Later in life, I became a percussionist, playing rhythm-focussed music and (small and big) percussion instruments. Even before this, I liked to dance to “rhythms” of music I liked: Reggae mainly, but also Latin American music, Funk, and African music. I even tried to dance – in some multi-genre-focussed clubs – to other genres like Blues, Rock, Jazz, Techno, Pop, even Country.
SKANKING AND ROCKSTEADY
My dancing was influenced by Reggae dancing, such as what is called “skanking”, and other Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dancehall dances that developed over time in the 1970s and 1980s in Jamaica. In Jamaica itself, I picked up the dance called “water pumpee”, nicely fitting most Reggae rhythms since the 1970s, while the original Rocksteady dance – characterized by a stationary grid – also appealed to me, perhaps especially because it was stationary. I felt no need to walk around, and considered it in busy places even impolite.. The Rocksteady dance made me instead move more my hips, shoulders, and torso, also arms. This fitted the Jamaican grooves (since Rocksteady) I liked so much.
An earlier Jamaican music genre, Ska, had a different dance. Since I liked Ska less, I also liked the accompanying dance less. Ska dancing – described as “Shake it, and Catch it again” - is less stationary and hip-centered, instead involving moving about and walking (so more leg and foot), and arm movements. It fitted the faster Ska rhythms.
The “Skanking” of later Reggae, mixes Rocksteady daces, with a few Ska, and other influences, and involves a “slow-running-like” motion, a bit less stationary than the Rocksteady dance.
I say all this, because it explains why I did not focus on the feet so much, when dancing. Not in my own dancing, where I tend to be stationary and focus on my middle body and hip and arm coordination. Semi-skanking. However, neither did I became very fascinated with “footwork” dances I encountered.
When I went to Cuba, I got a few “informal” Salsa dance lessons.
Though I liked Cuban music and percussion – more or less fell in love with it there - , the Salsa couple dance was a bit too rigid for my taste. Not so much "stiff": it is as much African as European in origin, with also hip and pelvis movements and other African dance principles (found e.g. in Rumba dances too)- especially in Cuban variants - but the feet lead, making it rigid. Even if Salsa music as such (a genre term coined in New York) is for over 70% based on (Afro-)Cuban music, and people dance on it in Cuba too. I danced however rather “a mi manera” (in my own way) and alone to it, I mostly told my Cuban friends, when we danced, just moving naturally to the rhythm. The Salsa dance that I did not really get into, involved footwork, and “counting” steps. I felt it distracted me, ironically, from the music, one was supposed to dance it to.
The Irish River dance dancers, I still found aesthetic and skilled, and I saw some engaging “tapping” in jazz and other genres.
So we come slowly and surely to the elephant in the room: the connection between the “feet dancing” and the music.. Feet responding to it, but also tapping as sound, becoming an (extra) percussion instrument. This I found a bit more interesting. The folk Zaouli dancers, among the Guro people in Ivory Coast, Africa, focusing on fast, rhythmic footwork on percussive music of mainly drums (with bells on the feet), while being masked, engaged me a lot. It had a magical, meditational appeal.
That was the first time I thought – I was by then already years playing percussion -: maybe I should explore more the relation between footwork and percussion and rhythm. Another percussive aspects, so to speak. After all: the (trap) drum kit has the “kick” bass drum, and I had “foot shakers” (as the Zaouli dancers used), and a hand drum that could be played while sat on, muting the tone with heels. Partly subconsciously – like other musicians – I also tapped along with my feet on rhythms and beats, a s a type of metronome.
In other words: my activities as musician involved sometimes using feet too.
EUROPEAN OR AFRICAN?
An interesting, related question is a cultural one. Is it perhaps an European characteristic, that focus on feet, footwork, and walking in dancing? In line, after all, with e.g. the marching bands. It is found in folk dances, some say, of European peoples, like some Celtic peoples, in Slavic dances, in ancient Rome and Italy, and Greece. Europeans apparently have to walk around when they dance.
Then there is the stereotype that hip, pelvic, and torso movements are originally African ways of dancing, not found so much in Europe (or Asia or elsewhere), where dances are “stiffer”. A stereotype that is partly true, if simplistic. Some European, Asian, or Amerindian dances involve – more often for women – hip or buttocks moving too, although much less common than in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is true, however, that African, particularly sub-Saharan African, culture has an own concept of dancing, that is more advanced and spiritual than elsewhere in the world. This was partly retained in the West among Afro-Americans. Crucially: it involves all body parts, also separately. Of course, there is a tight relationship with rhythms and music in Africa, and African music is more percussive than that of other continents. Focussed on the pelvis, hips, buttocks, and torso, but dependent on the music and its (spiritual) function, every body part can be emphasized, as is shown with the mentioned masked Zaouli dancers in Ivory Coast, and their rhythmic footwork.
European dances, in comparison, seem stiffer, with the body as a whole held stiffer, even if footwork patterns are followed. This is noticeable in dances like the Waltz, the contredanse, and other dances that also went to the Americas with colonization. African descendants in the Caribbean and elsewhere often gave an own, looser interpretation of these “stiffer” European dances.
