A Genealogy of Dance

5… 6… 7… 8… 

The eight beat restarts, and the dancer begins to rhymically beat the floor, creating percussive rhythms out of the careful battering of toes and heels against the stage.  Their accent might be on the on-beat, they might stand on their toes or stay flat-footed, their knees might be higher, their toes might be pointed, they might jump from one foot to the other or just in place.  These cues, with the style of music, will eventually tell you the style of dance you are watching (if the dance program didn’t tell you first). At this point you’ll know whether you’re watching an Irish hard shoe jig, American clogging, or American rhythmic tap.

The latter two styles, uniquely American, are the meeting of multiple dance forms from all over the world.  American tap, developed into its current form in the 1920s with the addition of metal taps screwed into the ball and heel of shoes, is the daughter of Irish jig and West African gioube, or stepping dances.  This style in particular is marked by flashy, fast movements and intricate and intense rhythmic sounds set to jazz or pop music.  

An example of American tap of an intermediate to difficult level. Notice the preponderance of the very top of the shoe (the toe) hitting the floor and how we stay on the balls of our feet the entire time. Notice we begin on the right foot. Also notice the music choice and the intricacy of the steps. I am the dancer on the right. Recorded July 2019 in Garner, North Carolina, USA. Choreographer: my tap dance teacher, Meredith Finch Hardy.

American clogging, also a daughter of Irish step dance and a much older sister to American tap, more closely resembles the original Irish folk jigs characterized by large groups of people dancing to universally understood patterns with the addition of simple steps (think square dancing or line dancing, but with rhythmic stomps).  The shoes resemble tap shoes, with metal plates screwed into the ball and heel, but with an additional plate loosely screwed on the top of the tap so that the shoe rattles when you shake it. This addition makes clogging sounds “scratchier” and less distinct from tap. More recently, clogging has adopted some intricacies of tap to form “power clogging.” These dances are most often set to bluegrass music, directly related to Irish folk music, but today’s dances are also set to pop and modern country music. 

An example of American clogging of easy to intermediate difficulty. The upper body should be stiffer, knees should be higher and arms should be tighter, but I was feeling lazy that day! Notice how flat-footed I am and how all steps begin on the left foot. Also notice the music style in the beginning of the routine. Finally, notice how the sound “clatters” from the two attached taps on the shoe. Recorded June 2019 in Garner, North Carolina, USA. Choreographer: my mom! (Donna Petherbridge)

I have practiced both of these dance styles (tap and clogging) since childhood, the two being easily matched with some technical differences.  Where tap is on the toes, clogging is flat-footed; in tap the energy is expended in the highly intricate rhythmic tapping, while in clogging the dancer must also strive to lift her knees to waist height after every step; tap begins with the onbeat on the right foot, where as clogging begins on the left. Despite these differences, these styles of dance are siblings, separated only by time and distance. I came to Ireland in part to learn about their parent, Irish dance. 

This pursuit has led to my development of a genealogy of these styles, with every Irish dance class becoming a lesson in linguistics. I have found where the tap, clogging and Irish dance styles are similar, such as the common use of the “shuffle step” in all three. In some instances, one style inherited a technique that the other abandoned; for example, tap takes the Irish jig tendency to remain on the balls of the feet whereas clogging is primarily practiced on flat feet.  Other times, a step is clearly found in one of the other; for instance, a “rock” in Irish dance, where you rock your ankles to the right and left, translated into clogging’s “broken ankle” step. In other cases, a technique is abandoned completely in tap and clogging, such as the Irish three step, where the dancer hops from one foot to another as if jumping over a small creek. 

A small example of very basic hard shoe Irish dance. Notice the stiff upper body and the combination of moves with and without sounds against the floor. I am the dancer farthest to the right. Recorded sometime Fall 2019 in Cork, Ireland.

Luckily, as tap and clogging are fairly easily interchangeable, I have found Irish hard shoe dance to be the same. The steps, though certainly foreign and in the context of a completely different style in culture, use the same skill sets I accumulated through my years of clogging and tap. The styles are different, and an untrained eye might be hard pressed to find any similarities at all, but to a practitioner, the steps are often a variation of what the body already has muscle memory for. This familiarity is analogous to my experience in Ireland in many ways; alien, yet surprisingly similar to home.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *