Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media

A Conversation with Constance Valis Hill

Ray Bolger, rubber-legged dancing start of screen and stage, entertains the huge crowd attending the President’s Birthday Ball at the Mayflower Hotel, 1/29/38. - Tap Dance in America collection
Ray Bolger, rubber-legged dancing start of screen and stage, entertains the huge crowd attending the President’s Birthday Ball at the Mayflower Hotel, 1/29/38.

Constance Valis Hill, Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College, talks with Choice about Tap Dance in America, an extensive collection on the history of tap dance.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Constance Valis Hill headshot
Constance Valis Hill has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University. She has taught at the Alvin Ailey School of American Dance, Conservatoire d’arts Dramatique in Paris, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a choreographer, director, and mask specialist, she has worked with the French playwright Eugene Ionesco; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda; Romanian director Liviu Ciulei; and Toni Morrison on her play Dreaming Emmett, directed by Gilbert Moses. Her writings have appeared in Dance Magazine, Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Studies in Dance History, Discourses in Dance, and more.

“Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media” documents factually and with minimal editorial flourish twentieth-century tap performance. The 3,000-record database is searchable by title, date, venue, dancer, choreographer, director, producer, and performance medium (film, television, radio, stage, club), as well as by names of “tap numbers” and tap choreographies. In addition to the 2,820 records of tap performance on stage and film, I have contributed 180 biographies of twentieth-century tap dancers, from the eldest of dancers, Bill Robinson (1878-1949) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987), to contemporary young bloods who have become international touring artists, performed on Broadway, won Emmy and Tony Awards, and received the prestigious dance awards. While the Chronology is not in any way complete, it is the most exhaustive and detailed collection of tap documentation on record, donated for the express purpose of promoting and sustaining knowledge, research, and scholarship in tap dance, America’s first vernacular dance form.

[The collection’s accompanying article], “Tap Dance in America: A Short History,” presents an overview of tap’s musical styles and steps, from buck-and-wing and ragtime stepping at the turn of the century; to jazz tapping to the rhythms of hot jazz, swing, and bebop in the twenties, thirties, and forties; to hip-hop-inflected hitting and hoofing in heels (high and low) from the nineties, right up to today.

The collection, the most exhaustive of its kind, is the result of ten years of research. What inspired you to embark on such an endeavor?

"Footlight Parade" film poster - Tap Dance in America collection
Poster for the film “Footlight Parade.”

I do not know what drove me to devote ten years of my life to simply doing the research for a book I was then to write–digging into archives, squinting through microfiche, compiling lists, organizing materials, and coming to the sober realization that doing the work meant resigning to be alone, surrendering to silence, and dwelling in darkness. Perhaps the reason, when I look at the 20,000-word “Short History of Tap Dance,” the compilation of 2,800 performance records, and the 180 biographies of twentieth-century tap dancers I wrote, is an obsessive-compulsive disorder–characterized by uncontrollable, repetitive, ritualized behaviors you feel compelled to perform. But isn’t that the “disorder” of all historians tracking down primary source materials!

Perhaps a more compelling reason is that I fell head over heels in love with the intoxicating powers of tap dance–its rhythmic brilliance, musicality, eloquent footwork, and full-bodied expressiveness that made for the most sophisticated refinement of jazz as a percussive dance form. And it was quite unbelievable to me that this, our first American vernacular dance form, had not been documented. This was a dilemma I simply could not walk away from.

What was the process of acquiring materials like?

I have often confessed that to be a tap historian is to be a sleuth. It is to revel, after days of painstaking research, in newly found bits of information as if they were nuggets of gold. At the New York State Library in Albany, New York, I found the premiere date for Darktown Follies of 1914 (3 November 1913, Lafayette Theater), a date that had eluded tap historians for many years. At the State University of New York Library, where I viewed microfilms of the weekly issues of ten years’ worth of The New York Amsterdam News, I reconstructed a roster of tap dance acts that played the Harlem Opera House, Lafayette Theater, and Apollo Theater in the 1930s. At the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City (where I muffled laughter while watching reruns of The Jackie Gleason Show, with the June Taylor Dancers), I located the television specials in which John Bubbles, the “Father of Rhythm Tap,” had appeared. The New York Public Library and its staff, especially the newly created Gregory Hines Collection of American Tap Dance and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, were indispensible to my visual research.

