Dancing with the Ghost of Minstrelsy: A Case Study of the Marginalization and Continued Survival of Rhythm Tap

Article excerpt

The years leading up to the close of the century were an important time in the evolution of rhythm tap dancing, an indigenous American art form. The majority of African American men who helped to give birth to tap as a jazz based art form had long since retired and many had passed away. In their struggle to achieve artistic legitimating, the founding fathers and mothers of rhythm tap elevated the art form from its illegitimate past to a level of serious artistic recognition by turning dance into music--the syncopated rhythms of jazz. This once dying art form was now experiencing a re-emergence into the market place of mainstream entertainment. With the critical and financial success of Bring in the Noise, Bring in the Funk on Broadway, master tap innovator, Savion Glover, and a cadre of young, African American males ushered rhythm tap dancing into greater mainstream attention linking the art form to the youth culture of hip hop.

"Dancing with the ghost of minstrelsy," examines the impediments confronted by an evolving art form to gain artistic acceptance. It further documents how the purposive actions of a community of cultural workers endeavor to gain artistic legitimacy for their once dying art form. It is a review of its once marginal status, a documented exploration of an important period in its history, and a summation of the now, then, and future of rhythm Tap.

The young generation of developing artists, led by Savion Glover, placed their personal stamp on rhythm tap and made it their own. Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out that human beings experience "a haunting of the present structure of past experiences" (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 32). In the bodily meeting place of the past, present, and future, the African American males bodily representation in tap has become a vessel of symbolic protest against past, present, and future oppression. Through the performance genre of the rhythm tap, the African American male symbolically freed himself from the chains of his oppression that was representative of the minstrel and obsequious history of the art form.

During the period of the 1990s, rhythm tap resurfaced as part of the mainstream popular culture. At this epoch in its history, rhythm tap, the once theatrically enslaved body sold on the auction block of white dominated commercial entertainment became a new body in performance--a total antithesis to its former self. In contrast to the subservient tradition of minstrelsy, these young men now conveyed a power and bodily control. In fact, they danced fiercely as if they were excising the ghost of minstrelsy itself. Having experienced the pain of the past humiliations of the smiling, subservient, tap dancer, the new African American body in performance was aggressive, athletic, and totally expressive. The faces of these young men were without the larger than life personality and wide toothy smile of the minstrel tradition in entertainment. Most of the young men kept their personalities, feelings, and emotions in the music and not as exaggerated outward expression. The young men and women, who were in the minority, were performing not for audience approval but rather for their own personal feelings of accomplishment. They refused to project historic superficial performance expressions as part of their routines. These performers declined to compromise their artistic expression by trying to use their individuality to appeal to audiences rather than appearing to beg for acceptance. They danced with spontaneous raw feeling and emotion, with naked expression and honesty, representing the embodiment of freedom and masculinity. This emerging generation of talented performers in the bodily presentation of art purposely distanced themselves from popular images of minstrelsy that had poisoned the minds of the theatre going public for decades.

Cultural Invisibility

Important elements of African American oral tradition that are often rendered invisible by scholars and observers of American society, include folklore, humor, sacred music, blues, jazz, art, and dance. …