Tap Dance's Irish Roots
That dance challenge between Irish and black
dancers in 'Riverdance' isn't something invented to woo American
audiences. The links between Irish and tap dancing run deep in the
immigrant tradition of 19th century America. The black dancers borrowed
steps and rhythms from the Irish, blending an art form which was later
to find expression in vaudeville and the spectacular choreography of
In the earlier part of the century the Irish and blacks occupied the
lowest rung of the American ladder. In an article in the 'International
Tap Newsletter', Jane Goldberg writes that tap "came out of the lower
classes, developed in competitive 'battles' on street corners by Irish
immigrants and African American slaves." Another writer in the
newsletter suggested that only in the great American melting pot "could
Irish jigs combine with African shuffles and sand dances to form an
entirely new and exciting art form." According to writer and critic
Clive Barnes: "It was the Irish clog dancers who started tap dancing,
but these Irish forms were clearly grafted onto existing slave dances
that came directly from Africa."
An early feature of this story was the solo spectacular of Johnny
Durang (1768-1822), a dance master in Philadelphia, who first
established the step dance as a theatrical dance through his
performance of the hornpipe. He was also the first Irish person we know
of to blacken his face for performances.
The story of tap dance begins with "Uncle" Jim Lowe, a black dancer who
performed jigs and reels in saloons. He is also regarded as an
influence on the first great rhythm dancer, William Henry Lane, also
known as "Juba." Lane was born in1825 and was well-known by the 1840s.
His dancing included African steps, like the shuffle and slide, added
to the jig steps. He was the first to add syncopation and improvisation
to his dancing. Juba toured through New England and New York. On a
visit to England he got a sensational reception when he performed in
London in 1848, impressing among others Charles Dickens.
He had a memorable series of challenges in Boston and New York with
noted champion Irish step dancer Jack Diamond which had no clear
victor. This didn't keep Lane from declaring himself "King." 'Juba'
Lane died in 1852 at the age of 27. While it is believed Jack Diamond's
people hailed from Co Galway, it is difficult to find out much about
him except that he danced with the Barnham extravaganza.
According to Grove's Dictionary of American Music, tap emerged from the
19th century dances of European and black-American origin, including
the Irish jig, the English clog dance, the hornpipe, and a number of
black-American step dances, especially the essence, soft shoe, sand
dance, buck, wing and buck and wing. The rhythm patterns articulated by
the feet on the floor are heightened in tap dancing by metal plates, or
"taps", fitted to the soles of the shoes at the toe and heel. The
interaction of black-American dance with Irish and English step dances
became popular in blackface minstrelsy, at first through the
performances of Juba and Thomas Dartmouth ("Daddy") Rice.
The immediate predecessor of tap was the soft shoe, which was similar
to it in its rhythmic footwork, but performed without taps affixed to
the shoes. Upper body movements and gliding steps were introduced
through the influence of the characteristic or eccentric dances (such
as the cakewalk in the 1890s), the "animal" ragtime dances of the 1910s
and the jazz dances
of the 1920s.
According to musician and academic Mick Moloney: "Irish dancing was
huge in variety and vaudeville, and the Irish jig dancers, as they were
called, were a major part of vaudeville. So Irish dancing was always a
major part of American popular entertainment." Tap dancing was to find
its feet, so to speak, in vaudeville and, later, the black musical
comedies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the speakeasy clubs
(thanks to Prohibition), the Broadway musical comedy and especially
American film, most notably Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in Singing in
the Rain (1952), Gerswin's 'Swanee,' and 42nd Street (1933). Riverdance
completes the circle. ©
Ronan Nolan. 2000.
* If anybody has any information
about Jack Diamond or any other aspect of this article, please contact
me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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