by Sara K. McBride
“Look, guys, I’m sorry but I’m going to ask you to move your butts.”
It’s Day Two of an intensive tap dancing workshop and there I am, in the back
row, trying to hide from eyes of our dance instructor, Saran. I’m not sure why
I’m hiding as Saran is warm, welcoming and easy to follow. Saran then asks us to
watch her while she moves her bum. Facing a large dance mirror, the Wellington
Footlights members all line up, ready to move our butts. On our feet is a selection
of black and tan tap shoes. We follow, rhythmically joining in, suppressing giggles
and snorts. After all, the dance does work better once our bums are fully
We do the “Single Ladies” dance, doing our best Beyonce.
(Tap tap tippity tap tippity tippity tap. Tap.)
The dance studio fills with sound of 24 pairs of tap shoes. Amazingly, we tap at the same pace. Our formations are quick and we seem to meld as a company, marching at a constant pace. We’ve mastered the first part of Broadway Tap: synchronicity.
Tap isn’t just a dance that happened randomly. The history of tap is still contested by researchers but one thing is clear: it is the story of different groups coming together and learning from one another. According to Dr. Wiki, one theory is that tap is a southern dance, a mixture of dances from the Irish and Scottish who worked closely with African slaves. These groups developed close bonds and shared dances, songs and other cultural references. However, another theory is that tap came from New York City and, similar to the Southern theory, the close proximity immigrants had to each other in the boroughs there inspired the dance.
Either way, tap was born and it soon became a staple of travelling minstrel shows, vaudeville, nightclubs and later, films. Bo Jangles, Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire are some of tap’s most famous stars. Tap almost died out in the 1970s and 1980s but has been experiencing a renaissance since the early 1990s and is still a popular dance today.
There are two forms of tap: rhythm and Broadway. Rhythm is a free flowing expression, where the moves are not strictly dictated by planned choreography but rather the tap dancer picks their moves on the spot, enjoying the moment. As we move from step to step, we are clearly here to learn Broadway tap, as the moves are choreographed and we are meant to move as a company. But during our breaks, members of the company step up on the dance floor and improvise.
After a sweaty first hour of tap, we shift gear unexpectedly to learn the Charleston. I’ve always been a bit enamoured with the Charleston; a dance that had its heyday in the roaring 1920s. Clearly, Saran feels the same way; her grin widens as she moves more freely to the music.
The Charleston can be described as spastically moving your body in rhythm, with flailing jazz hands and legs akimbo. To do it well looks amazing, doing it poorly makes you look like you are out to injure someone. Like tap, the Charleston’s history started in the U.S., with its origins in the Roaring 1920s. It came from a musical, “Running Wild”, in 1923 and was quickly adopted into the night clubs. Its popularity coincided with a change in women’s clothing; the 1920s meant short skirts and sleeveless dresses. So the Charleston was a celebration dance of women who had free knees and elbows…and who could actually breathe without stays from corsets digging into their waists. And they would certainly need to breathe, as the Charleston is quite the workout!
After learning the steps to the Charleston, I can tell it is much more aerobic than tap; there are jumps and quick steps galore. As I watch from my comfy back corner, I watch the company members dance with a proficiency range from amazingly graceful to spastic sprinklers. But the Charleston is undeniably fun and Saran helps us along, smiling, laughing and encouraging us to be as silly as possible. After all, the Charleston is the dance of freedom and high times.
A few company members rest on the floor when the Charleston is all over. I’m huffy and puffy myself. I’m a new member to the company and, I have to say, there is something bonding about dancing silly with a bunch of people you are just getting to know. When the class is over, I feel disappointed. After I catch my breath, I realise I want to dance again, which is a probably a good thing... because Taking the Millennium will have Tap AND Charleston.
The Wellington Footlights would like to thank Saran and Full Swing Vintage Dance Company for all their help. We highly recommend Full Swing's classes - visit http://fullswing.co.nz/ for more information.