Don't Get Shot In The Face, Bro - Dance History, Technique, Opinion
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
On Facebook, the Tap Dance Community page is pure hedonistic joy. You can learn about upcoming tap dance festivals and workshops, check out a new video that someone has posted and have hundreds of strangers tear you a new asshole because you called a paradiddle a paddle and roll, or said you think Fred Astaire is the best tap dancer, or something like that.
Recently, we learned the answer to a great tap dance debate: what differentiates a stamp from a stomp. The answer? No one fucking knows. 50% of the people argued one way and 50% argued the other. It went a little something like this:
Person A - "A stamp has weight cause it's like you step on a bug and squish him real good."
Person B - "Wrong. A stamp has no weight because it's like an old-timey rubber stamp like what you use for the postage mails."
Person C - "Anybody have any sexy nerve tap footage to share?"
Person A & B - "The fuck?"
It was amazing. Nobody agreed on anything and much fun was had. By me.
From that thread, I hope that everyone learned the same lesson that I did, which is that tap step names vary from person to person and region by region. And that's okay. Tap dance wasn't codified en masse until the mid 1920's following the popularity of the Ziegfeld Follies and other such revues. The codification was led by choreographer Ned Wayburn, whose pupils include Fred Astaire, and was further codified and made into a popular syllabi and recorded tutorials by Al Gilbert in the 1970s. I actually grew up learning to the compact Al Gilbert 45rpm records. Weird by today's standards, and I would never teach to a recording of someone else, but it's a true tap trend I'm glad to have had that experience.
Before Wayburn and Ziegfeld, it was dancing by black people who weren't taught (read: allowed) to read or write, so steps were passed down by "word of foot" from dancer to dancer. Produce as many "How To" books, tapes or YouTube videos as you want, but the practice of learning regionally and in person from teacher to student is so ingrained that we can't even agree on Stamps and Stomps. And I'm fine with that. Romantic, even, in a literary sense.
What I am not fine with is how one step in particular is performed nowadays, In The Trenches. I've written about them before and you can find that article here, but I'm writing today less to discuss the history and more to air my grievances.
Because you're doing them wrong.
If you don't care to read my other article, here is the synopsis: Toots Davis was a very popular performer in the early 1900s and was part of a show called the Darktown Follies, where he is credited with creating the popular tap step In The Trenches. Great. Awesome. The more you know. But my discrepancy with the Trenches I see today and why I hate them stem from what inspired Davis to create these steps in the first place. In typical 'Merican fashion, it's all about supporting our troops!
What was a popular dinner table topic of the time? Why, World War I, of course. The War To End All Wars (not really) waged from 1914 - 1918 and was known for a new style of warfare called trench warfare, where soldiers would avoid gun and mortar fire by keeping their heads down below a large open air tunnel, called a trench, and would jump over the trench line to attack the opposing forces.
World War I coincided with The Darktown Follies, which premiered one year earlier in 1913, and served as the inspiration for Toots Davis' legendary step. But did you read that right? "Head down...over the top..." Sound familiar?
If that's the case, then how do you explain this? (Skip to 3:05)
And they're supposed to be military men!
And this? (Skip to 6:40)
At least they say "Pick your knees up," which is good technique.
And THIS!! (Skip to 0:46)
Good thing dancing on stairs is not already established tap dance canon.
AND THIIIIIISSSSSS!!!!!!!! (Skip to 3:40)
I think Squidward should stick to Dunham technique.
NO MORE! Just, no more.
I get that there is a Broadway style of tap dance and I... accept it. Art can branch off, to each their own, whatever. But this In The Trenches step, I just can't get over it. Why are their heads up? "Well, Tristan," you might say, "it's just a different style of..." *SLAP* "Shut up, you," I say and wind up for another devastating strike. It's in the name of the step. You are In. The. Trenches. What happens to someone in the trenches who doesn't keep their head down? They get shot in face, that's what. Argue different styles all you like, but Broadway trenches will get you shot in the face, figuratively speaking. My advice? "Try not to get shot in the face, bro!"
I can't ignore it. At one of the early Chicago Tap Summit festivals produced by Chicago tap super group, M.A.D.D. RHYTHMS, the late, great Dr. Robert L. Reed once regaled us with stories of the old (then young) hoofers learning how to do trenches by doing them underneath a table. "If you didn't keep your head down you would hit it on the table, so you learned pretty quick," said Dr. Reed as he pressed the knob of his elbow painfully into my 4th vertebrate as I did trenches to simulate this experience.
You want good trenches? Try these on for size. (Skip to 1:33 or watch the whole thing!)
And another one. (Skip to 2:10, if you hate being entertained, that is.)
AND ANOTHER ONE! (Skip to 2:45, but you'll be missing out.)
And that's historically accurate choreography taught Dr. Harold Cromer. Are you calling The Captain a liar?
That last one is fairly recent, so it's not like the technique has been lost to history. Once I knew the origin of In The Trenches, I found it simply too difficult to ignore the history to perform them differently. And if you must perform them differently, call them something else, like Peek-A-Boos, or Looky Loos, or something equally terrible and kitschy. Every time I see these simpler, easier to homogenize, white bread, upright trenches, I imagine Toots doing pirouettes in his grave. Ugh, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Tristan Bruns is a Chicago Hoofer, founding member of Chicago Human Rhythm Project's BAM!/Stone Soup Rhythms, professional company member of M.A.D.D. Rhythms and director of Tapman Productions.