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Tap Dancing America, an Inclusive Cultural History

Could you tap dance in high heels?

From Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Gregory Hines, to Savion Glover, most of us know the names of the legendary male tap dancers. Not so for Ada Overton Walker, who performed for the king and queen of England, soloists Cora LaRedd, Alice Whitman, Juanita Pitts, Eleanor Powell, and all the other outstanding female dancers in this distinctive American art form.

WFCR story: Tap Dancing Historian Celebrates the Form.

Constance Hill
Tap Dancing America — an important new cultural history researched and written over the past decade by Constance Valis Hill (at right), Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College, and released through Oxford University Press — could rectify that oversight.

Tap was long considered “a man’s game,” and Professor Hill’s inclusive history is the first to also highlight the outstanding female dancers. Though it includes the stars of tap, the book fulfills the dream Hill describes, in her preface, of writing “an intercultural and interracial history that would not be star-centered but people-full.”

“There are more female than male dancers in the history,” Hill says. “We just don’t honor or see them the same way. People tend to valorize the male performances.”

Hill thinks tap became identified as a male form early on because of the competitiveness that originated in jigging competitions held on slave plantations. She is writing women into the history, including the talented tappers in the chorus lines.

Hill is herself an accomplished jazz tap dancer, choreographer, and performance scholar.

Tap Dnacing America
Tap Dancing America
begins at 1900 and proceeds decade by decade. She vividly describes tap’s musical styles and steps, starting with buck-and-wing and ragtime at the opening of the 20th century; jazz tapping to the rhythms of hot jazz, swing, and bebop in the 20s, 30s, and 40s; to hip-hop-inflected hitting and hoofing in heels (yes, it can be done!) from the nineties right up until today.

Drawing on eyewitness accounts of early performances and on interviews with today’s greatest tappers, and illustrated with more than 90 images, Tap Dancing America fills a major gap in American dance history.

Hill says support by Hampshire College was essential in completion of the massive undertaking of compiling the chronology and history, as were the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rockefeller Foundation grant she received for the project. Hampshire faculty colleagues stimulated her interest in writing a cultural history of tap that analyzed perspectives of race, class, and gender. The history is based on a chronology she compiled with design and data entry assistance from college library staff and student workers Dan Lopatin and Catherine Striker.

With over 3,000 year-by-year entries of tap in print and performance, film and video, festival and social history, the database itself will reside permanently with the Library of Congress as an online resource, the first such chronology available on tap dancing.

After stretching her mental muscles on the volume, Professor Hill is stretching her dance muscles. Her classes typically focus on dance theory, but how could she not teach a tap course at Hampshire College this semester? Thirty-five eager students showed up for the first session.

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