That dance challenge between Irish and black dancers in Riverdance isn’t something invented just to woo American audiences. The links between Irish and tap dancing run deep in the immigrant tradition of 19th century America. The black dancers swapped steps and rhythms with the Irish, blending an art form which was later to find expression in vaudeville and the spectacular choreography of American cinema.
In the earlier part of the century the Irish and blacks occupied the lowest rung of the American ladder. In an article in the ‘International Tap Newsletter’, Jane Goldberg wrote that tap “came out of the lower classes, developed in competitive ‘battles’ on street corners by Irish immigrants and African American slaves.”
Another writer in the newsletter suggested that only in the great American melting pot “could Irish jigs combine with African shuffles and sand dances to form an entirely new and exciting art form.” According to writer and critic Clive Barnes: “It was the Irish clog dancers who started tap dancing, but these Irish forms were clearly grafted onto existing slave dances that came directly from Africa.”
An early feature of this story was the solo spectacular of Johnny Durang (1768-1822), a dance master in Philadelphia, who first established the step dance as a theatrical dance through his performance of the hornpipe. He was also the first Irish person we know of to blacken his face for performances. The story of tap dance begins with “Uncle” Jim Lowe, a black dancer who performed jigs and reels in saloons. He is also regarded as an influence on the first great rhythm dancer, William Henry Lane, also known as “Juba.” Lane was born in1825 and was well-known by the 1840s.
His dancing included African steps, like the shuffle and slide, added to the jig steps. He was the first to add syncopation and improvisation to his dancing. Juba toured through New England and New York. On a visit to England he got a sensational reception when he performed in London in 1848, impressing among others Charles Dickens. He had a memorable series of challenges in Boston and New York with noted champion Irish step dancer John Diamond which had no clear victor. This didn’t keep Lane from declaring himself “King.” ‘Juba’ Lane died in 1852 at the age of 27. While it is believed John Diamond’s people hailed from Co Galway, it is difficult to find out much about him except that he danced with the Barnham extravaganza.
According to Grove’s Dictionary of American Music, tap emerged from the 19th century dances of European and black-American origin, including the Irish jig, the English clog dance, the hornpipe, and a number of black-American step dances, especially the essence, soft shoe, sand dance, buck, wing and buck and wing. The rhythm patterns articulated by the feet on the floor are heightened in tap dancing by metal plates, or “taps”, fitted to the soles of the shoes at the toe and heel. The interaction of black-American dance with Irish and English step dances became popular in blackface minstrelsy, at first through the performances of Juba and Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice.
The immediate predecessor of tap was the soft shoe, which was similar to it in its rhythmic footwork, but performed without taps affixed to the shoes. Upper body movements and gliding steps were introduced through the influence of the characteristic or eccentric dances (such as the cakewalk in the 1890s), the “animal” ragtime dances of the 1910s and the jazz dances of the 1920s.
According to musician and academic Mick Moloney: “Irish dancing was huge in variety and vaudeville, and the Irish jig dancers, as they were called, were a major part of vaudeville. So Irish dancing was always a major part of American popular entertainment.” Tap dancing was to find its feet, so to speak, in vaudeville and, later, the black musical comedies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
the speakeasy clubs (thanks to Prohibition), the Broadway musical comedy and especially American film, most notably Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain (1952), Gerswin’s ‘Swanee,’ and 42nd Street (1933 version). Riverdance completes the circle.
In 2007 Connemara sean-nós dancer Seosamh O Neachtain and a television crew from TG4 travelled to Brooklyn and Harlem to explore the similarites of Irish sean-nós and tap dancing. O Neachtain even danced a light-hearted re-run of the Diamond-Jube contests of the 1840s with a local dancer in Times Square, with a narrow victory going to the home side.
A visit to a dance school for young children from Harlem’s Canarsie projects reminded us that whether in the poverty-stricken cottages of Connemara or among the newly-released slaves migrating for work to northern cities, man has a remarkable facility to make merry in adversity.They all dance, as one old-timer observed to Seosamh O Neachtain, “to the drumbeat of the soul.” © Ronan Nolan. 2000-010.
Below: Tap dancing into Irish dancing scene from Riverdance