Tap dance is an American art form, born of the fusion of cultures on American soil. Influenced by African rhythms, Irish stepping and English clogging, it developed in the late 19th century and by the early 1900s was firmly established in the vaudeville of America and in the music halls of Britain. Its popularity spread even more widely in the 1930s when it became a significant component of musical films.
As a genre within the Society, tap dancing initially played a minor role. In the Stage Branch syllabus of the 1930s it was the third and sometimes optional component, along with the Musical Comedy and Acrobatic Divisions. However, the sound foundation established in these early years provided a secure basis for its future creative development and ensured its survival as a rich, rhythmical dance genre. The work grew into an independent Faculty which now offers one of the Society’s most successful and popular syllabi.
Zelia Raye (1900-1981) studied dance in the USA. Following the publication of her book Rational Limbering (1929) she was invited to form a Committee and create an examination syllabus. She founded the Stage Branch in 1931; it later became the Modern Stage Branch and eventually the Modern Theatre Faculty. The first Committee was announced in 1932 and examinations were held in 1933. Raye’s book American Tap Dancing was published in 1936. The survival of the Stage Branch owes its success to the tenacity and diligence of Miss Raye. Her life is well documented in Pam Eddleston’s book Zelia Raye and the development of Modern Theatre Dance (2002). Here Eddleston describes her as a dynamic and imaginative woman, far-reaching in her vision.’ The book also pays tribute to ‘the talented people who contributed and developed this vision with dedication and devotion’.
These ‘talented people’ were an extremely important part of the development of Tap Dance. Joan Davis, Janet Cram, Tom Parry, Doreen Austin, Victor Leopold and Marjorie Davies were among the first to collaborate with Miss Raye. With their artistic and creative ideas about tap dance, these pioneers contributed to the development of the Branch. Its continued success owes a great debt to the talents of those such as Moyra Gay, Daphne Peterson, Gwen Carter, Marianne Jepson and Patricia Crail.
In its infancy, the original graded syllabus for tap was technical and based on a simple vocabulary of steps. It grew slowly but steadily via the introduction of sequences at each level. In 1936 Tap Medal Tests were introduced.
Congress lectures provided inspirational ideas for additional syllabus material. The lecturers were drawn from the Committee, all of whom had a connection with theatre, and from members of the theatrical profession. One of the latter was Paul Draper, of theatre and movie fame. Another influence was Buddy Bradley, an American who had taught and choreographed for many of the famous tappers in the USA. He eventually settled in Britain in the 1950s. There remains a close link between current trends in theatre and films and the development of the syllabus.
In 1955 tap was declared to be only an optional section within the Stage Branch examinations. The decision coincided with the demise of tap in films and theatre which resulted in a difficult time for professional tap dancers.
In 1957 Zelia Raye received the Imperial Award. In the same year she resigned as Chairman and from 1957 to 1970 Marjorie Davies and Olive Ripman took the role jointly. A significant milestone occurred in 1970: tap would no longer be an optional extra at the end of the Stage Branch examination. A new syllabus was created which established tap dance as a separate examination though the separation through to Major and Status Examinations took many more years to achieve. Interestingly, however, the early compulsory link with modern dance and the Stage Branch impacted strongly on the style, line and movement of Society trained tap dancers. The new format for tap examinations occurred alongside the renaissance of tap in America.
Sheelagh Elliott Clarke became Chairman from 1970 to 1974. In the early 1970s, a newly structured Advanced Tap syllabus was choreographed by Daphne Peterson (Imperial Award 1984). Miss Peterson’s legacy to the Society is legendary in both tap and modern dance; her clever, uncluttered choreography has stood the test of time.
In 1974 Murielle Ashcroft (Imperial Award 1979) became Chairman of the Modern Theatre and Tap Branch. Passionate about the Society and particularly the Branch, hers was to be a momentous leadership during which time immense progress was made with the Tap Dance syllabus. New Senior Medal Tests were produced, choreographed by Gwen Carter and Moyra Gay in 1975.
In February 1977 the Marjorie Davies Star Tap Awards were launched. This popular award quickly became an important event in the Society's dance calendar. In 1978 Levels 1 and 2 of the Popular Tap Tests were introduced by Patricia Crail and Marianne Jepson and further levels followed in the ensuing years.
In 1985 Murielle Ashcroft appointed a small sub-committee to update the Grade and Major Tap syllabi. The team consisted of Gwen Carter, Patricia Ellis and Heather Rees (Imperial Award 2013). There was a completely new structure which provided a much more challenging and up-to-date approach to the genre. Daphne Peterson and Sheelagh Harbinson joined the team at Major level. When Murielle Ashcroft retired in 1998, Patricia Crail (Imperial Award 1993) took over as Chairman. Patricia was instrumental in developing the work overseas.
In 2002 the Tap Faculty became an independent and separate Faculty from Modern Theatre. It was formed under the chairmanship of Paddy Hurlings (Imperial Award 2005) with Deborah Capon as Vice chair. There were immediate developments to ensure the continuing success of the genre; for example, Tap Awards replaced the Tap Medals and a new Grade 6 was created.
From 2007 the grades syllabus was gradually updated by Alison Forrester and Tracey Lee with creative input from Committee Members Jason Di Mascio and Nick French. The new syllabi included more close-work and rhythm tap. Alison Forrester lived and studied Tap in America and brought back the inspiration to create a new graded syllabus with a stronger connection to the American Art Form and the Great Tap Masters: Gregory Hines, Diane Walker, Steve Condos, Sam Weber, Chloe Arnold, Henry Le Tang and Jason Samuels Smith to name only a few. In 2017 a revised Intermediate syllabus was introduced, developing the foundations that were mastered in the grades. The main collaborators for the revised Intermediate syllabus are Heather Rees and Alison Forrester with Amalgamations from Ruth Armstrong and Hannah Willcocks.
The inspiration for Heather Rees was Fred Astaire, whose films she watched as a young dancer. Her early training was in ‘American Tap’ (all tap is, of course, American). For over 40 years she has been studying with the current American Tap Masters in LA, Chicago, New York, Vancouver, Germany, etc. working with and influenced by such Tap Masters as Lynn Daly, artistic director of Jazz Tap Ensemble, Fred Strickler, Sam Weber, Mark Mendonca, Jim Taylor, Joy Hewitt, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Linda Sohl-Ellison, Lady Diane Walker, Lane Alexander, Eddie Brown, Ray Hesselink and Brenda Buffalino, to name just a few. The list is endless.
Worthy of note is the contrast between the minimal content of the syllabus of the 1930s compared to the rich vocabulary of steps some 80 years on but the principles are the same.