Tapping Into My First Love

Exploring the unifying global community of tap dance

By Michelle Siegel, Arts & Entertainment Editor

I remember loving tap dance even before I knew what it really was. Even when I had only heard my mother’s animated description of how tap shoes had metal plates on their soles that I could make new sounds with, it was more than enough to draw me into an unknown world of movement, expression, and history. Something that I knew for sure, though, was that the people around me loved it. Some of my favourite memories with my grandmother are from when I would sit in the kitchen with her before Passover Seders, helping with some of the cooking prep, sorting out the teacups and saucers for coffee or tea—but most importantly, gleefully talking about the new steps I had learned in class that week or the last dance film she saw on Turner Classic Movies. Perhaps I already knew it then––tap would remain in my life in more ways than one.

Each step an archive

Tap stands out from several other popular dance styles as a distinctly American dance rooted in histories of enslavement and cultural exchange. The style developed through the melding of several different styles, notably West African step dancing and Irish clog dancing. Until the late 20th century, most historians believed that tap originated from enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants being influenced by each other’s dancing on Southern plantations. More research has suggested that tap was nurtured in urban environments where different ethnic groups congregated. Both narratives speak to tap as a genre created collectively through community formation and cultural expressions. For instance, juba, a dance from the Kingdom of Kongo that uses feet-stomping and arm-flapping, markedly influenced tap. During the 18th century, various states passed laws outlawing enslaved people from using drums, which were considered a dangerous form of communication that could be used to incite rebellions. Enslaved peoples employed juba and other forms of rhythmic physical movement as media of communication and to cope with the ongoing trauma of slavery.

When I started taking tap classes early in my elementary school years, my teacher during the 2010-2011 school year, Maud Arnold, first taught the class about the history of tap dance. Beyond just explaining the history behind the dances she taught us, she also had us do weekly homework assignments where we would research tap videos and come to class prepared to discuss our favourite movements. When I caught up with Arnold, a professional tap dancer, choreographer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and producer, she was touched to learn that I still remembered her assignments in such fond detail.

“I always wonder—like today, when I was teaching, I was telling the kids: Tap dance is an African-American art form. What is February? February is Black History Month, tap dance is Black history, period,” Arnold said. “And I’m always like, I wonder if they’re listening, I wonder if they care?”

A major focus of tap dance classes is undoubtedly teaching pupils new steps and routines. But ensuring that they learn the past that has been preserved in those tap steps invaluably works to contextualize and focalize the history of enslaved people in these lessons. Media that depicts African-American history often only sees their suffering as a worthy subject, obscuring their substantial creative contributions to American entertainment scenes and reinstantiating the centralization of whiteness in popular media.

“Tap dance is extremely impactful and extremely powerful because it was born during a time of oppression, it was created by enslaved people—it carries so much more history and weight,” Arnold said. “You know, we’re lucky now because we can just do it for fun and express ourselves, but imagine a time in which this was the only way you could express yourself, the only way you could communicate with the people who were your allies or your friends.”

'Nothing too weird': Towards a more inclusive dance world

Acknowledging that the different genres of dance are not just isolated art forms but tied to different cultures and specific histories allows dance to be seen for what it truly is—an intimate expression of emotion and experience. Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI), located on rue Jeanne-Mance, defines itself as a “strange beast” that is neither institution nor artist-run centre. In their primary mandate, they pledge to remain “an inclusionary, pluricultural, pluridisciplinary presenter” in addition to providing mentorship and fellowship opportunities for artists. Dance, to them, should represent multiple individual experiences and cultures, rather than just a set of steps and techniques to be perfected.

Camille Larivée, executive and artistic director for MAI, explained in an interview with The McGill Tribune how the work presented at MAI stands apart from most institutional public performance spaces.

“The whole idea [...] of traditionalist idea of dance as ballet and very rigid, I think more and more choreographers that come to the MAI challenge that notion of care in dance that you don’t really find in traditional, classical settings,” Larivée said.

Many shows at MAI portray the personal narratives of their choreographers, which explore different aspects of identity—race, class, sexuality, and religion, among many others—through innovative styles of choreography.

