A MATTER OF IDENTITY - Is a tap dancer automatically a jazz musician?

Whenever somebody asks me the typical question “What kinds of music do people tap dance to?”, I say “Usually jazz, but also funk, hip hop, soul, maybe even classical music. Basically you can tap to anything!” And this answer implies everything and nothing at the same time. Which made me think about something. Ballet dancers are associated with classical music, Indian dancers with classical Indian music, hip hop dancers with hip hop music. But tap dancers? The picture is kind of blurry. Of course we all know that the roots of tap dance lie in the jazz tradition. Tap dance and jazz are like siblings, closely interrelated. But today you can hear tap dancers utilizing all kinds of music.

Are these people still jazz tap dancers in the very sense of this term? Moreover, is a tap dancer automatically a jazz musician? And what is jazz even?

Let's look at the history for a second. Tap dance as we know it today was born around 1900 ¹, and it developed parallel to the jazz tradition in America. This means that all the steps and rhythms that were created in the adolescent years of tap dance were born within the context of the jazz music at that time. When jazz evolved, e.g. from swing to bebop, the tap dancers followed by changing their phrasing and musical arrangements. There has always been an undeniable relation between jazz music and tap dancing.

But nowadays, people are not only playing jazz anymore, but basically all kinds of music. This development pretty much started with Gregory Hines who introduced the use of rock and funk in tap dancing. Of course there were people before him that tapped into (pun intended) other musical contexts, such as Paul Draper's explorations into the world of classical music. But the reason I'm talking specifically about Gregory is that he also marked the next generation after all the masters of the jazz age. Same thing with Savion Glover, another generation after that, who started tap dancing to hip hop. So tap dancing is indeed influenced by the music that is popular at certain times. But jazz never got lost. Gregory danced to jazz. Savion dances to jazz. Every real tap dancer today dances to jazz. Jazz music seems to be the golden thread of tap dancing.


When we study tap dance, we automatically study jazz music as well. We learn jazz standards. We study jazz phrasing. We go to jazz jam sessions. Because that's how we learn about our history. And that's where we get our musicianship from.


In that sense, it is very interesting to compare tap education to music education: if you start studying music, you'll choose either the classical or the popular music path. However, there is no such thing as classical OR popular music in tap, because jazz is tap dance's classical music. And this makes a huge difference. Many of the musical instruments we use today (at least in Western music) have already been played when Bach, Handel, and Schubert were around. So these instruments have experienced different approaches throughout the history of music. Tap dance, on the other hand, is such a young art form that it has never been exposed to something like a “classical” playing technique. It was born and raised within the framework of jazz and its offspring. No wonder why tap dance often implies a very specific kind of phrasing (lots of ternary rhythms, three-and-a-break, etc.) – it is so deeply rooted within jazz that it's very hard not to associate these two together.


When we talk about this undeniable kindred between tap and jazz, I would like to explain my view on this topic:


As much as tap dancing and jazz grew up together – I don't see tap dancing as a genre. I see it as an art form in itself. An instrument. A tool. A medium of expression. Whereas jazz is a genre within the art form of music. That means jazz fulfills specific characteristics (or not? more about this below), while tap dancing is like raw clay that the artist has to shape in a certain way in order for it to become something. That said, it should also be completely up to the individual if he sees himself as a dancer or a musician. But because this is a totally different conversation in itself, I would like to keep this article within my viewpoint as a tap dancer-musician.

If we talk about tap shoes as a musical instrument, it is important to identify any biases that we or others impose on it. Because every musical instrument has to deal with preconceptions: Yes, a recorder is a serious instrument. Yes, you can use saxophones in classical music. Yes, tap dance is more than medium swing all day every day. I often get the feeling that it's mostly other peoples' expectations that makes tap dancers confine themselves to a certain aesthetic. These expectations might come from random strangers, fellow musicians, audiences, or event organizers.

