Tap Dictionaries Plumb the Language of a Rhythmic Art


Flap, slap, lazy shuffle, spank—all names for the same tap step. Such a varied list, by no means exhaustive, could be made for most steps. Some names convey a step’s sound, others what it looks like or who gets credit for inventing it. But which name you use, if you use a name at all, usually depends on who taught it to you and where. This looseness isn’t a problem if you can demonstrate what you mean, but it is if you want to compile a dictionary. In Tapworks, Beverly Fletcher’s new dictionary, she ranks name variations by how frequently she found them in other books. By contrast, Mark Knowles, in his 1998 Tap Dance Dictionary, includes and cross-references every name he discovered—not just in books but by interviewing dancers. Knowles’s work, accordingly, is both more comprehensive and truer to tap’s person-to-person tradition. Where Fletcher can be snooty (terms that aren’t hers are “old”), Knowles is refreshingly modest. His system of notation is easier to follow than Fletcher’s, but he admits that it, like all such systems, leaves out the most important part, the subtleties of style. To get that, you have to do what Knowles did—seek out real dancers. Still, these dictionaries can be useful, not because they’re complete or correct (both display a West Coast bias), but as grab bags of ideas, systematic samplings of a vitally unsystematic art, or simply collections of funny-sounding names: bambalina, slurp, four-tap flam, riffle triple, rattle seven, over the top.

An Illuminating, Illustrated History of Tap Dancing’s Early Days

The first documented use of the term “tap dancing” was in an ad for Ned Wayburn’s Minstrel Misses in 1903, a convenient end point for Tap Roots, Mark Knowles’s history of tap’s beginnings. Most books about tap recycle the same material, drawing heavily from the seminal mid-’60s work Jazz Dance by Jean and Marshall Stearns. The historical preface to Beverly Fletcher’s Tapworks is typical, competent except for a few embarrassing—and telling—gaffes, like including Jimmy Slyde, who’s still performing, in a list of masters who’ve passed on. Knowles’s account is different, the most thorough in the 40 years since Jazz Dance. It benefits from the expansion in cultural studies in those decades, particularly in the minstrelsy sections. Knowles’s thinking is occasionally muddled—he sometimes confuses similarity with influence, unconvincingly connecting tap with Shaker, Indian, and Native American dance, and he’s often too credulous toward dubious sources—yet his writing is clear. More concerned with acknowledging and celebrating than with analyzing, he only skims the surface of the story’s deeper waters (appropriation, race, art versus entertainment). But by returning to primary sources, including 120 period illustrations, and by confining his scope, he’s created an illuminating look at a rich history. Even the footnotes brim with salient detail and good stories. —B.S.

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