Analyse how tap dancing has been influenced by Fred Astaire as a performer
Fred Astaire’s style and technique have undoubtedly influenced the evolution of tap dancing and from a dancer’s point of view studying tap, Fred Astaire has played a key part in establishing tap dancing as we know it today. Due to this fact, this essay will explore this by looking at musical films made from 1930 onwards and how and why Astaire has made such an impact on the tap genre.
In order to appreciate how Fred Astaire developed the tap genre, it is important to understand how tap dancing was performed around the time Astaire began his on-screen career in the 1930s and how Astaire helped to progress and evolve the art form.Tap originated through the amalgamation of dance forms such as Scottish, Irish and English clog dancing and African tribal dances. Developing in the jazz age, tap took influences from the rhythms and syncopation used in the music of the time by being flexible with the use of the beats. Dancers began using the rhythms in the music at the time and moved away from expected ‘on beats’ and started tapping on the ‘off beats’ and were not afraid to experiment with such syncopation. Moyra Gay states that “syncopation is the temporary displacement or shifting of the regular metrical beat by placing the accent on a normally unaccented musical beat.” (Gay, M, 1998, page 15) For example, a time step usually begins on the count of 8; however, this can start on any beat of that bar such as ‘;’ and it was at this time that tap began to show this.
Around the 1920s, when Astaire was performing in vaudeville, metal taps were first attached to the toes and heels of shoes. Encyclopaedia Britannica states that “During this time entire chorus lines in shows such as Shuffle Along (1921) first appeared on stage with ‘tap shoes’, and the dance they did became known as tap dancing.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2007).In this era of Vaudeville, tap dancing was frequently featured on the bill. Over time, vaudeville style acts began to move from their specialist theatres to nightclubs.
Tap dancing, accompanied by singers and bands, began to emerge as a primary component of these nightclub shows, which would feature chorus lines and solo dancers. However, racial segregation was still an issue and created artificial barriers between the artists. As white performers, Fred and Adele Astaire, featured on the prestigious ‘Orpheum Circuit’, whilst their African American counterparts were restricted to the ‘Chitlin Circuit’.It was not until the 1930s that the two circuits were integrated. The famous Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson is credited as the first black entertainer to make this transition. Another performer that made this transition was John W.
Bubbles (Sublett), who was one of the first black performers to appear at the Radio City Music Hall. During the 1920s Astaire was honoured to have a tap dancing lesson with Bubbles whom he considered to be a very talented dancer. “Astaire was also impressed by a black tapper, John Bubbles, whose sense of invention never seemed to flag.” (Mueller, J, 1985, page 6)John W. Bubbles was the founder of rhythm tap, adding percussive heel stomps, breaking away from the usual eight bar phrase and slowing it down to allow more rhythmic freedom.
Bubbles combined tap dancing with jazz improvisation, providing Astaire with a base to develop the tap genre.Through tap routines in his films, Astaire began to diversify the established tap genre. In the number ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ from ‘Swing Time’ (1936) Astaire was dressed in blackface as the ‘Sportin’ Life’ character played by Bubbles, whose style he drew on for the number, while evidently paying tribute to Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Astaire did not use Bojangles’ style in which he often kept his upper body still, whilst only his feet were busy; however Astaire preferred using the whole body to allow for all expressive possibilities.The music used in this number had a long, looping, jazz-orientated melody with contrasting rhythmic sections using syncopation. Astaire used syncopation greatly in his choreography.
Working with the Gershwins from a young age helped Astaire to develop his style, allowing him to incorporate these jazz influences to his dancing as comfortably as ballroom or lyrical styles. “Gershwin was the man who actually did what Astaire wants to do in film-bring a revitalizing jazz influence to classical musicals” (Jane Feuer, 1978, page 491). The solo is rhythmically complex with a series of animated, loose shuffling steps with large arm movements and hand clapping, which appear to be very spontaneous and imaginative, building on Bubbles style. This indicates that whilst Astaire admired Bojangles, he felt compelled to develop Bubbles’ tap style.As a child, Astaire was taught tap, along with musical comedy dancing, acrobatic dancing and modern ballet at the school of Ned Wayburn, a successful Broadway director.
At the ages of 15 and 17 respectively, Fred and his sister Adele began to outgrow their Vaudeville (Baseball) act. Astaire was looking for inspiration. As well as being attracted to the jazz tap style of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and John ‘Bubbles’ Sublett, he was also interested in the ballroom routines of Vernon and Irene Castle.Astaire incorporated the ballroom style into his tap dancing, showing his influence of Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles “democratised ballroom and made less-skilled people feel welcome and worthy” (Paragon Ragtime Orchestra online, 2007), as Astaire did with tap dancing.
The amalgamation of tap and ballroom dancing had not been seen before and changed the appearance of tap, bringing together rhythmical fast footwork and understated grace and elegance in the upper body. This is how Astaire came to fuse together tap and ballroom dancing, as he wanted to build on their style and make it his own. “And Vernon, in a less flamboyant way, set the tone for the sophisticated gentleman-about town, an archetype that Fred Astaire would portray in the 1930s.” (Paragon Ragtime Orchestra online, 2007)One such example of Astaire amalgamating tap and ballroom dancing is in the film ‘Top Hat’ from 1935. Astaire utilised contrasting styles, using tap incorporated with different genres such as ballroom and a lyrical modern style in keeping with the time. He showed rhythmical movements with his feet that were very original, whilst keeping his upper body relaxed.
