Tap in China

 

Sam Weber Report

Early in 2011, Rusty Frank told me about her plans to go to China, to pay a visit to Jiefang Chen, a tap dancer who was using a number of our “Tapping With The Masters” instructional DVDs to teach his students.  Rusty wrote about her visit in the ITA newsletter after her return, in April, 2011.  

As I was teaching on a number of the DVDs, Jiefang asked Rusty to put him in touch with me.  I found him to be, as Rusty has described him, “China’s tap tiger.”  I’ve never met anyone more passionate about tap dancing or more determined to promote it than this robust and energetic septogenerian.  Over the course of nearly three months and 120 emails, we discussed his concerns about the development of tap in China.  Here are some of the main issues he sought to articulate:

 

1.  He wanted to clear up the confusion between Irish Step Dancing and tap dancing.  “Riverdance” had toured through the country and had been enthusiastically received.  While it may seem odd to us, many Chinese dancers and dance teachers were unclear on the historical and, especially, the musical differences between the two dance forms.  

2.  He wanted to establish a system of training in American tap, from the very beginning level through advanced professional, that could be promoted in Chinese dance schools and even in the public schools.  

Tap dance in the public schools!  That sounded unbelievable to me.  I couldn’t imagine our government establishing anything like that, even though tap dance is our art form.   But, incredible as it may sound, it is going to happen, under the auspices of the Chinese government!  And I’m honored to have been asked to help create the syllabus. 

There are around 1.3 billion people in China.  Imagine all of the children in the public schools receiving tap lessons!  

So, after our many emails, Jiefang came to San Francisco, and we met.  He’d come to San Diego, to visit his daughter and granddaughter, so it was easy to arrange a side trip.  We met at the home of a former student of his who helped to translate the more complicated ideas, and we planned for me to visit Beijing for a small tap festival, Oct.2-7, at one of Yan Lin’s schools. Yan Lin is a teacher I’d met at the Chicago Human Rhythm Project a few years before, who has one of the largest dance schools in China and is one of the biggest advocates for both tap and Irish dance. The classes for this festival were held in his newly opened school in Beijing.  The studios were spacious and beautiful, with excellent tap floors.  I was honored to be the first to teach there.  

Also teaching at the festival was another major proponent of American tap in China, Jiang Shaofeng, who’d also attended the Chicago festival several times.  He performed in the show, along with several of his advanced/pro students.  He’s obviously a practicing fanatic, and he’s passed that work ethic along.  

I taught three 90-minute classes each day and gave a 30-minute “tap talk” every afternoon.  The tap talk was a very important part of my trip because I was able to clear up a lot of the confusion about tap history and the place of Irish dance in it.  I talked a lot about the relationship of tap to jazz music, giving lots of examples and demonstrating, and I emphasized that the music was a major point of distinction between tap and Irish.  By the third tap talk, the students had lots of questions.  Because few students spoke English, I was helped in the talks and in the classes by Jiefang and by Qu Ling, a tap dancer who does the Chinese translations for Steve Zee’s tap lessons online.  

The meeting of the International Tap Dance Association of China was held at Yan Lin’s school, and I appointed “Arts Advisor” to the ITDAC, another honor.  

The performance was held in Yan Lin’s biggest studio, which is very big, indeed!  There was a jazz trio, sax, guitar, electric bass and drums.   Tap and Irish dance were equally represented.  The Irish numbers were powerful group spectacles, elaborately costumed, featuring precise unison dancing to recorded music.  The tap numbers were much more casual with music ranging from swing and bebop to Latin.  

On the day before my return, I got to do some sightseeing with Jiefang, Yan Lin, Jiang Shaofeng and Qu Ling.  We went to the “Temple of Heaven,” a huge complex that reminded me of the Forbidden City, which I’d visited when I went to Beijing as a part of Lane Alexander’s Human Rhythm Project Christmas show in 2007.  I found out that the temple was constructed by the same emperor who’d built the Forbidden City, so the comparison was apt.  As majestic as the temple was, what made the most powerful impression on me was the walk through the park, described to me as “Beijing’s Central Park,” which surrounds the temple.  The park is alive with human energy, with different sections of the 660 acres devoted to different activities.  I knew about people gathering in Chinese parks to practice Tai Chi Chuan, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg.  I found large groups doing calisthenics on ingeniously designed (and inexpensive) equipment, disco dancing, ballroom dancing, Mongolian folk dancing, Peking opera with singers and musicians, tennis, badminton, ping pong, calligraphy done with water on the sidewalk (the water evaporates, and the calligraphers start again).  There were many other activities that I can’t even describe, and many if not most, of these active people were seniors, in incredibly good shape, strong, amazingly flexible and youthful.  I don’t remember seeing anyone just sitting.  I didn’t even see many benches.  Jiefang said, “and maybe someday there will be tap dancing in the park.”  I’m sure there will be!  