Errol Hill, the renowned black theater historian and Caribbean scholar, and my uncle by marriage, first presented me with the plausibility of Afro-Irish fusions in tap dance by introducing me to Joseph Williams’s book Whence the Black Irish of Jamaica? (1932) and John Messenger’s 1975 article “Montseurrat: The Most Distinctly Irish Settlement in the New World.” Catherine Foley, in her archive of Irish Dance at the University of Limerick, Ireland, and the Irish dance historian John Cullinane, in his archive at the University of Cork, Ireland, offered me a galaxy of visual sources on the southern (Munster) style of Irish step dancing. The Lindy Hop historian Terry Monahan travelled with me to the Connemara region in Ireland to investigate the lesser-known sean nos (Old Style) step dancing, and continually connect me to the Irish roots of tap dance. The librarians in the Oak Bluffs Library, in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, offered me a rainbow of materials on the Irish in America.

Does the archive continue to acquire new materials?

“Broadway Melody of 1940" film poster - Tap Dance in American collection
Poster for the film “Broadway Melody of 1940.”

At this point, no. I have an agreement with the Library of Congress that every six months, I will be able to submit edits in the form of corrections, typos, (death) dates, so that the Chronology continues to be refined and factually correct. We are also hoping to include the dozens of photographs in my private collection, which need copyright approval. While the Chronology is not in any way “complete,” the records are representative of the arc of tap performance through the 20th century. It should inspire and encourage all to continue to research.

How did the Library of Congress come to house the collection?

I remember hauling my computer, which stored the database, down to the Music Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., where I presented it to my Society of Dance History Scholars’ colleague Elizabeth Aldrich, who was head of the Dance Division at the time. Huffing and puffing, I rolled my suitcase up Independence Avenue. As I approached the white marble edifice of “The People’s Library,” the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution that is the largest library in the world, I thought, “how fitting that this institution would house this historiography of tap dance.”

What is the intended audience of Tap Dance in America? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

The Tap Chronology is designed to be user-friendly to anyone who has an interest in tap dance. What I love about its design is that any one record can send you on a magical journey throughout the database.

For instance, say you are interested in John W. Bubbles, the jazz tap dancer, singer, and pianist who is the undisputed father of rhythm tap (a style which dropped the heels on the offbeat, used the toes to accent, and extended rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music). For a biographic profile of John Bubbles, click on “Biographies” in Additional Browses on the home page. For a listing of representational performances by Bubbles, enter his name in Search by keyword (limiting search to ALL FIELDS together) and you will come up with eighty-two records that include concerts, theatrical performances, social events, television, film, and video, listing the title of performance, names of performers, date of premiere, venue, and abstract. Buck and Bubbles performed at the Apollo Theater on March 12, 1937; for a listing of other tap performances at the Apollo, browse by venue and you will find 134 results/records of tap performances at the Apollo Theater. Bubbles was born on February 19, 1902; for a representational listing of tap performances in the year of his birth, you can enter the year in Search by keyword and limit the search to ALL FIELDS together, and you will come up with six records in which the year 1902 is listed by premiere date or in the abstract. Happy searching!

Portrait of John W. Bubbles, full-length portrait - Tap Dance in America collection
John W. Bubbles, full-length portrait, facing slightly left, dancing / Maurice Chicago. 1964.

As an undergraduate far removed from the world of tap dancing, I only know the names of the biggest stars, like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Are there any less well-known trailblazers who really stand out in the collection?

