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Rhythm tap: creating music with your feet

Rhythm tap - photo of tap dance shoes

In this post, you'll learn about:


 

Have you ever felt the urge to let your feet do the talking? To create intricate, percussive sounds and rhythms with your steps? If so, rhythm tap might be the perfect dance style for you.


My first experience of witnessing rhythm tap was when Australian dance company Tap Dogs exploded on the scene in 1995. Prior to that, I wasn't too impressed with tap dancing. I thought it was a bit outdated and 'daggy', but Dien Perry's group of six male dancers from Newcastle changed all that.


I am thrilled to announce that rhythm tap will be one of the exciting sessions in Dragonfly Dance's upcoming Adult Theatre Dance Intensive in Adelaide (9-10 June 2024), designed specifically for adults.

 

The essence of rhythm tap


Rhythm tap emphasises the creation of sound. This is what makes it stands out from Broadway tap – the focus on acoustic and musical aspects of tap dancing over the aeshetic appeal. It’s all about creating complex, captivating rhythms with your feet.  There is a strong focus on musicality and rhythm patterns created by the dancer’s feet.  The dancer becomes a percussive instrument, making them part of the music.


Rhythm tap incorporates more percussive heel drops and lower-body movement, rather than emphasising toe taps and upper-body movement. It is more grounded and focuses more on acoustics than aesthetics.


John Bubbles, often called the Father of Rhythm Tap, revolutionised tap dance by dropping heels on the offbeat, accenting rhythms with the toes, extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eigh bars of music, and loading the bar with am abundance of complex beats. Before Bubbles, dancers tapped up on their toes, focussed on flashy steps, and danced to neat two-to-a-bar phrases.


Bubbles claimed that he wanted to make it more complicated, which is why he put more taps in, change the rhythm, hit unusual accepnts and syncopation. Chuck Green, a protege or Bubbles, said that by dropping his heels, he could create a floating quality, like a leaf falling, which improved the tonation of the sound.

 

Six reasons you'll love rhythm tap

 

1. Musical Expression


Rhythm tap allows dancers to become musicians, creating intricate and dynamic rhythms with their feet. This form of dance gives them the opportunity to express themselves musically, blending movement with sound in a unique and satisfying way.


2. Creative Freedom


The improvisational nature of rhythm tap offers dancers a high degree of creative freedom. They can experiment with rhythms, tempos, and patterns, making each performance unique and personal.


3. Community and Connection


The improvisational nature of rhythm tap fosters a strong sense of community and connection among dancers. Sharing spontaneous rhythms and collaborating in real-time creates a unique bond and camaraderie, making rhythm tap a socially enriching experience.


4. Technical Challenge


Rhythm tap requires precision, timing, and a deep understanding of musicality. Dancers love the challenge of mastering complex footwork and developing their technique to produce clear, crisp sounds.


5. Cultural Connection


Rhythm tap has rich historical roots and connections to jazz music and African American dance traditions. Dancers appreciate being part of a tradition that honors and continues the legacy of legendary performers like John Bubbles and Gregory Hines.


6. Performance Versatility


Rhythm tap can be performed solo, in duets, or as part of an ensemble, making it a versatile dance form. Dancers enjoy the variety of performance opportunities, from intimate showcases to large-scale productions, and the ability to collaborate with musicians and other dancers.

 

Notable rhythm tap dancers


To give you a better idea of just what rhythm tap is, I've included some videos of some of the remarkable dancers who have been part of rhythm tap legacy.


Historical Pioneers


John W. Bubbles (1902-1986)


Often hailed as the Father of Rhythm Tap, John W Bubbles revolutionised tap dance by incorporating more percussive heel drops and complex rhythms. He introduced a style that emphasised lower-body movements and intricate rhythmic patterns, departing from the lighter, more visually focused Broadway tap. Bubbles' innovative techniques paved the way for modern jazz percussion and significantly influenced subsequent generations of tap dancers.



Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949)


A legendary figure in tap dance, Bill Robinson is best known for his graceful style and iconic stair dance. While he excelled in both Broadway and rhythm tap, his contributions to rhythm tap include a focus on clarity of sound and intricate footwork. Robinson's performances broke racial barriers and brought tap dance to mainstream audiences.




