“Black women are the mules of the Earth” proclaims Zora Neale Hurston in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Antagonist Janie’s marital struggles portray the burdens laid upon black women and the psychological toll they face when they are seen as property rather than for their humanity. More recently, they have started movements--Alicia Graff (Black Lives Matter) and Tarana Burke (#MeToo), for example-- but are still refused acknowledgement among a multitude of communities as the catalyst for systemic change in society. Black women shouldn’t have to advocate for the flowers they planted when we can all see the garden.
These trailblazers often become locked out of the very rooms they built and furnished. When did their bodies become capital and their artistry communal, even as their legacy was repudiated? As the matriarch of the household, foundation for the community, and the vital antagonist in any movement for the arts, they remain steadfast in their pursuit for equality. In dance, they have been grossly mistreated, their mental, physical, and emotional well-being jeopardized for money, ownership, and possession in all facets of the industry. Gatekeepers seem to lose their integrity and accountability when it is vital to defend black women. It is time they do not fight these injustices alone.
Within the realm of tap dance, admired by many but deeply researched by few, black women have built, surged, and upheld the deep roots that reach back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Robbed of their drums by their white masters who feared uprisings, African slaves were forced to use their feet to communicate. To foil this attempt to poach their rhythmic voices, these slaves created the first American-born dance form, sustaining an entire people against an attempt at complete erasure. After the abolition of slavery but prior to the praise of silver screen darlings like Dorothy Dandrige, women were predominantly chorus girls seen only behind the solo acts of white and black men. Before societal gender roles began to shift, black women began to create their own path through the lineage of the founding fathers of tap dance: William Henry Lane (Master Juba) during the height of white minstrel acts in the mid-1800s, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson during early 19th-century vaudeville. Along with these two examples of the various forms of genius that developed the history of tap dance, Cora La Redd’s athleticism and sexual liberation--both of which were unheard of until this time--originated a new movement in which women were seen not only as equals, but as leaders, in tap dance. Unfortunately, LaRedd’s reputation has dwindled as tap dancers debate who sits amongst the pioneers of the art form.
The humbly Harlem-born singer and dancer received early Broadway recognition for her breakout role in Say When (1928), quickly ascended to multiple appearances all over the world, and in turn became one of the most noted female Cotton Club soloists of her time. La Redd’s trailblazing efforts merged “truckin,” a slouchy, shoulder-bouncing step used to portray child-like happiness, and tap dance, initiating the public appeal and reverence surrounding her talents. For her solo role in That’s the Spirit (1938), one of the greatest jazz-shorts of all time, she veered away from the soft, dainty feminine approach and used her supreme speed and swinging sensibility to entertain. Wearing hot pants and low-heeled Mary Jane shoes, La Redd’s muscular body executed complex melodies at an awe-inspiring speed, simultaneously challenging misogynistic views on feminine beauty and changing the way women approached the floor while dancing. However, her emergence still wasn’t enough to cement her reputation as a standout, even though she is looked to even today for inspiration by upcoming standouts around the globe.
Especially as an LGBTQ+ black man audacious in my approach to life and dance, I consider myself a direct beneficiary of La Redd’s liberation efforts. I often use her persistence in the face of prejudice to sustain me within my personal battles, in and out of my tap shoes. She reminds me of every matriarchal figure that embraces me with immeasurable love immediately after a scolding. Her legacy depicts a story that I know so well: she helps me prop up the black women in my own life.
As our master Bunny Briggs remembered her as being “really black” in the most “loveable” way, her excellence broke color barriers in the Jim Crow North. The silent revolution of LaRedd’s mere existence as a supremely gifted and sexually liberated black woman, unapologetic of her body shape and booming voice, set the foundation for our female masters of today: Diane Walker, Dormeshia, and Chloe Arnold, for example. As only one name in the vast pool of “forgotten black mothers of tap,” it remains imperative for the longevity of the artform that we both research and orally champion her greatness.
Along with this self study, tap dancers rely heavily on our living masters to illuminate our rich history. Seen as the strongest transitional link between the younger generation and the matriarchs of tap dance, Dianne Walker’s both demure and debonair onstage power do not encompass even a fragment of her breadth of knowledge. “Lady Di”, as we’ve come to revere her, continues her mentorship outside of her tap shoes. Critiquing without a thread of condemnation and cultivating unity with mere conversations, she finds herself as the cultural anchor to the greatest decades of tap dance. Thrust into rigorous training in her 30s, with a Broadway career spanning a decade, she is now educating students across the globe. Always the greatest advocate for the advancement of tap dance on a world stage, she keeps an entire community grounded in our roots and history through her selfless generosity.
Our country has long used the most egregious tactics to silence powerful Black female voices. When Lady Di freely discusses our black predecessors and promotes their accomplishments, it is an act of revolution that nourishes any tap dance admirer. She makes time to talk to us backstage or in the hotel lobby after shows, speaking intently, telling anecdotes that we write down and keep throughout our years. As recipients of this vast knowledge, our duty lies in reciprocation and manifestation: returning the gifts of your talent and creations to the ancestors in dance who made our careers feasible.
I implore you to research these and other women who danced, spoke, and fought in the face of trepidation for what we love. One of my favorite resources is Plenty of Good Women Dancers, which highlights Philadelphia African-American women who thrived during the golden age of swing and rhythm tap (1920s-1950s) but remained uncredited for their achievements.
I consider myself an informed tap dancer, but immersing oneself in this form takes a lifetime of work. The groundbreaking voices that only posthumously receive proper recognition deserve to be acknowledged as the giants that they are regardless of gender, sexual identity, or creed. Black women have been at the forefront of all areas and issues, shaping and influencing the world at their feet. Our job is to change society’s position for the Black woman from token to staple in every arena.
Source: Hill, Constance Valis (2010). Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. USA: Oxford University Press