But tap dance is not necessarily linked to a certain aesthetic, just because it is first and foremost just a tool, in the same way that a piano is a tool, a drum is a tool, and the human voice is a tool.


I'm not saying that tap was never linked to a certain aesthetic, or that this is even a bad thing. Not at all. We have to be aware of the contexts that tap has


lived in so far. We're speaking about tradition here. It's very important to study the masters and their legacy, simply to know where our art is coming from,


why we do things the way we do them, and whom we owe everything we know today. We do not own this art. It has been passed on to us by former


generations, and we should be careful not to impose our egos on the art, but to let it flow through ourselves. We can't change the art, it changes itself. We


are just the mediums that act as a catalyst for art to find its way. The more integrity and awareness we have, the better we can function as a catalyst.


And part of this awareness can be achieved by studying the masters. Not copying. Studying. I'd like to quote what Gregory Hines said in the movie About


Tap: “You can't hope to be a great artist by copying […]. You have to simulate it, and have it come out in your own way. In your own style. […] I feel like


whatever style I have today, I owe to them [the masters]. Because I found myself through them.”2


The only constant thing in life is change. And with times changing, art is transforming. Although we must honor and respect the tradition, we must not get stuck in the past. I feel like past and tradition are two different things here. The past is gone and done, whereas tradition is timeless, it is beyond, like a meta level. It's the material that has made everything possible. With being aware of, respecting, and staying true to the roots of this art, we can attempt to find our own expression within it. It's like studying van Gogh and Picasso before you start painting by yourself. You need a certain context that guides you through the vast world of art. From this guideline, you'll eventually be able to take off and define art for yourself, but the first step of studying the masters is obligatory for this second step to happen.

This thought becomes especially important when we consider the fact that the legacy of tap dance is slowly passed on to a generation that has never met any of the original masters, just because it was born after they had already passed away. So basically my generation and everyone after holds this precious thing in its hands, and we have to be smart about what to do with it. It's like being on a tightrope between tradition and future, and I hope that my generation will be able to treat the tradition with enough respect and awareness that we can intentionally push the art forward while still staying true to a certain essence.


Moreover, tap dance is not linked to a certain culture. It was born in America, and there is no such thing as American culture. American culture means diversity. America is the melting pot of the world, and tap dance is the result of African and European traditions merging together. Thus, tap dancing has the potential to relate to pretty much any aesthetic and shape (while still maintaining a relationship to its origin) – which is not such an obvious thing to do in other traditional/folk dances like flamenco, kathak, or African dance, because they are so deeply linked to the particular tradition and aesthetic that their cultures developed over centuries, even millenniums, that it seems odd to place them into a completely different context. I'm not saying that tap dance lacks its own rich culture. Absolutely not. The history of tap dancing is full of very unique stories and traditions, and especially interesting because it is so closely linked to social issues as well. When we talk about tap dance history, topics such as racism, feminism, and commercialism will arise. But – all these aspects are not necessarily part of a specific country's culture. They can be found anywhere. Tap dance doesn't tell particular folk tales – it tells stories about life in general, it represents the global community on a macro level. Which brings us back to the idea of tap dancing being a tool, not a genre or style.


Talking about different cultures, I'd like to take up on a question I mentioned earlier: What is jazz?

I know there are many different, controversial opinions about this topic, but I believe jazz is whatever you define it to be.

For me, jazz is not a specific style. It is more a certain aesthetic, a certain approach to playing music. Jazz has too many faces to be boiled down to a linear definition. You can't compare swing with post-bop, gypsy with cool jazz, or bebop with jazz rock. The mere act of thinking about these sub-categories of jazz causes a certain degree of resistance in me. Because who defines these categories?

