During the summer of 2020, amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd there was a conversation. One might think a conversation to be a minor event in the middle of such sweeping global and national events, but this one challenged and changed many people’s ideas and ways of living. It was a microcosm of a much larger conversation. One that needed to be had, and would surface the diverse world views found in a single community of practice. The conversation centered around the roots of tap dance. Where did it come from? Who does it belong to? Who gets to take part in and use the dance? These were all questions raised, discussed, debated, and answered (to varying degrees). This is the backdrop to this week’s note. I think I have said plenty about my approach to those questions specifically, in my Tap Roots course, my documentary film, and my live solo show. Others have also had plenty good things to say about them. Rather, this week, I’m thinking about how those questions were worked out and the relationship between how we think about such questions and the answers we arrive upon.
I was walking down the street. It was a main street, with plenty of traffic, but I was on a sidewalk that had been landscaped. It winded a bit, with grass on either side of the sidewalk, and just enough bushes and trees scattered about to make it feel less like a busy main street and more like suburbia. I was coming home from a body work session when I stumbled upon a particular tree. The tree had a massive, exposed root system. My imagination was immediately captured.
Upon encountering Tap Dance many often ask, “Who invented tap dance?” It is a common and understandable question. As we learn about the world around us much of the information we get begins with, “This is who invented…” or “This is how that started…” We like to know the beginning of things. Who was there at the beginning? Where did this all begin? How did this thing we take for granted first develop? Stories are assumed to begin at the beginning. Even the Bible honors this idea by starting with, “In the beginning, God…”
We are captured by the creative process that springs from these beginnings, sometimes more than the result. I’m thinking about the surprising popularity of the mini documentary series “Behind the Music” that first aired on VH1. The story, characters, and context of a different time and place, can somehow feel connected to our lives and be deeply affecting.
At the same time, the question of “Who invented tap dance?” is fraught with challenges. If you’ve ever attempted to answer a similar question you might already see where this is going. The first challenge is around defining the actual form of Tap Dance. Before we can identify who, we must agree upon the what. Is it movements that define the form? Is it the context in which it’s done? Is there a people, time, and place, from which it sprung that defines it? If the movements change, is it not tap dancing anymore? If it’s done in a different context, is it not tap dancing anymore? If there is a people that can be identified, but different people are doing it now, is it not tap dancing anymore?
The massive root system of the tree intrigued me. I thought, “Look at how many roots fed into this single trunk. What if there isn’t a single root in Tap Dance? Like a single inventor? What if every tree is the function of a complex and massive root system? All we normally get to see is the tree, its trunk with its leaves and fruit. But hidden underground, the system that fuels the tree, and makes it what it is, is immensely complex and quite large.”
A story I had heard about Aspen came to mind. A forest of Aspen is considered one organism – call it one tree. Why? While we may see what looks like a forest of individual trees, the root system of a forest of Aspen is connected. One single root system, one tree. Many roots, many trunks, many branches, many leaves, one tree, planted in one ground.
Tap Dance (the percussive dance commonly identified as having been developed alongside jazz music) is an oral tradition. It found popularity in the market and evolved quite quickly, and quite a lot, since it’s first sightings. Very few people who tap dance today, would be mistaken for the tap dancers from the form’s early days. One of the ethics in Tap Dance Land is that of individual expression. As with many oral traditions, there is room within the form for variance that acknowledges and encourages the expression of individual personality. In Tap Dance, that room is quite big and largely encouraged. I like thinking about it like this: every recognized contributor to the form could write their own book (a volume from Jimmy Slyde, one from Steve Condos, another from Gene Kelly, one from Mable Lee, for example). All the books together would be the complete collection of Tap Dance, with new books being added for every new contributor. Some volumes may be larger, others smaller, but all found in the collection.
In this model each volume would be a trunk in the forest of Aspen. The many influences on each individual trunk, including other trunks, access to resources, and context, would be seen in the complex and massive root system – likely harder to see in the books unless one reads between the lines. Many think of a tree as a great model for imagining the evolution of Tap Dance. Like a family tree you could identify relationships between dancers, and see connections between people. But the model is limited (as most models are), and curation becomes a problem. If we look at Tap Dance as the honest expression of an individual’s personality, as it relates to their life – thoughts and feelings, social relationships, beliefs and desires – there seems to be a better model that may also speak to the challenge of finding the root of the craft.
What if, instead of concentrating on a single root like some golden chalice from which we must drink to be holy, we looked at the ground, the seed, and the farmer? The human heart, the inspiration, and the giver of life. What if we looked at each trunk or person, their character and the way it interacts with their context? What if Tap Dance was a vehicle to learn more about these things? What if the roots of Tap Dance were found somewhere within the human heart? The place where we find our why. What if we acknowledged the seemingly common human inspiration found in cultures around the world to hit the ground with our feet, to sing and make music, and to dance.
Geography, tribe, time, and place, all become less important. Note that I’m saying less important, and not not important, as all these things work on the human heart and can affect its formation. More important still, is the human heart, in which life has been breathed and inspiration has been planted. What if searching there could answer the deeper questions of where Tap Dance came from? Not by identifying a particular people, but by unearthing a particular kind of people. Not by identifying geography, tribe, time, and place, but by discovering the inner landscape of those who gravitated and committed to pursuing this craft, and the related expressions that came from them. We may find how the craft allowed particular ideas to be expressed. How different individual and communal personalities, social and market pressures, all fueled the evolution of the form. How different dancers solved the many questions that arise during the artistic process in Tap Dance Land. I suspect we will discover some very deep truths about the craft, people, and the world around us in the process.
I’m sure very smart historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and ethnochoreologists would have different things to say about all of this. There may remain a deep curiosity to unearth the point of inception, the inventor, the beginning. But that framing for these kinds of questions is fundamentally different than mine. And the way we frame a question dictates the kinds of answers we land on.