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The Origins Of American Tap Dancing History Essay

Info: 2039 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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This extended essay is an investigation of the origins of American tap dancing as influenced by the traditional culture of the African slaves brought to America beginning in the 1600s. This essay will describe several African tribal dances, slave dances, and dances appearing in public performances during the early 1900s. This essay will specifically examine the question: How did African American slave culture influence the development of modern American tap dance?

The scope of this essay will describe African tribal dancing and its role in tribal life, the culture of the slaves living in America, and dances resulting from that culture. This essay will also give background information on the African slave trade of the 1600s.

This exploration of slave culture leads to the conclusion that the dances were not meant to have the significant impact that they did. The dances were purely a means of self-expression and entertainment as a people group.

Table of Contents



Traditional African Dance ………………………………………………………………………….4

The Slave Trade ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………6

William Henry Lane and the Juba Dance ………………………………………………………………………….


Tap dance is “a percussive American dance form distinguished by the interplay of rhythms and amplification of sound by the feet” (Hill 2). It is regarded as an American from of dance, and like America itself, originated from a variety of cultural influences. One of its major influences came from the African slaves brought to America in the 17th century. Although many slaves were prohibited from performing their traditional dances, they continued to express themselves by modifying their traditional dances to fit within their masters’ laws.

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Traditional African Dance

From the earliest history of African dance, it is known that dance played a very important role in the lives of the tribal people. Music and rhythm were infused in the lives of Africans. “Their musical training is a lifelong process that begins at birth with cradle songs and prepares them for participation in all aspects of adult life” (Malone 21). Dances were used for protection and to ask for prosperity, to express feelings and emotions and to celebrate ceremonies such as birth or marriage. It also played a major role in tribal religious rituals. As a part of daily life, dancing was a way to pass time and provide entertainment. Traditional dance in Africa occurs communally, expressing the life of the community more than that of individuals or couples. Dances were often separated by gender, which established and reinforced gender roles in children and community structures such as kinship, age, and social status.

The characteristics of dances observed by travelers to West Africa in the 1800s mostly relied on the context, the people, and the gender of the dancers. However, several characteristics seemed constant. In general, men used large body movements, including jumping and leaping. Women danced smaller movements with much use of ‘shuffle steps’, the body in a bent position with ‘crooked knees’. The circle dance predominated everywhere, sometimes solo dancers or musicians in the middle, sometimes couples.

African dance utilized the concepts of polyrhythm and total body articulation. Shoulders, chest, pelvis, arms, legs, and head were moved with different rhythms in the music. They also added rhythmic components independent of those in the music. Very complex movements were then possible even though the body does not move through space.

“Different groups emphasize different parts of the body. The Anlo-Ewe and Lobi of Ghana emphasize the upper body, while the Kalabari of Nigeria give a subtle accent to the hips. The Akan of Ghana use the hands and feet in specific ways. Strong contraction-release movements of the pelvis and upper torso characterize both male and female dancing in Agbor” (Malone 13).

Dancers were able to switch back and forth between rhythms without missing movements. Since many of the movements meant specific things, it was extremely important that the dancers maintain clarity. Dancers in Nigeria commonly combine at least two rhythms in their movement, and the blending of three rhythms can be seen among highly skilled dancers (Malone 16).

African dances were largely participatory, with spectators being part of the performance. With the exceptions of spiritual, religious, or initiation dances, there are traditionally no barriers between dancers and onlookers. Even ritual dances often have a time when spectators participate.

Many dances are performed only by men or women, “indicating strong beliefs about what being male or female means, and some strict taboos about interaction” (Welsh-Asante 56). For example, dances that celebrate the passage from childhood to adulthood or for spiritual worship are often gender-specific. Girls of the Lunda tribe of Zambia spend months practicing in isolation for their coming of age ritual. Boys show off their strength in vigorous dances, providing a means of judging physical health. The only partner dances are the Bottle Dance of the Mankon of Cameroon or the Assiko from the Douala people which involves interaction of men and women and the way that they attract each other.

Master dancers and drummers are particular about the learning of the dance exactly as taught. Children must learn the dance exactly as taught without variation. Improvisation or a new variation comes only after mastering the dance, performing, and receiving the appreciation of spectators and the sanction of village elders.