There is no common aspect between any of them. What people label as jazz may swing or may be played in a straight feel. It may be acoustic or electronic. It may be played by Americans or Armenians. “Jazz” (and I'm using this term with exactly this awareness that everyone will have a different definition for it), very much like tap dancing, is very flexible and intangible. Personally, when I say “jazz”, I talk about a certain approach to playing music. Jazz involves a very subtle, sensible, and sophisticated musicianship. And, maybe most importantly, it comes from a tradition of improvisation. I know that many classical composers were considered brilliant improvisers, and the only reason they wrote down their music was simply because there was no other way to capture it. I'm pretty sure that if there would have been more space for applying improvisation in classical music, it would have developed in a different way. But since this is the way music history evolved, jazz now is the most popular musical context that makes it possible for improvisation to be the main subject of the music.

Improvisation can't be limited. Improvisation is the human soul freely expressing itself, and nobody knows which direction this may take;  it is beyond any kind of classification. It relates to what I said earlier about the artist being the medium for the art to find its way. Is all improvised music jazz then?


On that note, it occurs to me that most of my favorite music can't be labeled as a certain genre. It simply is good art. However, usually these musicians do have a jazz background, which I explain to myself by jazz being a very good foundation for any kind of music. Jazz education equips you with a very sophisticated and versatile toolkit, it teaches you how to improvise with your own voice, and prepares you to go in many different directions. Owning jazz as your native language will be very helpful in utilizing your artistic tools in other contexts.


I do not want to paint black and white, talking about how to “classify” yourself. Not at all. Ideally, we wouldn't need any genres. But some kind of definition helps establish a certain framework, and helps finding a starting point. In the vast world of art you have to start somewhere. Because in order to be able to express anything, you have to know how to use the tools first. Once you know what you're talking about with your instrument, you will gain the freedom to not having to limit yourself to a certain genre, or not even your instrument anymore. Because art is art is art. But every kind of art starts with learning the craft. There's no way around it. And we all know that we can never practice enough, and the more you know, the more you realize how much there is yet to learn.

The more you are aware of, the more you can use. It's a necessity to continuously explore new grounds because that is how you expand your art, and your being. In my opinion, being well-informed is a requirement for being a good artist.


I would like to come full circle by stating that from my perspective both jazz music and tap dancing are more or less free from particular stylistics – if we define jazz not as a style but as an association with a certain aesthetic, and if we define tap dancing not as a style but as an instrument. In that framework, yes, every tap dancer is a jazz tap dancer. Of course this is only the case if he or she treats the art form like that.

This discussion reminds me of the fact that many tap dancers are careful about the use of the word hoofer, because it is associated with a certain quality or lineage.³ From my perspective, only people who completely know what they are talking about should call themselves hoofers. I wouldn't call myself a hoofer, not because I don't identify with it, but simply because I don't feel like I was raised in this particular lineage of tap dance culture.

So maybe the term jazz tap dancer  is less about implying a specific style, but more about a certain approach or understanding of the art form? Saying “I'm a jazz tap dancer”, but actually saying “I studied the history thoroughly, I'm familiar with all the masters of tap dance and jazz music, I have a very high level of musicianship, and I'm practicing like a musician.”? There is no answer to this, but it is definitely worth meditating on.

Even though I think that in the end it doesn't really matter. As long as you maintain your integrity and you create art that is real, that is informed, and that is aware of its roots and its context, labels are irrelevant. It may help outsiders to classify what they're looking at or listening to, but it doesn't change the art itself. Art is greater than we all are, and I believe that it will always find its way, because art does not care about what we humans with our limited perception are calling it.


1 http://archive.itvs.org/juba/tap.html#1900

2 About Tap, movie directed by George T. Nierenberg, © 1985 GTN Productions

3 http://www.dancespirit.com/how-to/tap/hoofer-status/

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Cyl Askins (Monday, 08 August 2016 10:51)

    Thank you for writing so eloquently about TAP. Looking forward to more. I will be sharing with others with the hope that reading it (about TAP) from someone else will provide reinforcement, confidence, interest, understanding, appreciation, enthusiasm, curiosity, encouragement and continued growth in the love of TAP.

  • #2

    Larisa (Monday, 08 August 2016 12:34)

    Thanks a lot. So much information and very useful.