Stompin’ Around

Everybody, everywhere’s got rhythm.

African juba.
Irish jig.
American tap.
African-American step.
Indian Kathak.
Argentine malambo.

Gumboot, chancleta, Spanish flamenco, Cuban flamenco, trash percussion (think STOMP).

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Tap dancing at the Patel Conservatory. (Photo: Marc Edwards)

From all the varied, colorful corners of our endearing and often baffling human society, rhythm dances emerge, catch on like wildfire and become a common language amongst us. Tribes ensconced in the rainforests and isolated deserts of this great planet stomp their feet on the ground to make an infectious, intricate inlay of beats that form a hey-this-is-us dance communication. There’s Riverdance and fraternity and sorority step shows. As you read this article, somebody in our country clacks out a shuffle-ball-change and another somebody somewhere pounds their shoe sole in time to frog songs or train wheels or the sound of an unlocked shutter knocking the side of the house.

This universal need for stompin’ around, making cool sounds with our feet and having those sounds mean something about who we are is about as utilitarian as you can get when it comes to the performing arts. Humans love to clap our hands and stomp our feet, as you can see in three-year-olds no matter what skin tone, shape, size, economic status or line of longitude that little one occupies. We seem to be born to make percussive dance. We love it. Some of us love it so much we make careers out of it.

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In the United States, the blending of African juba, originally West African sacred gioube dance, and Irish jigs birthed tap but not right away. A uniquely American art form, tap emerged during a three-hundred-year cultural exchange between enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants who found themselves imperiled in the Caribbean sugarcane fields together under British rule. For a century, the two cultures, each heavy with a musical and dance identity, borrowed steps, rhythms and cadences until they fashioned something extraordinary – a new art form on its way to the American South.

An interesting anecdote to this relationship between Africans and the Irish occurred in New York City on March 17, 1781. The St. Patrick’s Day Rebellion, which led to the burning of British symbols of rule, was led by the free African Caesar and the Irish dance master John Cory.

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Farruquito, “the greatest flamenco dancer of the century” (The New York Times), performs at The Straz on Feb. 13.

Another interesting anecdote is that Irishmen launched the first successful blackface minstrel shows that mixed Irish and African folkloric traditions for the public. Later, an African-American dancer of unsurpassed skill named William Henry Lane trounced the reigning Irish-American minstrel dancer John Diamond to become King of All Dancers. Lane’s loose body on top of exacting percussive technique pulled from clogging and jigging launched the earliest known form of American tap dance.

As ragtime morphed into jazz, so did Lane’s style evolve into a dance somewhat recognizable as tap and jazz dance. Broadway defined syncopated jazz tap with Shuffle Along (1921) although the metal taps had yet to make it to the bottoms of the shoes. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson created a craze with his hoofing and wooden-soled shoes, and “tap dance” started showing up on the list of classes in reputable dance studios. The metal taps appeared in the 1930s, when the form skyrocketed in popularity on stage and in the movies. By the end of the 1940s, American tap dance was a thing, a very important badge of identity that arrived as the result of cross-cultural pollination between Africa and the United Kingdom.

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Like the percussive dance forms that came before, tap dance is essentially a street dance of the people. Now influenced by hip-hop and reflecting an impressive ability for infusions of other cultures like Indian Kathka and bellydancing, tap continues to shape-shift as new dancers and new cultures add sugar and spice to the form. Even tap gets pulled into other percussive dance forms or gets reflected in the heel-steps of flamenco or chancleta dance (a Caribbean dance using wooden flip-flops). As tap’s reigning King of Dance, Savion Glover noted, “They all come from the street – tap, jazz and flamenco. And the streets are always changing. If it comes from the streets, change is the only thing that’s consistent.”

Percussive dance is cool in that way: although humans, in our many corners of this world, make these dances separately, we see ourselves in the stomped-out rhythms of others. As we change, we remain a recognizable rhythm; in our own ways, we become music playing our bodies and the earth as instruments.

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TAP DOGS, coming to The Straz March 29-31.

Feet Beat @ The Straz
Try tap for the first time or return to the form if you’ve been away for a minute. Our Adult Tap classes meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Thursday at 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. The lovable, super-talented Susan Downey teaches all three classes. To take in a percussive performance, get tickets to Farruquito, the greatest flamenco dancer in the world for Feb. 13 in Ferguson Hall and TAP DOGS in Morsani Hall March 29-31.