Tap-dance – a joyful art

Tap-dance has its roots in African-American dancing, English clog dancing, and Irish step dancing. The comedian Dan Leno began his career as a clog-dancer, while hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap-danced his way into Vaudeville history. As President, in one of his few enlightened acts, George W. Bush signed into law National Tap Dance Day, celebrated on May 25, Bojangles’ birthday.

Tap-dance routines in films are legendary, including Bojangles himself performing his stair dance, first seen in the Shirley Temple film The Little Colonel (1935) although perfected much earlier. Composers like Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were captivated by jazz and the works of George Gershwin, yet few thought to introduce a tap routine into the concert hall. It was only in 1952 that Morton Gould (1913-96) created his Tap Dance Concerto.

Gould (photo right) was an American composer, conductor, arranger, and pianist. Recognized early as a child prodigy able to improvise and compose, he studied at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City and during the Depression years played piano in movie theatres and for Vaudeville acts. When Radio City Music Hall opened, Gould was hired as the staff pianist. During the 1940s he began to write for the stage, film and ballet, as well as continuing to work for radio and in the concert hall.

In 1945 he composed the music for the Broadway musical Billion Dollar Baby, which featured the dancer Danny Daniels. After creating a score for the Jerome Robbins ballet Interplay (1945), he wrote the music for Fall River Legend (1947), with choreography by Agnes de Mille, and Audubon (1969) for George Balanchine. When Danny Daniels was asked to do a major concert in 1951, he sought musical ideas from Morton Gould.

Gould had begun to write a concerto for the noted tap-dancer and choreographer Paul Draper, but proposed it to Daniels instead. According to Constance Valis Hill in Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010), Daniels said that “Morton would write sections, with the rhythms noted as part of the musical score, and then play it on the piano for me to see if the rhythms were tap-able. I would then take the manuscript score and a tape recoding of his playing, and work on the choreography in my basement studio.”

The concerto has four sections – toccata, pantomime, minuet and rondo – and is written for a 45-piece orchestra. It was premiered by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra in November 1952 with Danny Daniels tap dancing and Morton Gould conducting. Music critic Ramond Ericson, writing in The New York Times, said: “It is exactly what its name says it is, a four-movement, formal, jazz-influenced symphonic piece in which the tap-dancer has a solo role as virtuosic and important as the piano in a Mozart concerto. The tap rhythms are written out, and the soloist has cadenzas where he can improvise his own.”

In 1892 Mark Twain published The American Claimant, which he said was the first novel written with the help of phonographic dictation and the first attempt to write a book without mentioning the weather. In fact, the weather is contained in an appendix, to which the reader is encouraged to turn from time to time. The novel is the source of this well known quote: “On with the dance, let joy be unconfined is my motto, whether there’s any dance to dance; or any joy to unconfine.”

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2 comments on “Tap-dance – a joyful art

  1. Sugel says:

    You will be pleased to know that a photograph of the Tree of Hope will be found on p.143 of: “New York -Oddly Enough”, by Charles G. Shaw, (Farrar & Rinehart, New York & Toronto, 1938, Library of Congress Catalog number 38011587), though now, long, long out-of print. Please bear in mind that this is a photograph of the second Tree of Hope replanted on, or near the same spot, which was donated in the 30’s by the renowned tap dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson after the first was felled due to the exigencies of street engineering. Barely visible in the photo may be the faint outline of a brass plaque that Robinson had set into the sidewalk beneath the tree. Upon the plaque was inscribed: “The Original Tree Of Hope Beloved By the People of Harlem -You asked for a tree of hope so here it is, Best wishes,” concluding with his signature. Unfortunately, I cannot tell the species of the tree from the photograph, nor do I know what became of the plaque.

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