The Chronology served as the research to write Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History. I vowed in my writing that the book would not be star-centered but people-full. If you check the Biographies tap in the chronology, you will see 180 biographies of 20th-century tap dancers. Run through the list to see names you are unfamiliar with, such as Cora LaRedd, and your biographic profile will lead you through the various styles of tap dance and venues for tap in the period.

How do gender roles play into the history of tap dancing?

The absence of women in early accounts of jigging competitions forces a consideration of gender in the evolution of tap which, for most of the twentieth-century, was dominated by men. As Gene Kelly stated in a 1958 CBS television special, “Dancing is a man’s game… and if he does it well, he does it better than a woman. I don’t want this to sound as if I’m against women dancing, we must have to remember that each sex is capable of doing things the other can’t.” The men’s claim to (tap) dancing as their exclusive province–which has been perpetuated by critics who foreground the masters–points to an “aristocracy of sex,” an authority of the male in tap dancing that has discriminated against and been critical of women, particularly women soloists.

“Tap Dance in America: A Short History” is the first essay to document the careers of such female soloists as Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree, Ada Overton Walker, Cora LaRedd, Eleanor Powell, Jeni LaGon, Brenda Bufalino, Dianne Walker, and the rising number of high-and-low-heeled tap dancers who have contributed to making tap the most cutting-edge dance form on the national and international stage.

Tap dancing finds its roots in African drumming and dancing and Irish clog and step dancing. It gained popularity through minstrel shows, which undeniably played a large role in disseminating racist attitudes. It seems nearly impossible to discuss the history of tap dancing without addressing its elements of racism. Could you elucidate on the matter?

Tap dance, which evolved from the rhythmic and social exchange of transplanted Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in the 1500s, and which developed through jigging competitions on the plantation staged by white masters for their slaves, challenge dances in the walk-around finale of minstrel shows, and juried buck-and wing-contests on the vaudeville stage, has a long and contested legacy of racism and classism. Tap’s artistic tradition was never, and never will be, separated from its long history of hardship: from slavery to blackface, to what some see as the continued favoring of European traditions over the improvisatory African-American forms. Considered mostly a popular entertainment on the vaudeville and variety stage and in the movies, tap, until very recently, has been placed in the category of “low” art, unworthy of the concert stage, and of scholarly attention.

Ada Overton Walker portrait - Tap Dance in America collection
Ada Overton Walker, half-length portrait, facing left / White, N.Y. 1912.

I read that in your book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History, you challenge the idea that tap dancing died in the 1950s and 60s. What is the status of tap dance today?

Tap dance, which has been characterized as being a cat with nine lives, continues to be characterized as a constantly dying art form. Tap enjoyed nearly four decades of popularity on the American stage, from the turn of the twentieth century to its heyday in the Swing-era of the 1940s. Then it “died out” in the 1950s, in a period that was commonly referred to as “tap dance’s decline,” or what Honi Coles called “the lull.” When tap waned in popularity as the sheer number of live performances diminished, tap dancers found themselves out of jobs, and venues for tap performances shifted from the live stage to the television screen. Tap was then “revived” in the 1970s during the so-called tap resurgence or tap renaissance. By 1989, and with the award-winning Broadway musical Black and Blue, tap dance was again “resurrected,” and its masters–most all in their sixties and seventies–inspired a young generation of dance artists who would “vivify” the form with yet unrealized rhythmic inventions. That tap was finally regarded as a national treasure was confirmed by the passage of the U.S. Joint Resolution, on November 7, 1989, declaring May 25th “National Tap Dance Day.”

With the 1971 revival of the 1925 musical No, No Nanette, directed by Busby Berkeley (who had been the musical director for the 1933 tap musical film Forty-Second Street), and the casting of sixty-two-year-old Ruby Keeler (who had starred in that film) as Nanette’s star, tap’s rising in popularity came on the wings of nostalgia. “What we love about the show, and what we have been missing so long is its playfulness,” wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Times. “It’s like a puppy without a purpose. It’s free, and off and skipping… No, No Nanette is irresponsible. Like all musicals it grew up with, it just wants to be happy and to make you happy too.” Be sure to expect the more nostalgia tap-happiness this spring with the revival of the 1921 black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Savion Glover.

