Styles and Aesthetics of Tap Dance
Throughout the history of tap dance, tap dancers have created many styles and aesthetics. Some dancers have even combined other forms of dance and art to create their own style. Eccentric dancing, which includes acrobatics, snake hips, the shimmy, and any other form of contortionist movements or comedy dance, was first introduced in the style called legomania,or rubber legs (Frank 1994). Incorporating high kicks, legomania is best known (although not a tap dance number) in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, where the scarecrow, played by Ray Boger, made it famous in the performance of “If I Only Had a Brain” (Frank 1994).
Soft-shoe, a light, graceful dance performed in a smooth, leisurely cadence in soft-soled shoes, was made famous on the vaudeville stage (Frank 1994). One of the most famous soft-shoe routines is in Bugs Bunny Rides Again (Freleng 1948), where Yosemite Sam starts shooting at Bugs Bunny’s feet while telling him to dance. Bugs Bunny grabs a hat and cane and starts dancing the soft-shoe, and he soon tricks Yosemite Sam into dancing with him. Sam quickly breaks into the same dance, and he is tricked into dancing into an open mine shaft.
Buck and Wing
Buck and wing is a flashy dance combining Irish and British clog, African rhythm, and fast footwork and kicks (Frank 1994). The term buck comes from buck dancers who wore wooden soles and danced on the balls of their feet, emphasizing movement below the waist. This form is similar to a clog dance, but it is much older. The term wing comes from the ballet term meaning pigeon wing: ailes de pigeon, also known as pistolet and brisé volé(Frank 1994). Other tap dancers developed a style that incorporated jazz and ballet movement using more upper-body movements.
Classical tap, also referred to as flash or swing tap, was made famous by the Nicholas Brothers, who combined tap, ballet, and jazz dance with acrobatics. This style combined upper-body movement, wild and wiggly leg movements, and sensational acrobatic stunts with percussive, syncopated footwork.
Unlike the acrobatics of classical tap, class acts during the turn of the 20th century were more refined. Gymnastics, splits, and flips were rarely performed in this style. This style was dominated by Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins, who perfected the high-speed yet elegant close-to-the-floor style. They were known for their classic slow soft-shoe followed by a challenge dance where each would demonstrate swinging, percussive, complex steps along with a drummer.
When ragtime music (1897 and 1918) was featured in carnivals and circuses, tap dance transformed into syncopated jazz rhythms, called jazz tap. This style emphasizes precision, lightness, and speed. During the jazz age (1920s), tap dancers performed in front of swing or jazz bands with upright bodies. This became one of the fastest tap styles.
Hoofing is described as dancing into the floor with emphasis placed on stomps and stamps along with rhythmic percussions of the sounds, music, and syncopations. Savion Glover is a contemporary hoofer; he states that tap dance is a dance style, while hoofing is a lifestyle.
Rhythm tap, made famous by John W. Bubbles, incorporated more percussive heel drops and lower-body movement rather than emphasizing toe taps and upper-body movement. It is more grounded and focuses more on acoustic rather than the aesthetic qualities. Gregory Hines brought back this style, incorporating both finesse and grace and demonstrating that rhythm tap’s focus is always on the feet.
Musical or Broadway Tap
Also known as show tap, the musical or Broadway tap style combines Hollywood with traditional forms of tap. Its main focus is on the performance along with body formations. Broadway musicals such as Anything Goes, My One and Only, and the most popular 42nd Street showcase this style.
This emerging style of tap combines hip hop with funk to create a contemporary, fun dance form. Funk tap is attracting a new generation of tap enthusiasts while preserving traditional tap technique.
Each style evolved from the many dancers that created these forms. These styles will continue to evolve as the next generation of tap dancers find and create their own style.