“There’s nothing too ‘weird’ for us, [...] there’s a lot of artists [who] will feel uncomfortable in other spaces, because they feel like they’re pushing the ‘weirdness’ a little bit too far and their ‘weirdness’ is accepted here,” said Jaëlle Dutremble-Rivet, head of communication at MAI. “The MAI is different in the sense that it pushes intercultural arts, so that falls under the umbrella of anyone who is marginalized by the system, be it access to grants, access to spaces, access to everything, basically.”

The professional and academic institutions of dance are ruled by multilateral structures of hierarchy and privilege, which often fail to meaningfully support artists from marginalized communities—artists of colour, disabled artists, 2SLGBTQIA+ artists—and has historically excluded them from performance spaces.

“The dance world is really still privileged and white and not necessarily accessible in many ways. And when we talk about marginalized communities here it’s not just identity, it’s also intersectional,” Larivée said. “There’s people with different types of disabilities, people of colour, it’s not just ‘you’re one thing and that’s it’.”

MAI’s work has already shown that audiences want to see art that is expressive of voices other than white elites.

“In that sense, we’re different, but in the art forms that are presented, a lot of the artists that are presented here, they’re picked up afterwards so, I guess Montreal likes weird,” Dutremble-Rivet said.

In May 2022, MAI hosted Ephemeral Artifacts, a show choreographed and performed by tap dancer Travis Knights that explored how the historical connections between jazz and tap dancing manifest through the physical self. The performance was explicitly framed through a non-Eurocentric lens, firmly centring Black culture and history in its meditations on both artistic mediums. Ephemeral Artifacts also made waves for its use of vibrotactile devices—specifically, a vibrating vest that would allow deaf and hard of hearing audience members to experience the feeling of tap steps in coordination with the visual aspects of Knights’ performance.

Knights’ show challenges the typical bodies that we associate with dance and art scenes—both in performers and in audiences—demonstrating how interdisciplinary innovations in performance can bring dance to wider audiences, both in Montreal and around the world. Ableism and any kind of exclusivity in the dance world, Arnold asserts, is fundamentally opposed to her definition of the art: An inherently shared form of feeling.

“What’s really exciting and special about dance is that it’s a universal language,” Arnold added. “And dance is for everybody: Even if you’re not [non-disabled], if you’re in a wheelchair, you can groove, you can move. We’re all born with a heartbeat, so we all have an innate rhythm, and dance is just a way to express that innate rhythm.”

Seeing dance as a universal medium is especially important when considering tap as an African-American art form. Throughout history, the white powerholders that drive entertainment industries have pushed the false narrative that white stories and art are for all audiences, whereas Black art, even when commodified for the white gaze, is only for Black audiences—because they are deemed too personal, political, or just not art at all. The resurgence of tap in popular culture crucially demonstrates how the medium appeals to a wide array of audiences, and should be taught and understood for what it is—art.

Dance, after all, has always been a tool that thrives in bringing communities together. For Chloe Nyiligira, U1 Science, her early experiences with both classical North American dance styles and long-standing work with traditional Rwandan dances helped shape her understanding of community and expression through dance.

“In my culture, dance is a way of celebration, like in many other cultures. But what’s so interesting about it is that in any event, in any circumstance of life, there will always be a type of movement or dance associated with it,” Nyiligira said.

“Even in mourning periods, sometimes, there are dances for that. I’ve always found that a bit perplexing at first, because I’m like ‘this is a sad thing’, but then, it comes from a place of wanting to celebrate the life of the person who passed, just to find the joy in any moment in life.”

From the stage to the screen

Dance communities are ubiquitous anywhere you go in the world. Intercultural engagements with dance, like Nyiligira’s experience, can help broaden the boundaries of participation. While growing up and learning more ‘classical’ styles, Nyiligira was, for several years, the only Black student in the studio. When learning and teaching traditional Rwandan dance, however, she was able to work with other Black dancers, whom she considered “little sisters” to her. While tap and traditional Rwandan dances are specifically rooted in African cultures, they are in no way exclusionary—in fact, they welcome new audiences and are geared towards universal engagement and appreciation.

