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Finding Meaning in the World Through Tap Dancing

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                                          Katie Grassle

Web Paper 3

Finding Meaning in the World Through Tap Dancing

            Storytelling is the art of communication. We rely on it to make sense of the world and our place in it. In The Plague, writing and storytelling played an important role in the character’s lives for coping with their situation and trying to find control during uncontrollable circumstances. Tarrou kept a diary, Grand agonized over a few simple lines, people struggled to write letters to their beloved, and Dr. Rieux ultimately “wrote” The Plague to communicate and make sense of his experiences. In times of struggle, people try to understand why something is happening to them, and storytelling helps them do this. Storytelling is not restricted to words, however. Dance is a form of storytelling as well, and this form of visual communication has evolved just as much as our spoken language has. There are differences and similarities in movements seen all over the world, and different forms of dance have come together to form hybrids and a new “species” of dance. A form of dance that I have studied in my Dance, Migration, and Exile class that has particularly caught my attention is tap dance because of it’s similarities to our discussions about evolution, our forms of communication, and it’s use in making sense of the world. 

            Flexibility, coordination, balance, and stamina could be considered the four nucleotides that make up the genetic code of dance. These four base pairs can code for many different forms of steps that combine in different way to form a certain “species” of dance. Tap-dancing evolved from mainly an African American style of dancing seen on plantations and Irish American step dancing. In this African American style of dancing, the torso is very relaxed and a lot of gliding and shuffling of the feet take place (Hill 6). In Irish American step dancing, the torso is more rigid and a lot of jumping and springing occur with the foot movement. It was the interactions between these two cultures, a “three-hundred-year musical and social exchange (between African American and Irish migrants), with its steady pattern of imitation, assimilation, and the transformation of such percussive step dances as the jig, gioube, buck-and-wing, and jupa, that tap evolved in America” (Hill 2). I have posted a link to videos showing the jig, a sample of buck-and-wing dancing, and tap dance . From these videos, we can see where tap inherited some of its movements. As demonstrated in the quote, however, there are many more other dances that have influenced and contributed to tap. 

            From this evolution came a new way for African Americans to find a place in society. It thrived in America because it served a cultural purpose during the early 1900s and beyond. Tap was more advantageous to African Americans than other forms of dance because it helped them break away from oppressive aspects of their lives. It served as a way to define themselves and lay claim to something. It was a way not only to gain control over their lives, but it was a way to communicate. To tell a story. In my Dance, Migration, and Exile class, Germaine Ingram came to discuss with us what tap has meant to her and how it has played an important role in African American culture. What struck me was how this form of dancing relies on a conversational exchange. The steps, she believes, need to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Dancing is not just to perform, but to communicate with the audience. Tap performances are very vocal, both from the tappers shoes and the encouraging woops of the audience. 

            This conversational exchange is further emphasized by the role of the “challenge” in many tap performances. This was seen between Gregory Hines and Savion Glover in the tap video linked above. Both people tap at the same time, but there are parts where there is a call and response. It is both important to listen to the other person taking part in the tap conversation, as well as respond with something different or a twist on what someone has just done. What I have found to be different with tap compared to other dances is that it is used to make it’s own rhythm rather than following the rhythm of a song. It is not as bound to another form of expression, and therefore gives more room for improvement and improvisation. Tap is about the sound, not the show.

            The oral aspect of tap is emphasized in its variations of rhythm. To an untrained ear, the rhythm of tappers around the world may seem the same, much like another language may just sound like rhythmic nonsense because a person doesn’t understand the meaning. Germaine Ingram discussed that tappers can actually tell where in the country another tapper was trained based on how he/she tapped and the rhythm he/she had. This is just like an accent in language! A person can tell where someone is from based on their accent, and this parallel emphasizes how tap can be a conversational exchange. 

            How is tap evolving now? Although the steps may not be changing drastically, the meaning behind the steps have been. Tap has spread to a wider array of people, and the significance of the steps may not be the same as it was to the people that originally made this dance form so popular. I took tap dancing in fifth grade, and to me, it did not feel like a form of communication. I just felt like moving around and focused on learning the steps, not the meaning of them. In my situation, though, I don’t think tap could have ever had the same meaning for me because it was not something I used to identify myself. It was something I did, not something I was. To others though, dance is a crucial medium through which to make meaning of the world.   

            Communication has been so important to human kind because it has allowed us to not only make sense of the world, but claim something in it. I can communicate my thoughts, my ideas, how I make sense of the world.   This is just one story of tap, one that I found compelling because of its particular use in making meaning. Others who tap dance may have a completely different story for it, and its purpose may be completely different in their lives. That’s the beauty of a story though. It never means the same thing to everyone who reads it. 



Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.


"Germaine Ingram." Personal interview. 04 Apr. 2010.


Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America: a Cultural History. New York, NY: Oxford             UP, 2010. Print.