After my visit to the Temple, I was taken shopping by three lovely young ladies from my classes, Wong Dan, Chen Zhi Wen and Du Xia Ke.  Apparently, it’s best to go shopping with young people because they can tell when prices are too high (as they usually are, for the tourists).  And My three helpers certainly could drive a hard bargain!  I’m not much of a shopper, but I got a great deal on some cashmere sweaters for my daughter.  

In all, it was an amazing trip.  I saw great improvement in the students’ tap-dancing in the short time I was in Beijing.  All of them were very serious about practicing and had many questions for me about how to continue training and learning about music after I was gone.  The design of the syllabus will be underway soon.   What is happening in China is so wonderfully exciting for our art form.  Wouldn’t you love to see our government undertake a “cultural revolution” of this kind?  

 

Report from China 3/2015

What is key to the healthy development of Tap Dance in China? / Discussion: Is Irish Step Dancing also Tap Dance?

ITA C.R.  Chen  Jiefang(Shanghai), Jiang Shaofeng (Beijing)

Jiang Kewei (Ying kou), Fan Lin (Si chuan), Li Lin (Haerbin)

Zhang Hua (Xi An)Lu Kaiyue (Shanghai).

2015.03.

American Tap Dance has spread over a large area in China, introduced by Taiwanese dancers who also introduced it in Shanghai, inspired by American films, such as Gene Kelly’s “Singing In The Rain” and the films of Shirley Temple.  At the beginning of the 2000’s, class sizes ranged from tens to hundred of students. The sensational Irish Step Dancing show "Riverdance" had a powerful effect resulting from the 2004 show in Beijing, and Irish Dance began to spread widely. Because our media called it ’Irish Tap Dance,’ Tap Dance took the country by a storm. People fell over each other to join classes, to perform at competitions, to be teachers, and they established various Tap Dance grading systems” etc. It was a thriving scene.

But the good times didn’t last long. After only a little more than ten years, the popularity waned. At this point, in the Shanghai Tap Dance classes, student enrollments are scanty, so that teachers of American Tap Dance have to change  in  order to survive.  It seems that only teachers who teach the ’Irish Tap Dance’ can survive, although it is a struggle.  And what’s happening in Beijing? The Chinese center of tap had once created a "national 8000 person ’Tap Dance,” recorded in the Guinness Book Of Records. But in Beijing’s Tiantan Park today, we cannot find the slightest shadow of tap! Why would that be? What are the causes behind this phenomenon?

To answer this question, we studied American Tap Dance history and asked many USA masters in order to get the best information. We plan to explain this to our people in our forthcoming new book, "Specification Tap Dance Foundation Tutorial.” This plan has gained support from some USA masters such as the Director of the ITA Acia Gray and master Rusty Frank they provided important information for us; Master Sam Weber wrote some ideas for us and serves as our adviser personally and Master Steve Zee wrote a special preface for us.

What USA masters have to say:

Acia Gray: “Tap Dance and Irish Step Dance are two very distinct dance forms.  The musicality base is very different:  Tap to the traditions of jazz and Irish Step Dance to Irish Folk Music. Both can be modernized or changed of course, but they are distinctively different. Of the two, only Tap Dance is an American national dance.  Tap Dance has some technical ties to Irish Step Dance but they are not the same.”

Rusty Frank: “Here in America, it is always referred to as Irish Step Dancing.  I have never once heard it called Irish Tap Dancing.  The term "Tap Dance" is ALWAYS in reference to American Tap Dance and never to Irish Step Dancing.

Sam Weber: “If people choose American Tap Dance, this is a musical choice. American Tap Dance has a diverse rhythmic foundation and may be combined with many different kinds of music. It’s closely associated with jazz music, which is multifaceted. If people choose Irish Dance, that’s fine, but from the musical standpoint, the variety is usually quite limited, and this tends to make the dance limited and repetitive as well.  

In Germany many schools chose American Tap Dance at first and the development was very good. Later, during the “Riverdance” craze, Irish Step Dance became very popular, and many people wanted to take Irish dance. But because they weren’t clear on the difference, they often went to tap classes and stayed.  So for a while the enrollment in both dance forms grew. Then, with the waning popularity of Irish dance, both dance forms declined together.”

