culture in the Americas, from the West Indies to New Orleans to the Carolinas, and how each had somewhat different musical, religious, and physical traditions that were products both of the slaves' origins and of the new forces at work on them. (In places where Southern Baptism forbade dancing, for example, there had to be strict definitions of what exactly dancing was—so the tap steps from some regions avoid crossing the legs mid-step, as that would have constituted sinning.) The section on 19th century American theater involves so, so much blackface, with illustrations that will make you squirm if you're reading this on mass transit. Knowles discusses blackface a bit,, it's a rough topic, and there has to be at least another whole book to be written on its implications for American dance. I hope there's a book about dance as silent rebellion, too, because that stuff is way cool. In some slave cultures, tap (or its predecessor, patting juba) replaced talking drums as a means of communication. In others, dance (notably but not exclusively capoeira) helped slaves plan and train for resistance. And similar patterns appeared with Irish dance under British oppression. The degree to which dance is an assertion of identity in adversity is fascinating.

It's frustrating that, after this detailed examination of the diaspora, the "Conclusions" section still reduces some originating cultures to monoliths: if we're talking about different social classes and religious groups in the British Isles, we shouldn't talk about "people in Nigeria" as though they all behave the same way. "Conclusions" also includes a couple of really dubious assertions about how geography affects the development of dance. I'm sure geography does affect dance in certain ways. But to say that African dances tend to use counterclockwise turns because, in the southern hemisphere, the sun appears to travel from east to Really no. It does that everywhere. That is how planetary rotation works. I wish the whole section had been left out, because it weakens the rest of the text and makes me wonder whether other concepts have such wobbly "facts" backing them up.

This is niche history, to be sure. I'm researching a couple of writing projects related to vaudeville, and this was really useful for that. I also tap, and it's nice to know more about a medium that, comparatively speaking, is only just beginning to be documented—particularly the sometimes perplexing, always colorful nomenclature of steps. (Buzzard lope! Pigeon wing! Kabibble!) If you're looking for a general history of dance in America, this is probably not the place to start. But if you're into tap, this is a good read.

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