Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Eleanor Powell performed some of the most popular tap dance routines on film. They were icons with immortal legacies. But what about John Bubbles, Jeni LeGon or Teddy Hale?
These hoofers had unparalleled musicianship and innate style, pioneering tap in ways the movie stars did not. With subdued background movie roles sidelined from plot lines, these hoofers mainly plied their trade in the nightclubs – and without many publicly accessible archival recordings, their legacies are now kept alive by a handful of passionate teachers and devoted tap enthusiasts.
Would the art form have evolved differently in mainstream theatre had these legends been given a platform rightly deserving of their talents? Audience exposure to tap dance is usually in the form of a joyous gimmick in classic musical revivals or golden age movie adaptations.
It sometimes finds its way into contemporary theatre, but even then it rarely breaks away from its stereotype of flash and smiles. Craftily choreographed, synchronised ensembles still raise audiences to their feet and then go on to dominate ‘toe-tapping, foot-stomping’ headlines.
I’ve been lucky enough to have performed in several of these shows and witness the audience exhilaration, but I have always been convinced that tap can be much more. Rather than support a story, couldn’t tap, alone, tell a story? Ballet, contemporary dance and hip hop have all proven capable of portraying complex, nuanced narratives.
The cadence of foot percussion, coupled with emotive physicality, can be as visceral as any other dance style. Tap is music for the deaf and dance for the blind. With great design and well-structured scores, stories told through this refreshing form can be fully accessible and spark an audience’s imagination in new ways.
Creating any new theatre is an uphill climb, but tap’s limited representation, complex history and additional requirements for musicianship steepens the incline further.
Despite this, movements are starting to happen in the UK. Avalon Rathgeb’s Old Kent Road has just completed a 40-performance tour of its brilliant new work Oscillate. Tap Attack Youth Company continues to train the next generation of hoofing talent, who regularly win gold at the IDO World Tap Championships. I am also developing a narrative-driven tap show called Feet Keep Me Flyin’ with original music that tells the story of how two hoofers born a century apart are connected.
In my experience, young people respond very positively when their own musical tastes are met with a style of dance they likely only attribute to old movies. At the same time, older generations who are more familiar with tap appear to find new approaches refreshing. In the last year, my online concept videos garnered millions of views, as did American choreographer Chloe Arnold’s company Syncopated Ladies, who were also endorsed by Beyoncé.
There is an appetite for tap dance beyond the conventional stereotype. It’s time for the theatre world to invest in the possibilities of the art form as a vehicle for telling stories.
Jack Evans is the writer and choreographer of Feet Keep Me Flyin’, the creator of HoofersUK, and a tutor at Bird College. Visit his website for further details