For this series, we reach out to a member of the department who has a very particular obsession and ask them to share it with the world. In this edition, Associate Professor Lauren Squires gets her groove on with tap dancing.
I am staring at the waveform created by a tap dance.
I have done this nearly every day for the past month. Checking to see if the timing of me and my fellow dancers is precise enough. Slowing the track down so I can hear the polyrhythms we’re trying to create but which are too fast to catch in real-time. Looking for the patterns of quick and slow beats (and silences) that will help me identify a section of the composition. Examining how the acoustic structure of a tap sound is or is not like that of a speech sound. Seeing if I can tell, from the resonant tail of a hit, whether it came from a toe tap, a heel tap, or a hand clap.
I am obsessed with tap dancing.
My parents put me in dance lessons when I was three or four. One of my favorite pictures is of me in my first recital, in a striped leotard and little black tap shoes. My arms are down with my hands flexed, and my right foot is mid-air, probably just about to do a shuffle, or just about to step down from finishing one. I am looking over to the side. The look has two functions: one, to see my teacher; two, to see what happened to the other child who was supposed to be dancing with me, but who had run off stage in fear.
I have never run off stage.
People often ask me why I love to tap dance so much—I guess because it seems like a weird thing for a grown woman to take so seriously. I think lots of folks think tap is just something “cute” that kids do, which ignores its status as an actual art form. There are plenty of grown people in the world doing grown tap dancing! (Here’s just one set that I like. OK OK, here’s another.) But anyway—why do I love it?
The first thing is, it’s just The Best. I think “obsessions” are things we inexplicably think are The Best. Obsessions need have no logic. So that’s what it is—it’s just The Best.
But I am an academic. I could write a second dissertation analyzing my love for tap dance. I have some thoughts.
To tap dance is to play music, except you don’t act upon an instrument—you move as an instrument. Tap dancers often say “my tap shoes are my instrument,” but that’s not quite right. My shoes are just the thing that turns my body into the particular instrument I want it to be.
My tap shoes are orange, but they are different from the last orange pair I had. These ones are suede, with pink-red detailing. They came from Spain and cost nearly $500. You are not misreading that. The ideology of “My shoes are my instrument” makes more sense now, right? How much is a professional violin?
Instrument-wise, a tap dancer (or her feet) resembles a stick moving over a drum, so the floor is as much my instrument as my shoes are, if not more. You can do something pretty darn close to tap dance with hard-sole shoes of any kind, and some people still use wooden taps instead of metal. A floor is non-negotiable, though.
Did you know there are exactly five dance rooms in the city of Columbus that have sprung wood floors and that allow tap dancers on them? And two of those are here in the Ohio Union. Most people nowadays dance on marley, a vinyl flooring that feels a little like what rubber would feel like if it were not sticky, if that isn’t an oxymoron (it is). Dance studios use it because it’s versatile, it’s affordable and upkeep is minimal. You can tap on marley. I will tap on marley. It’s better than concrete. But listen to tap on marley, then listen to tap on wood. You’ll hear the difference. (I bet the difference would show up in a spectrogram.) And dancers feel the difference. You can’t slide on marley.
You’ve probably seen that internet meme that goes, “I wonder if tap dancers walk into a room, look at the floor and think, ‘I’d tap that.’” Well, is the floor made of maple planks finished with tung oil, laid over plywood that rests on a basketweave subfloor? If the answer is yes, then the answer is yes. Otherwise, I am not using tap[dance] as a suggestive transitive verb in this way, no.
Tapdance is one of the “waltz verbs,” according to Beth Levin’s (1993) English Verb Classes and Alternations (class 51.5). Other such verbs are shuffle, clog, boogie, rumba and pirouette. These are clear intransitive verbs except in narrow, typically poetic (as in the meme) uses (they might take a locative complement, but there is certainly no direct object). This was on the homework assignment for my grammar class last week (English 4572: Traditional Grammar and Usage; you should take it).
I try to work tap into my English classes, but not in an overt “Wow, she’s obviously super obsessed with tap dance, that’s odd” way, but in a subtle, “Wait, is she really talking about tap dance? That’s interesting” way. Hence, tapdance as a verb on the homework assignment.
Tap and linguistics are a totally logical set of things for one person to be obsessed with. Tap is kind of the “mathy” dance form—lots of counting if you want to approach it that way, complicated rhythms that you can score out to thenth division of the beat, and clear right and wrong answers (you’re either hitting the right note or you’re not, and if you’re not, I’m mad at you). Likewise, linguistics is kind of the “mathy” way to approach language—formal notation, experimental procedures, logical systems. But dance/music and language are both fundamentally about human creativity. You can do all that analysis of the back-end, but you can also just play around and enjoy what you create. Use tapdance as a transitive verb and I’ll a) appreciate your creation, but also b) examine the hell out of it.
Two of my classes have had the pleasure (or punishment) of having me tap for them. I’ve tried to bribe my students into filling out their SEIs by offering to tap for them. It hasn’t worked. You be the judge.
Tap and language are also both simultaneously about community and individuality. When tap dancers get together to jam, they typically form a circle to improvise together (unless they’re jamming with other musicians, then you want to include the musicians in the “circle” so it may not actually be a “circle”). You pay attention to what other people are doing, because the goal is not really to do the most amazing thing you can do individually; it’s to create a groove or a melody that complements something somebody else did. We have different structures we often use to improvise within, and many of these are explicitly conversational: I call and you respond; I play three bars and you play the fourth; I play a step one way and you play it another; I play the groove, and you play the melody; I establish a timestep, and you lay down the break. That’s how the music is made. So that’s community, and it’s important in tap.
In language: a language is a system that is shared across a community; we learn the language of our community; we use different languages within our different communities; our language marks us as being from some communities and not others; etc.
And yet individuality lives in all of that. Barbara Johnstone wrote a book called The Linguistic Individual (1996), the title of which sort of says it all. Every speaker is a speaker of a language (or more than one), really a dialect (or more than one), but also an idiolect. I say mom like I’m from Michigan, and my sister says food like she’s from California. We’re both from Missouri. In English 3271: Structure of the English Language (you should take it), I have my students derive new words out of existing slang words. When asked to create a verb form from the adjective clutch, some of them like clutchify and some of them just like clutch. Language is shared, but also highly individualized.
Tap-wise: Watch Gregory Hines, then watch Michelle Dorrance, then watch Bril Barrett, then watch Ian Berg, then watch Heather Cornell, then watch Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, then watch… they’re all different, in sound and in style. And that individuality is also important in tap. My grooves come from a shared place, but they’re mine.
There is nothing like settling into a groove.
By Lauren Squires