For those of you who have never seen a Shirley Temple movie, nor swooned over the elegant dancing of Fred Astaire, the million dollar legs and feet of Ann Miller, or the sexy hunkered-down "improvography" of Gregory Hines, pay mind. If you wake up on May 25, National Tap Dance Day, hearing rat-a-tat-tapping in the air, know it's not the dementia of hearing "The Raven" at the door but the sound of a million feet celebrating America's oldest vernacular dance form.
National Tap Dance Day was established in honor of the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the most beloved tap dancer of the first half of the twentieth century who brought tap dancing "up on its toes" from an earlier, earthier, more flat-footed shuffling style. From the start of the Copasetics Club -- the fraternity of mostly all-black hoofers founded in 1949, and named after Robinson's quip, "Everything's Copasetic," or chilled out and cool -- to the passage of the resolution declaring May 25 National Tap Dance Day, Robinson has been the iconic representation of tap dance, considered the "King of Tap Dancers." But National Tap Dance Day celebrates all the elders and eldresses of tap. We say that, like the African talking drums, every rhythm that is tapped on a stage sounds out praises for its elders. Their ghosts are ever present, implicit in every step. And we honor them.
Tap dance, our first American vernacular dance form, is an intricate musical and dance exchange that evolved Afro-Irish percussive step dances like the jig, gioube, buck-and-wing, and juba to the work of such contemporary low-heeled tap luminaries as Gregory Hines, Brenda Bufalino, Dianne Walker, Jason Samuels Smith, and such hard-hitting high-heeled women as Chloe Arnold, Michela Marino Lerman, Michelle Dorrance, and Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards.
Despite its 300-year history, tap is not yet dead, though it has gone into historical periods of resurgence and decline, renaissances and deep sleeps. Despite its maturity, I claim that tap dance remains the most cutting-edge dance form on the American stage today. Why? Tap dance reaches across the chasm of difference through the commonality of rhythm. I'm talking about the power of rhythm to arouse and excite, to communicate swiftly and directly, cutting through the edgy divisions of race, class, and gender. It's a universal language that speaks not to the head but to the heart (beat). I've seen audiences, upon seeing tap performances, squeal with excitement -- cheering, clapping, stamping feet, shouting out uncontrollably. The rhythmic brilliance of tap is at once an intoxicating and profoundly unifying experience. I know of no other dance form that can affect that. Tap is also cutting edge because of the new generation of dancers embracing the form, pushing rhythm into new acoustic dimensions.
So I ask you, on this most happy-footed National Tap Day, when was the first time you saw/heard tap dancing? That's a question I ask everyone I meet, and I've gotten a myriad of responses-- from my cousin who saw Fred Astaire in Top Hat at age six and wanted to dance, despite his mother saying that dancing was for sissies, to Jeni LeGon in Hooray for Love, Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in Singing in the Rain, Ruby Keeler in No, No Nanette, June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason Show, and Savion Glover as the tap-dancing cowboy on Sesame Street.
So go ahead, try to remember, it's in there because tap is in our national memory: When do you first remember seeing tap dance on film? On television? In the street? In the theater? Let me know, so I can add you to the list of tap-happy enthusiasts.
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