Will the Tap Chronology help to dispel disparaging commentary by dance critics who claim that tap dance is a constantly dying art form—that it is only a form for the soloist, that it is not worthy of choreography—which has rendered tap dance to be nearly invisible in the scholarly canon?

Ruby Keeler portrait - Tap Dance in America Collection
Ruby Keeler, 1910-1993.

Tap dance has suffered a paucity of critical, analytical, and historical documentation. While there have been star-centered biographies of such tap dancers as Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Savion Glover, there remains but a handful of histories exploring all aspects of the intricate musical exchange of Afro-Irish percussive step dances that produced the rhythmic complexities of jazz tap dancing–Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968), Jerry Ames’ Book of Tap: Recovering America’s Long Lost Dance (1977), and my book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010) are but three.

Tap dance has been invisible in the scholarly canon because it continues to be characterized as a constantly dying art form, as a phenomenon of nostalgia, as only a solo form not worthy of serious choreography, and thus suffers a scarcity of scholarly attention. The cynicism and dismissal of tap dance has been going on for decades, and continues.

For instance, Joan Acocella’s speculation, writing about tap dance in The New Yorker, that “it could die… The classic dance forms of India… have almost no audience outside the festivals. The same could happen to tap. In that case, it will go down in the history books as a marvelous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions, mostly in the twentieth century.” (“Up From the Hold,” 11/30/2015).

Terry Teachout’s review of Brian Siebert’s newly written history of tap in Commentary (January 19, 2016), titled “Tap, Look, and Listen: The Decline of a Great American Art,” also sounds the death knoll of tap. Teachout professes that tap is probably best suited to the individual dancer, and that “the ‘crisis’ of tap dancing is at least as reflective of the crisis of the Broadway musical.” He speculates: “It may be that tap is merely dormant, waiting for the advent of a dancer-choreographer of genius who, unlike [Savion] Glover, is primarily interested in the show as a whole rather than his own boundless virtuosity.” Mr. Teachout needs to confer with tap dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance, who received a 2015 MacArthur “genius” award for combining the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance, layering rhythms in tap while choreographing ensemble works that engage the entire body, dancers swooping, bending, leaping, and twisting with a dramatic expression that is at once musical and visual.

Acocella points to one reason why tap has received little scholarly attention when she writes: “Dance itself, because it mostly went unrecorded, was little studied in a serious way, and there was no reason that tap should have been an exception.”

“Tap Dance in America: A Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media” sets the record straight and dismisses critical commentary that has rendered tap dance history virtually invisible. It will, hopefully, quell uninformed commentary by dance critics who now have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with tap’s long and brilliant history.

Constance Valis Hill has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University. She has taught at the Alvin Ailey School of American Dance, Conservatoire d’arts Dramatique in Paris, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a choreographer, director, and mask specialist, she has worked with the French playwright Eugene Ionesco; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda; Romanian director Liviu Ciulei; and Toni Morrison on her play Dreaming Emmett, directed by Gilbert Moses. Her writings have appeared in Dance Magazine, Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Studies in Dance History, Discourses in Dance, and more. Her book, “Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers” received the Deems Taylor ASCAP Award. Her book, “Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History,” for which she received the Bueno de la Torre Prize for dance scholarship and the Tap Preservation Award from the American Tap Dance Foundation, was supported by grants from the John D. Rockefeller and John Simon Guggenheim foundations. She has donated a 3,500-record database, “Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media” to the Library of Congress as the first online historiography of tap dance.

Explore Tap Dance in America at: https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/tda/tda-home.html

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is a publishing intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.