Steve Zee: "Tap Dance history is a microcosm of American history. "Riverdance" is a kind of Modern Irish Step Dance. Irish dance is an important element of Tap Dance but it is not Tap Dance. The Irish people have their own culture and history and are proud of their Irish Step Dance, they want to promote the culture of Ireland, and they have never called their own dance Tap Dance.”

In order to hear the other side, we also studied the history of Irish Dance. Yes, Irish dance is really the cultural quintessence of Ireland, the pride of the Irish Nation. But we can't see any trace of Tap Dance or the influence of any American Tap Masters there.

In addition, we also listened to the Irish dancers who came to China to perform with support from the Irish consulate. They said: "We think that what the Chinese now popularize as “Irish Tap Dance” is not the same as our Irish Dance. Whether judged from the basic dance and adapted music, the instruments used or even the shoes, props, costumes etc., nothing is the same.  Thus we can't accept your dancing as Irish Dancing."

In addition, we have to establish the historical basis that will guide us in promoting the healthy development of Tap Dance in China.  We have two main topics:

1. Explore how Tap Dance had been perceived: the extended meaning of  “tap”:

From the birth of Tap Dance to it’s circulation around the world, people have come to know that Tap Dance is an American dance form, that “Tap Dance” is clearly the professional name. However, because the English word “tap” itself also refers to the metal plates on the toes and heels of the shoes, some countries’ media take for granted that all who wear such percussive shoes are  “tap” dancers, thus extending the meaning of the term. Especially since the end of the 20th Century when the Irish "Riverdance" was so popular in the world, this naming phenomenon has been more widespread. Even the Spanish Flamenco dance and Indian Tajik dance have been termed “tap” dances.  Chinese media even put the Tibetan dance, Xinjiang dance, Mongolian dance, and so on, into the tap category. Thus the so-called “XX country,” "XX type,” "XX sect" 'Tap Dance' exists everywhere in China. The true, specifically American Tap Dance has fallen victim to the extended meaning  (or altered meanings, as in the various British and Chinese graded ‘tap’ systems).  The spread of this altered perception of tap seems to be inexorable, but history moves dispassionately, and the truth cannot be hidden forever. Practice will prove that this misunderstanding of the true nature of Tap Dance is an unfortunate episode in world dance history.  And it will surely be corrected!

2. Recognize that the essence of Tap Dance has important practical significance for China:

Because our country is on the rapid economic rise to national rejuvenation, in order to realize the "China Dream" of the times, foreign dance forms should be invited into China. The profound significance of dance may help our country to improve our comprehensive quality and rejuvenate our ancient nation.  This is something for our country’s media and literature, educators and even government departments to delve into and support. Arts such as Tap Dance, are a kind of modern rhythm for the soul, which encourage improvisation and creativity and which can be danced from childhood to old age.  It also can help to enhance the quality of our national music, creative thinking ability and comprehensive quality of the body and mind for life. So it is a positive energy art for us. But it has declined, as described at the beginning of this paper. Why would that be? What are the causes behind this phenomenon? 

CONCLUSION: We ITA members and Tap Dance lovers in China who come from dance, music, education and research fields, feel a responsibility to do the hard work of research and to tell the result to our people emphatically.

 

1. We must recognize that Tap Dance is one of the most important foreign dances for us.  As a modern “rhythm for the soul,” it can stimulate the creative interconnection of mind and body. Only with these qualities of the dance is it possible to get long-term development in the modern China.

2. We must recognize the Irish dance history and the characteristics inherent to it. It is also excellent, but it is not Tap Dance and still does not consistently incorporate modern rhythm. So Tap Dance and Irish dance are two different categories of dance and represent the quintessence of two different cultures. Because of a categorical error, they have been confused in China, and so neither can develop well.  The inevitable result must be to undermine the musical foundations of both dances.

 

Now that we have presented our views, we would like to humbly listen to the views of all sides, so that we can inform our people correctly. Of course, understanding the problem is not our primary goal. The goal is to solve the problem.  Therefore, the next step will be to study and explore Tap Dance pedagogy to discover what and how to relate to the issues in Chinese dance. This may be elaborated in future articles.

In short, everything we strive to do cannot be done without the influence, help and support of the American Tap Dance Masters and the influence of their predecessors. We hope that Tap Dance can truly strengthen Sino/US cultural exchanges, enhance friendship between the two peoples and foster harmony between our two countries through the positive energy of the fine arts!

—— Thank you!——

 

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