Rather than emphasizing individual talent, Yoruba dancers and drummers express communal desires, values, and collective creativity. The drumming represents an underlying linguistic text that guides the dancing performance. The drummer’s primary duty is to preserve the community by mediating the audience and performer interaction. (Malone

Many and most African dances (like the Zimbabwe dance) include drums, vocals and feet stamping. Most of the previous actions are to represent something like the drum, heartbeat of the tribe, vocals, the tribe itself and the stamping feat shows emotion and sometimes anger. Most African dances are special rituals to the Gods to make sure that the tribe’s crops will be plentiful and that they will have good water supplies throughout the next year.

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The Slave Trade

The importation of slaves to the New World was not the beginning of the slave trade. The slave trade was started by the Portuguese in 1441 “as an element of national commercial expansion” (Emery 1). Through the next century, the slave trade grew significantly. As early as 1518, slaves were being shipped to the West Indies, and by 1540 ten thousand Africans a year were being shipped to the New World. The captains of slave ships were often entertained by the native slave traders, who allowed the captains to observe the slaves’ dances. (Emery 2)

Most slaves were bought from local slave-dealers, captured as prisoners of war, or abducted. However, there are some reports of dance being used to entice Africans to board the slave ships. Slave traders and slave ship captains would ask the Africans to dance on their ship, then leave shore while the Africans were dancing. Before they realized what was happening, the ship was far from shore. (Emery 3-5)

Conditions on the slave ships headed to the New World were terrible. The slaves had their heads shaved and all clothing removed before they began sailing. There were reports of severe suffering due to

“tremendous death rates from disease, filth, and suicide; … the small device used to pry open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat; the screaming and howling in the airless holds; the savage beatings administered to those who attempted suicide by jumping over the railings; and the sharks which followed each slave ship, waiting for its human cargo” (Emery 5).

Despite all of this suffering, the slaves continued to dance. Dancing was encouraged (often forcefully) because it allowed the slaves to exercise, resulting in healthier looking slaves and more profit for the slave captains. Although the slaves were allowed to continue practicing one of the most important aspects of their culture, the attitude of the dancing changed significantly. The slaves were forced to dance in chains under the threat of a beating. A slave “danced not for love, nor joy, nor religious celebration, nor even to pass the time; he danced in answer to the whip. He danced for survival” (Emery 12). The slaves continued to dance in a ring to the beat of a makeshift drum.

Slaves continued to dance when they arrived in the West Indies.

William Henry Lane and the Juba Dance

The Juba dance was originally an African-American plantation dance, originating from West African slaves who performed it during their gatherings. The dance was performed in Dutch Guiana, the Caribbean, and the southern United States. Rhythm instruments were not allowed by plantation owners due to fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. However, the sounds made during the dance were used just as Yoruba and Haitian talking drums were used to communicate.

Spectators would form a circle and two men would be in the center clapping their hands, stomping their feet, patting their thighs with feet turned out, and clicking their heels together. Generally the dancers had one leg raised as they danced a counter-clockwise circle. They would end the dance with a step called the “Long Dog Scratch.” When the singers forming the circle (dancers doing a call and response form) said “Juba, Juba!” the whole circle would join in for a brief time.

When the law allowed, the dance used only a drummer. Later Juba music was supposedly named after William Henry Lane who was more famously known as “Master Juba”. Henry Lane was a master of the Jig, Clog, Giouba and the Ring Shout. The Juba dance consisted of steps called the Long Dog Scratch, Jubal Jew, Yaller Cat, Pigeon Wing and Blow that Candle Out.

Its predecessor was also known as “Pattin’ Juba” done by traditional West African tribes and was brought to the states by the slaves. Pattin’ Juba started any dance form with a clapping or slapping of the thighs, the chest, knees and body thus creating a rhythm pattern. Many times the slaves would be involved in an impromptu gathering and had no instruments to dance, so they would “pat” their own rhythms. Later during the slave revolt, “slave owners were starting to get wise to the use of drums being used for more than just dancing and feared the potential of talking drums (the Yoruba Drum namely) to ‘speak’ in a tongue unknown to the slave traders and thus to incite rebellion, these and other drums were once banned from use by African American slaves in the United States” (“Juba”). Dancing was generally not banned however and the slaves had to use other device, such as Pattin’ Juba to create the sounds for dance as well as to hide messages in the rhythms as the patting sounds could be heard for a distance.


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