Step Up! Touring the Tap Dance World


Natalie shows off her tap skills

Natalie Note, Reporter

For many people, tap dance is a thing of musicals and movies. While many of us have witnessed tap steps and performances, recognizing the important figures and the various struggles of early dancers is really the story that needs to be told. 

Sherry Hines, a local tap dance teacher and owner of Dance With Sherry Studio, has been interested in the history of tap and gave some insight into its origins.

“Tap dancing started during the slave era, when slaves were being taken over from Africa and they were on the ships. The sailors were either Irish or Scottish and they would bring the slaves up in the deck because they needed to exercise and the slaves had drums,” Hines said. 

“The slaves would play the drums and the sailors would dance. When they got to the states, the plantation owners took the drums away from the slaves, so they started banging out the noises from the drums with their feet.” 

She went on to explain that when the slaves were moved into the cities and had shoes, they would take bottle caps or pennies and smash them into the tops of their shoes so that they could make a better sound with their feet. 

As time went on, tap dance became more popular. Dancers would show off steps in the streets to others, steps were stolen, adapted, and reused. This is why many tap steps now have multiple names or variations. 

“It’s French and it’s all around the world, all ballet is the same. Tap is different, everybody has their own terminology,” Hines said. “It [tap dance] wasn’t as structured. Different people do it differently.” 

Overall, tap dance popularity had come in waves throughout history. Now, tap dancers are hard to find and teachers that will teach tap are even more rare. Jessica Stanton, Novato High dance teacher, discussed this.

“If you look at most dance education programs from youth to higher education, there is much higher value placed on these styles of dance [modern and ballet]. If we want to take a deeper look at why ballet and modern dance are more valued over other dance forms, we have an honest conversation about the structure of the American dance community,” Stanton said. “We must start to ask questions such as: Why do we refer to ballet and modern dance as ‘technique’ implying that all other dance forms don’t require specific training, skill and technique?” 

Contrary to the common belief that tap dance is “easier” or requires less skill, steps can often be quite technical. Dancers such as Gregory Hines often worked for weeks to perfect a step, pulling from dances that they have seen or just making sounds that they think fit a certain rhythm. 

A dancer can tap to any type of music and they will often push boundaries by choreographing dances to rock or classical music. While it is common for tap to be done to some sort of jazz or swing music without lyrics, lyrical dancers may use the words of a song to convey a certain tone through their steps. 

The fluidity of tap dance is what draws a lot of dancers into it. The beats and rhythms that are created can stand alone without music to back it up. It is less strict than ballet, so many of the dancers have a chance to create some steps of their own and are often encouraged through freestyle activities to take an eight-count of music and throw steps together just to see if that is something they like to do. 

Over the years, tap dancing has been pulled in new directions and has evolved to make it what it is today. This resilient style of dance is not going away anytime soon, regardless of its decrease in popularity among the dance community.