Network Session: Tap dance and Popular culture

Wednesday 2 June 2021

In this session we discussed academic approaches of studying popular culture, how popular culture is approached in dance scholarship, and where tap dance fits into these topics. We started off the session with these questions to consider:

  • How is tap dance portrayed in popular culture in the late 20th and 21st centuries?
  • What makes something part of popular culture and who decides that? 
  • How can we engage in the discourse of popular culture and dance, e.g., within the jazz dance continuum or trends such as TikTok?
  • What are opportunities, challenges, impacts of thinking about tap dance from the perspective of popular culture?
  • How does considering tap dance as part of popular culture affect the way we tap dance, educate, create, function commercially?

Sally Crawford-Shepherd shared definitions of popular culture, such as how it is a collection of artefacts like films, music albums, and television programmes. However, popular culture often has different definitions due to individual cultures, groups, or societies having shifting values of what they perceive to be popular. She shared how popular culture is approached in academia through frameworks and theories such as The Frankfurt School, Feminist Theory, Marxism, Mass Culture studies, Mass Media, and Popular Music. 

The discussion also covered how popular culture is approached in Dance Studies, and how the terms ‘social dance’, ‘vernacular dance’, and ‘popular dance’ are often used interchangeably. She shared Sherril Dodds’ work on popular dance studies, referencing how ‘[a] burgeoning interest in popular dance came to the fore in the 2001 winter edition of Dance Research Journal, which was devoted to ‘social and popular dance’. That an entire issue centred on dance practices situated outside the hallowed ground of the theatre dance canon indicated a nascent shift in dance studies towards an increasingly relativist position’ (Dodds 2011, 45). She included references for the group to explore (listed below) and another dance research group Pop Moves ( that shares and develops resources on popular dance research.

The discussion among the group included:

  • Factors that performers and artists need to negotiate when working in the domain of popular culture. The group discussed examples where artists balance the integrity of the work and its connection to history and culture, with commercial factors which are also often needed to ensure the longevity of careers and success of the art form. We discussed the importance of key tap dance role models that exist in the domain of popular culture and the positive influences that individuals can exert when popularity is achieved with integrity.
  • The role of social media and online phenomenons such as TikTok and YouTube in creating a greater presence for tap dance as popular culture. We discussed examples of tap dancers that have been successful in engaging with this and the affect it has had upon their profile and careers.
  • The group discussed the numerous ways in which a practice such as tap dance can shift as it moves from being a practice within a specific community to a ‘popular’ form. This process involves not only artists and performers, but also producers, directors etc.
  • The ways in which popular culture generates opportunities that are important to the continued success of a dance form. In this way, pop culture is relevant in terms of providing access to ‘gate keepers’ in the performing arts sector and industry.


An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture by Dominic Strinati

Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction by John Storey

Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture 1890-1930 by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance by Sherril Dodds

Bodies of Sounds: Studies Across Popular Music and Dance by Sherril Dodds and Susan C. Cook

Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader Edited by Julie Malnig 

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Competition Edited by Sherril Dodds

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen Edited by Melissa Blanco Borelli

‘Tap Dance Knowledges’ A Panel

We are thrilled to be presenting a Panel at the Modes of Capture Symposium held by the Irish World Academy, University of Limerick, Liz Roche Company & Dublin Dance Festival. This year’s symposium explores the theme of decolonising structures, thinking and embodiment within current modes of dancemaking and documentation.

‘Tap Dance Knowldges’ is a panel exploring the concepts of legacy, tradition, innovation and authenticity within today’s global tap scene. 

This paper/practice sharing discusses tap improvisation practices as knowledges in teaching, creative process and performance. We explore the concepts of legacy, tradition, innovation and authenticity, as well as reflecting on the rich and diverse global tap scene of today. An important part of skill acquisition, transmission and dissemination of information about the art form is from preservation of twentieth century American tap performance repertoire and understanding of improvisation practices from jazz music. Applying a historical framework reveals how this initiated with the performances of American tap dancers being celebrated and presented as a form of legacy. Our questions are: How and where are these knowledges held? What role does legacy have in evolving performing knowledges? How do we acknowledge the history and legacy of American tap dancers and produce new knowledges in the twenty first century?

Furthermore, we explore the under-representation of tap dance in UK Higher Education, in teaching and research. We advocate for rethinking curricula and decolonization of tap dance as a form created through African American cultural practices. The UK has a particular context within which tap dance sits, linked to the US, Ireland and other communities. We seek ways to highlight cross-disciplinary connections and evolving interpretations of tap dance legacies, different methods of practice and performance that may evoke new knowledges, the importance of communities of practitioners in disseminating information, performer identities and embodying new knowledges.