Spanish Flamenco dance is also quite well-known, and has some of these “stiffer” aspects too, though it is a bit overemphasized. I know, after all, the difference between original, “pure”, folk Flamenco, and later stylized versions in academia, with other European influences.. These stylized versions made some Flamenco moves stiffer than they originally were. Spain, even South Spain where Flamenco is from, is of course still Europe, but original folk Flamenco dances was more loose and flexible in body and hip movements, certainly for European standards.
The same applies to some other Spanish folk dances like Jota, Fandango, or even Paso Doble, the latter also presented as one of those stiff “white man” dances, while it originally was looser. Here, Spain’s colonial past (colonialism was in essence connected with white supremacy and an European sense of cultural superiority) even made it rewrite its own history, instead of rewriting other people’s history, as Europeans also have done.
Not all Spaniards liked the French philosopher Voltaire’s famous statement “Behind the Pyrenees begins Africa..”, he made once, for the same reason. Voltaire meant this both culturally and economically in the time of writing. In some senses, it might be a bit true.
Yet, also dances in other parts of Europe than Spain (parts of the Balkan, Italy, some Celtic dances) were a bit looser and more hip-focussed than one would assume of European folk dances.
MUSIC AND DANCE
There is, despite these nuances, one overwhelming truth, though, as also concluded by scholar Robert Farris Thomson in his book 'Aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music' (2011), regarding the difference between African and European dancing. Namely: that in European culture musicians play together (harmony, unison, chords), but that music and dance are separate. In African culture, on the other hand, musicians play apart (cross-rhythms, counter-rhythms, own patterns), but dance and music are on the other hand intertwined. A deep cultural and musical difference, explaining also the differences in dancing, broadly speaking, between Europe and Africa.
Pure anatomy: the feet carry your whole body, and Western (harmonic) music perhaps require solid, singular body movements: bodies as united and solid as the music piece, as exemplified by the waltz dance moves. No attention or need for separate body part movements, not even the hip or arms.
In that sense, tap dancing shows its (partly) African origin. Some describe it as a mixture of African and Irish traditions, which is an interesting mix, although first troubled by its early appearance in the racist Minstrel shows, stereotyping tap dancing. Despite this, there are actual foot/leg dance traditions among African Americans, and the jig tradition among Irish Americans.
Somewhere in-between these “tap/footwork” dance traditions, or perhaps besides them, is the use of feet and tapping in Spanish Flamenco music, known as “Zapateo”, or also “zapateado”. Both terms describe subgenres, or rather “techniques”, within Flamenco music, being both percussive and dance, and derive from the Spanish word for “shoe”.
Many historians assume a Gipsy origin of zapate(ad)o, i.e. brought by the Roma migrants into Spain, historically present especially since the 16th c. Flamenco music is not of Gipsy/Roma origin as such – a common misconception -, rather mixed-Andalusian/South Spanish, though without a doubt Spain’s, especially South-Spain’s/Andalusian, Gipsy population influenced Flamenco’s development strongly over time. Some claim they added thus the zapateo dancing.
How does this Zapateo relate to the mentioned anthropological differences between dancing and music in Europe, Africa and elsewhere? I guess Andalusia is of course at the brink of Europe, being geographically closer to Africa than any other part of Europe: the Strait of Gibraltar is at its smallest about 14 km wide. Andalusia and more Southern parts of Spain have of course a Moorish past (North African/Islamic) rule, so already for these reasons Flamenco can hardly be seen as prototypically White or European.
Due to colonialism – and its associated Euro/White supremacy ideas - spread to Latin America, Spain got in several Latin American countries the image of “White Europe”, as the benchmark of it. Notwithstanding the even whiter, and more Northern Britons, Germans, or Dutch.
The long reign of Catholicism, mixed with militarism, and later even fascism, in Spain, enforced that distorted image of Spain as THE European nation. Voltaire’s comment: “behind the Pyrenees begins Africa” is no less true or exaggerated. Spain simply received several influences, especially Mediterranean ones, including from the African side. The known percussion instrument the “castanets”, have been known in Spain from before the Romans, and probably have a Phoenician or Egyptian genealogy.
Moreover, some African influences returned to Spain, as also related in the mentioned book of Farris Thompson, because of Spain’s colonialism, from Afro-Cuban music for instance. This would later also help shape forms of Flamenco rhythmically, notably the Tangos or Rumba subforms of Flamenco, and in the Sevillana folk genre in Sevilla.
Yet, apart from such theoretical frameworks: how is that Zapate(ad)o in practice? How does it come across? As stereotypically “stiff European”? More African than one would expect, perhaps?
I am somewhere in between, having seen Zapateo: on media, but also live a few times, even of the “authentic Flamenco” kind: I mainly see and sense a link with Jazz. Tapping is also connected to Jazz, quite similar to how Zapateo is connected to Flamenco. The taps in both cultural contexts serve to “instruct” or “lead” the musical response, in the case of Flamenco often of the Spanish guitar and other instruments. However, the Ivory Coast Zaouli dance has the same principle.
The sound with the shoes in Zapate(ad)o are varied – not unlike the castanets -, including taps, but also semi-rattle, or “sliding” sounds. These become than another percussion instrument in a rhythmic and musical improvisation, as in Jazz. Let’s just call it “free” and “creative” instead of Black or White, or European or African.
Either way, along with the Zaouli dancing among the Guro in Ivory Coast, it increased my interest in the relationship between “tapping” and foot movements and percussion.