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

By Peters, Donna-Marie | The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), September 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Peters, Donna-Marie, The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)


Abstract: This article examines the obstacles faced by rhythm tap to gain artistic acceptance throughout seminal periods of its evolution as an entertainment art form. The legitimating of the art is discussed in consideration of its marginal, historical status and its identification with subservience and the minstrel tradition. This study, based on ethnographic field work and in-depth interviews, describes the 1990's as a crucial period in community building by rhythm tap artists. This examination sheds light on the purposive actions of tap cultural workers during this period, to finally gain artistic legitimacy for their once dying music/dance art form.

Keywords: dance, rhythm tap dance, artistic marginalization, mentoring group

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.

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