Top Hat is one of his earlier films, but is considered to be a classic, as it shows the continuity of Astaire’s style throughout, interlaced with acting and the use of the story line and scenery.In the solo number ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’ Astaire used his legendary cane for the first time, with the cane amplifying his tap steps. By having many unpredictable pauses in the routine, Astaire kept the audience on the edge of their seats by almost implying that the intricate footwork was improvised, seemingly pausing to decide on the next step, to keep the spontaneity.Astaire added humour to the routine as he used his cane as a machine gun to extinguish the chorus with his taps mimicking the sound of the gun. He ‘fires’ from many different positions, from the front, behind his back and even when turning, using different tones for his tap depending on where he is holding the cane. This solo shows Astaire’s use of originality and his ability to combine many styles together.
Astaire was well known for his trademark characteristics as a dancer, these were shown in most of his work. His routines were rich with elegance and grace and unprecedented originality. His rhythmic precision and technical accuracy were extraordinary and he was known to recreate a routine with pinpoint accuracy weeks later.By 1930, Astaire’s skills in staging and choreography were eventually recognised in the Broadway community and led to his first encounter with Ginger Rogers. Astaire was finally paired with someone other than his sister, allowing him to gain experience with other personalities and from this, he was able to take these influences and further hone his own style.
Acknowledging that whilst Rogers was not an amazing tap dancer Astaire attributed a lot of his success to their partnership, together they captured audiences’ imagination throughout the Depression.In his second film appearance, ‘Flying down to Rio’, Astaire was cast as the comic supporting male and paired with Ginger Rogers, his old friend from Broadway. This pairing of Rogers with Astaire is often said to be one of the most significant partnerships in the history of dance. The partnership seemed to work on all levels: be it their romantic and emotional compatibility, their sense of humour and seemingly unlimited energy reserves.The other big partnership that helped to form Astaire’s dancing style was the partnership between himself and Hermes Pan. During filming, Astaire met Hermes Pan, who was an assistant dance director and choreographer.
During rehearsals, Astaire asked for advice on a particularly difficult piece of choreography. Pan suggested a ‘tap break’ that he thought might be suitable, and so one of Astaire’s most important collaborations was born. Astaire came to rely on Pan as his ‘ideas man’. Astaire not only valued Pan as a source and analyst for ideas; he also worked very closely together with Pan as a rehearsal partner and for purposes of fine tuning the dance routines. Pan already knew Rogers and her strengths and limitations and thus became an integral part of Astaire’s rehearsal team.
Astaire’s perfection and rehearsal habits have been said to be too stressful for many to cope with, yet Pan stood by Astaire in all rehearsals, stepping in for Rogers and even did her tap dancing off stage, which was added in post-production.While music and songs were known to be recorded before filming, Astaire’s tap dancing was also dubbed. Although Astaire was an accomplished performer, he was a perfectionist. He ‘over-dubbed’ his taps, recording his tap dancing live as he danced to previously recorded taps. This way, his tap dancing was flawless and the steps seen always matched up to the sounds heard.By 1934, Astaire began to gain control of choreography, allowing him to gradually change the general practise of tap dancing, giving him a chance to influence the genre.
Astaire’s style began to change as he was ageing. His style was more relaxed in the body and his footwork was no longer as intricate, taking more from the ballroom style. However, in the solo ‘One for My Baby’ from ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ (1943) Astaire danced as a drunk in a bar and used an element of jazz improvisation; instead of using a musical instrument to improvise with, he used his feet. His usual qualities used in his tap had dissolved, with Astaire instead exploring the possibility of making noise with his taps.Leaping on to the bar, Astaire tapped furiously to a blues rhythm slamming his taps up and down the bar.
Continuing this hard-driving tap dance on the floor, Astaire smashed glasses and kicked tables, venting his anger in different ways. While the solo is inspired by destructive anger, it transforms violence into grace and restores Astaire’s balance.This number shows how Astaire was an innovator and was not afraid of showing a different side of his character to the audience, breaking away from society’s perception of his elegant and graceful character.Astaire wove dancing into the plot so that it was not just incidental, but integral to it. Astaire said “Either the camera will dance, or I will.
” (Mueller, J, 1985, page 26)Busby Berkeley was a well known producer of musicals of that time and in the filming of his musicals, he moved the camera around a lot. He became known for dance routines filled with cutaways to different areas of the stage, zooming into individual areas of the body such as the legs or face and quick takes. Astaire strove to change film practice so that he could be seen in full shot on screen. Pan and Astaire worked together on a film remake of the hit show “Gay Divorce”, entitled “The Gay Divorcee” in 1934. Together they established standards for both the content and camerawork of a whole new genre of film. They wove dance numbers into the plot and fine-tuned them for the camera.
Astaire also insisted that his full figure was always in the camera shot, so that the audience would get a better appreciation of the dance sequences.Astaire used few special effects as he felt this brought the audience further away from the theatre, however in ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ he used process photography to allow the effect of dancing with and against three shadows of himself.There were also very few cuts, to different points of view. As seen in ‘Swing Time’ the camera is on a crane to follow Astaire and Rogers up a flight of stairs from a lower dance floor to a higher one. This is the first time Astaire used this, as it would not have been as equally effective in the theatre.These are some of the ways that Astaire influenced tap as a performer he also influenced other performers such as Gene Kelly.
The fact that Kelly drew on Astaire’s dancing style and deliberately strove to ensure that his own dancing style was different to Astaire’s, shows that Astaire was paramount to the evolution of tap. Astaire has become a part of the history of tap due to the fact that he influenced other performers who have further shaped tap into the dance form that we know today. “Because the silver screen made Astaire automatically the most widely seen dancer in history, he unquestionably inspired more dance careers than can ever be accurately tallied.” (Kriegsman, A, 1987, page D1)