Levee dance is one of the first forms of dance to be associated with modern tap dance.
As Africans were brought to America as slaves, they brought their culture with them. Africans had a long tradition of beating out rhythms by stamping, slapping their body, and using drums and other instruments. As these people absorbed the culture around them, these basic dances acquired that taste.
As the slave trade spread across the South, there was a great creative rise as steps and ideas were shared or stolen from one person to another. These dances were stamped out with or without shoes on riverboats, barns, or a clear spot on the ground. This tradition of “stealing” steps would go on to be a trademark of tap dancing.
In the 1830’s, these dancers were picked up in minstrel shows. They were hired to play the “Negro ditties” of the time. The popularity of these dances can be observed in the fact that white men were hired to perform these numbers, which were then called the Shuffle Dance, while wearing “Blackface.”
Blackface was the practice of a white person using makeup (often burned cork) to darken their skin and spread the stereotype of the “dandified coon” and the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation." One of the most popular Blackface performers of this time was “Daddy” Thomas Rice with his Jim Crow act. His Jim Crow character proliferated such a negative caricatured portrayal of the uneducated black man that in the 1870’s the series of laws that enforced segregation were called "Jim Crow" Laws.
Minstrel shows would become more professional vaudeville shows. Vaudeville would take its cue from the original minstrel shows and helped spread the seeds of the original levee dancers. These seeds would grow and evolve into modern tap dance. From a racist stereotype in the 19th century, to the mark of high class in the 20th century, these seeds have come a long way in its nearly three century history.
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