The following is a guest post by Constance Valis Hill, jazz tap dancer, choreographer, and scholar of performance studies. Her book, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010) was supported by grants from the John Simon Guggenheim and John D. Rockefeller Foundations and won the De la Torre Bueno Prize for the best book in dance studies. She is a Five College Professor of Dance at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Music Division at the Library of Congress proudly announces the online publication of Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media by Constance Valis Hill. The 3,000-record database is searchable by title, date, venue, dancer, choreographer, director, producer, and performance medium, as well as by names of tap numbers and tap choreographies. In addition to the records of tap performance on stage and film, Hill has contributed biographies of 20th century tap dancers, from elders Bill Robinson and Fred Astaire to 21st century young bloods. Also included is a substantial essay, “Tap Dance in America: A Short History.” While the chronology is not in any way complete, it is the most exhaustive and detailed collection of tap documentation on record, and has been donated for the express purpose of promoting and sustaining research and scholarship in tap dance, America’s first vernacular dance form.
The February release of this invaluable resource coincides with the birth dates of major dancers included in the database, including Jane Goldberg, Gregory Hines and Tommy Tune, among others.
This collection comprises ten years of research by Ms. Hill for the publication of Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2010), the first comprehensive and fully-documented history of a uniquely American art form exploring all aspects of the intricate musical and social exchange that evolved from Afro-Irish percussive step dances (jig, gioube, buck-and-wing, juba) to the work of contemporary tap dance artists. The laborious and painstaking task of constructing a chronology involved a multitude of sources. In 2000, Hill joined the Five College Dance Department at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where the database librarian at Johnson Library designed a program that would house the chronology of tap dance in print and performance, film and video, film and video, festival and social history. By 2005, armed with the tap chronology that would serve as the basis upon which to write Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History, Hill continued to gather dozens of dance reviews and features she had written as a dance critic and transcribed dozens of interviews with tap dancers– one of the earliest, a 1991 telephone interview with Charles “Honi” Coles and Marion Coles.
“To be a tap historian is to be a sleuth, to revel in newly found bits of information as if they were nuggets of gold,” said Ms. Hill about the painstaking recovery of material from archives, such as the New York State Library in Albany, where she tracked down the premiere of Darktown Follies of 1914, a date that had long eluded tap historians. The Museum of Television and Radio in New York City yielded several television specials in which John Bubbles, the so-called Father of Rhythm Tap, had appeared.
Hill’s lengthy essay, “Tap Dance in America: A Short History,” presents an overview of tap’s musical styles and steps, from buck-and-wing and ragtime stepping at the turn of the century; jazz tapping to the rhythms of hot jazz, swing, and bebop in the twenties, thirties, and forties; to hip-hop-inflected hitting and hoofing in heels (high and low) from the nineties, right up to today. This is the first essay to document the careers of such female soloists as Lotta (Mignon) Crabtree, Ada Overton Walker, Cora LaRedd, Eleanor Powell, Jeni LaGon, Brenda Bufalino, Dianne Walker, and the rising number of high-and-low-heeled tap dancers who have contributed to making tap the most cutting-edge dance form on the national and international stage.
Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology is dedicated to Nobuko “Cobi” Narita, producer, director, philanthropist, and founder of Cobi’s Place, a gathering for jazz tap dancers, whose tireless devotion to the jazz and tap community has spanned more than forty years. Every artist she has presented or assisted has become part of her jazz family, which means that her extended family has as many thousands of members as there are records in this tap dance database.
“My wish, in gifting this rich treasure trove of tap dance materials to the Library of Congress,” states Hill, “is to enlighten all who are interested in the historiography of tap dance and to continued research into America’s earliest vernacular dance form.”