 

Chuck Green (1919-1997)


 Known as the Poet of Tap, Chuck Green was a protégé of John Bubbles. He developed a bop-influenced style of rhythm tap characterized by smooth, graceful movements and uncluttered rhythms. Green's improvisational skills and ability to create beautifully phrased routines earned him a revered place in tap dance history.



 

Mid-20th Century Innovators


Gregory Hines (1946-2003)


Gregory Hines is often considered the inheritor of the black rhythm tap tradition. He brought a fresh, dynamic energy to rhythm tap, incorporating elements of jazz and postmodern dance. Hines was known for his improvisational prowess and ability to align tap with contemporary music styles. His performances were marked by their aural complexity and range, captivating audiences worldwide.

 


Jimmy Slyde (1927-2008)


Known as the King of Slides, Jimmy Slyde was celebrated for his smooth, gliding style and impeccable sense of timing. Slyde's approach to rhythm tap emphasised fluidity and musicality, making him a standout performer in both solo and ensemble settings. His influence extended to numerous dancers and helped keep rhythm tap vibrant and evolving.



Contemporary Innovators


Savion Glover (b. 1973)


A true virtuoso of rhythm tap, Savion Glover is renowned for his extraordinary technique and innovative choreography. Glover's style is deeply rooted in the traditions of rhythm tap but pushes the boundaries with complex rhythms and percussive intensity. His groundbreaking performances and contributions to the art form have earned him acclaim as one of the greatest tap dancers of his generation.



Michelle Dorrance (b. 1979)

Michelle Dorrance is a leading figure in contemporary tap dance, known for her inventive choreography and ability to blend tap with other dance forms. As the founder of Dorrance Dance, she has brought rhythm tap to new audiences and created works that highlight the musicality and versatility of tap dance. Dorrance's commitment to innovation and artistic expression continues to shape the future of rhythm tap.



Jason Samuels Smith (b. 1980)

An acclaimed tap dancer, choreographer, and director, Jason Samuels Smith is known for his powerful footwork and dynamic style. He has been instrumental in revitalising rhythm tap and promoting its cultural significance. Smith's performances and educational efforts have inspired a new generation of tap dancers to embrace the complexity and artistry of rhythm tap.


 

Chloe and Maud Arnold

Chloe and Maud Arnold are dynamic sister duo who have significantly impacted the contemporary tap dance scene. Known for their high-energy performances and innovative choreography, they have brought rhythm tap to a broader audience through their work with Syncopated Ladies, an all-female tap ensemble. Their commitment to promoting tap dance and empowering young dancers has made them influential figures in the dance community. Chloe and Maud blend traditional rhythm tap techniques with modern flair, ensuring the art form remains relevant and exciting.



Leading Australian Tap Dance Companies


Tap Dogs


Tap Dogs is perhaps the most internationally renowned Australian tap dance company. Founded by Dein Perry, the company revolutionized tap dance by combining traditional techniques with a raw, industrial aesthetic. Tap Dogs has performed in over 330 cities worldwide, bringing a unique Australian flavor to rhythm tap and captivating audiences with their high-energy performances.



Rhythm Tap Melbourne


Rhythm Tap Melbourne, led by Winston Morrison, is dedicated to promoting rhythm tap dance in Australia. The company offers classes, workshops, and performances, aiming to cultivate a strong tap dance community. Rhythm Tap Melbourne focuses on both traditional and contemporary styles, providing a platform for dancers to explore and innovate within the genre.



Red Hot Rhythm


Red Hot Rhythm is a dynamic tap dance company based in Brisband, known for their electrifying performances and innovative choreography. Founded by Bill Simpson, the company combines the precision of rhythm tap with modern influences, creating a captivating and energetic style. Red Hot Rhythm has performed extensively across Australia and internationally, contributing significantly to the tap dance scene.



 

So are you inspired yet? 

 

Come and join us in June to experience the challenge of creating complex rhythms with your feet. Book your spot and have fun immersing yourself in all things jazz and tap, including a session dedicated to rhythm tap.


 

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