“From an outsider’s perspective, no matter what your background is, if you watch a dance from my culture, chances are you will feel very at home or very welcomed, and safe and sound,” Nyiligira said.

Although institutional privilege and exclusivity in the dance world still remain, social media has served as a conduit for the global dance community to grow further. Tap dance permeated through popular culture in the 20th century as a result of the popularity of movie musicals, but the development of the internet as we know it today largely contributes to how dance videos are created, consumed, and distributed. Dance challenges on TikTok have widened the dance community, but have also turned into another platform where creators appropriate and steal credit from Black creators for their work.

“There are so many different niches in dance. I don’t mind it on social media—it’s important to share the meaning,” Nyiligira said. “It’s one thing to take a dance, but if you don’t know what it means, or the story behind it, or the credit, [...] it takes so much away from it.”

The history of Black creators and choreographers not getting proper credit for their work is a long and difficult one. When discussing the history of tap dance in film, Arnold mentioned her shock at speaking to someone who was only familiar with white tap dancers and didn’t know of its roots in African-American history. Popular film stars like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell are renowned for their dancing and immortalized through different dance institutions, yet the Black dancers who inspired and taught them the art died without even a fraction of the same recognition and acclaim. In 2021, TikTok personality Addison Rae appeared on The Tonight Show in a segment where she performed multiple popular TikTok dances, almost all of which were choreographed by young Black dancers, without crediting the original creators.

Nevertheless, the online dance community has its unique beat, and Arnold is extremely familiar with and enthusiastic about it. She is a member of Chloe Arnold’s Syncopated Ladies, an all-woman tap dancing band started by her sister, Chloe, that has accumulated over 100 million views across all their social media pages—and was once reshared by Beyoncé. Maud’s dancing was also spotlighted in the 2022 Apple TV+ film Spirited, which her older sister choreographed.

While Arnold, Larivée, Dutremble-Rivet, and Nyiligira all had varying opinions on the role of social media compared to physical spaces in the dance world, they all believe that in-person performances create an irreplicable level of connection and engagement with audiences.

“For me, it’s about being present. So, with COVID and in general with time on the internet, we have less concentration, we’re always moving and moving,” Larivée said. “And I do think that going to see shows and exhibitions like this is challenging us to rethink how we are with each other, and being there in the present, and putting all your energy into watching something, witnessing something, being one with the art.”

Perseverance of Black history and community

Regardless of the medium it is viewed through, tap dance can always be a number of things: Joy. Strength. Creativity. Expression. Continuing to teach not just the physical movements of tap dance, but its historical roots in African-American communities is vital so that we can continue to uplift Black art and experiences in the present.

“When you give something no context, no history, you lose so much value,” Arnold said. “Even when I talk to my students now and tell them where [tap] comes from, they’re like ‘wow,’ they have no idea. It means so much more, it’s so much more impactful, and when you don’t tell the history of anything that you’re teaching, you lose a lot of the connection, you lose a lot of the pride for it, and you lose a lot of the community.”

Beyond just looking at the global history of Black oppression during Black History Month, we must acknowledge the sources of pride for Black communities—the amazing art, films, novels, exhibits—that highlight different manifestations and expressions of Black elation. Tap is just one of many. McGill’s Black Student Network (BSN) launched an Instagram story series titled “28 Days of Black Joy,” with each day of February spotlighting a different project or artist. One day highlighted where to watch Get on Up, the 2014 biopic of James Brown starring the late Chadwick Boseman, and another centred on FairyHair, a mobile hairstyling service in Montreal that specializes in Black hairstyles—to celebrate Black history, culture, and identity.

Many people consider tap dance a lost art, or a style that is not as visible and popular as other classical styles—Arnold at one point referred to tap as “the step-child of dance.” But for me, tap is, and has always been, something that I associate with dance—and with history. The privilege in having the means to take dance classes, as well as the honour of having teachers like Arnold, who centred the history of dance in addition to the steps themselves, has never been lost on me. As long as we continue to discuss and teach the history of tap dance, it will never be truly lost.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor