An initiative by Toronto’s Dance Immersion aims to “re-centre” tap dance within the context of Black culture.
“We’re reclaiming a Black tap tradition,” said Timea Wharton-Suri, the organization’s curator and program director.
Dance Immersion was founded in 1994 by executive director Vivine Scarlett with the mandate “to produce, promote and support dancers and dances of the African diaspora.” In the first iteration of a new project called the Legacy Series, Wharton-Suri, a former dancer with wide experience in production and arts administration, is throwing a spotlight on tap as a distinctly Black cultural expression.
The project began in December with an educationally oriented three-day symposium at Hart House. It culminates this week in an outdoor concert, co-presented by Canadian Stage at the High Park Amphitheater and headlined by two of Canada’s most dazzling hoofers, Calgary’s Lisa La Touche and Toronto’s Travis Knights.
“In my mind, tap dance is one of the ultimate examples in North America of a form that comes from African people and yet has been completely displaced, misinterpreted and turned into something else,” said Knights.
These are fighting words from a modern proponent of the evolving tap tradition that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s from the great Black cultural awakening of New York’s Harlem Renaissance. The Black tap virtuosi of that era succeeded in offering an authentic alternative vision of African-American dance from the blatantly racist tradition of blackface minstrelsy.
Even so, today the words “tap dance” are more likely to conjure images of Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell and Gene Kelly than Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers or Gregory Hines. Even today’s poster-boy for progressive tap, Savion Glover, with whom La Touche has performed, has not fully penetrated public consciousness in the same way.
Referring to some of the participants in last year’s symposium, La Touche observed: “A lot of them think of Shirley Temple before they think of Bojangles. They don’t even know this is part of their own heritage.”
Just as the concept of jazz music is still hotly argued, similarly tap — nowadays popularly associated with jazz — is a dance with modes of expression that have varied and evolved historically from centuries-old roots in African dance and rhythmic structures as well as Irish and Scottish step dancing. The Black DNA of tap is what La Touche and Knights want to put forward as a cultural expression reflecting Black values and ways of making art.
Uncomfortably but unavoidably, tap would never have emerged as a North American dance form without the crime of slavery.
As Knights explained: “When drums were banned (under slavery), when their movements were restricted, you had this new form, this new way of remembering African culture, that turned into what was called Buck dancing. The form evolves and over time becomes known as tap dancing. What the Legacy Series is doing is reintroducing to Black people the African origin of tap dance, and encouraging us to recognize it as a part of our heritage and engage in it with a sense of agency.”
La Touche and Knights have known each other for many years although their careers were based in different cities, La Touche in New York and Knights in Toronto. La Touche’s decision early in the pandemic to resettle in Calgary, where she is from, has made their conversations more regular and cemented an artistic kinship. With all the evidence of systemic anti-Black racism and discrimination making headlines, it seemed the right moment to celebrate tap dance as an important part of Black culture.
La Touche, who has done extensive research on the subject, points out that part of the reason the Black roots of tap are not adequately acknowledged is the history has largely been written by non-Blacks.
“There is so much that was erased,” said La Touche. “Tap dance happens to be the folk dance of America that represents the ugly truth of American history.”
For many children starting out in dance, tap is a standard part of the studio curriculum, but the approach is often more akin to ballet instruction, which follows strictly codified procedures. If there’s a goal in mind it’s the elegantly poised tap style made famous by Astaire, a commodified form that for all its popular appeal is more sizzle than soul. It’s a huge cultural gulf away from the earthier, more improvisational and innovative values of the Black tap heritage that this week’s concert seeks to underline.
La Touche and Knights will be joined by a company of younger performers who bring a variety of approaches, formal and musical, to their interpretations of the genre. What they share is a commitment to the evolving tradition of Black tap, one that fully acknowledges the past while embracing the future of an inherently dynamic form.
Future editions of Dance Immersion’s Legacy Series are already being planned. The spotlight will shine on jazz dance in an October 2022 symposium with public performances in High Park the following June. Wharton-Suri is tentatively considering salsa dance as another genre whose uniquely Black heritage is often overlooked.
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