Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars

By Joel Dinerstein | Go to book overview

6
TAP DANCERS
RAP BACK AT
THE MACHINE

In a 1941 profile of Fred Astaire, Life magazine declared tap the nation's “only native and original dance form, ” a democratic cultural form with its roots in “the people.” Life declared Astaire the form's master and tap dance itself as “distinctive a species of U.S. folk art as the cowboy ballad, the Negro spiritual, or swing.” Tap is “all about freedom, ” the dancer Chuck Green claims, “Tap … really is jazz itself.” 1 Tap is the most individualistic art form of the Machine Age and best reflects the cultural hunger for an energized, revitalized, motorized body-in-motion.

The artistic message of an improvised individual tap routine is one of crucial importance to the rhythmic flow of modernity and human adaptation to change: be light on your feet. Tap is a democratic art form—anyone can learn a few steps—but the best tap dancers consider themselves “jazz percussionists who value improvisation and self-expression.” Paul Draper, a white concert tap artist, puts it this way: “Being light on one's feet is a desirable characteristic whether one is a dancer or not. For the tap dancer … it is essential. A heavy-footed tap dancer is a contradiction in terms, since 'tap' means to strike lightly.” The very names of tap steps suggest lightness in motion; every tap dancer builds combinations out of “steps, brushes, hops, slaps, shuffles, cramp-rolls, toe-taps, pull-backs and wings.” Superlative tap dancing requires “fast, crisp shuffles, solid flat-footed stomps, staccato heel drops, and graceful cross-overs—all executed with a seemingly effortless lightness.” 2 Being light on your feet is itself a modernist attitude, as it assumes an artist unencumbered by outmoded positions.

Just as the streamliner represented a light, fleet version of the nation's foremost symbol of industrialization, the tap dancer was a vision

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