Tap dance is an odd step child in the art world.
While other art forms get Madison Square, tap dance gets a few burned out jazz clubs.
While musicians and actors get pop bands and blockbusters, tap dance gets invited to be in a commercial every couple of years. Or if it’s having a really good year, it might get invited to perform at the Superbowl. One year it even got to perform at the Olympics.
Funny thing is, when you stack tap dancing up against other art forms, tap dance is pretty remarkable.
In fact I dare say that tap dance has running through it one of the most revolutionary ideas in the history of the world.
Seriously. Not an ounce of hyperbole there. Tap dancing is a product of revolutionary ideas.
I’ll get back to that more in a moment. For now, let’s take a quick look at a few histories. Then we’ll talk more about how revolutionary tap dance really is.
Tap dance & other forms of art
Tap dance has no trademarks. No copyrights. No patented dance moves or combinations.
This isn’t like music or film or theatre or writing where the guy who made it has a right to maintain ownership. Even in the dance world, choreographers often trademark their works. It’s an idea that would be laughable in the tap dance world. Happens a lot in other forms of dance though.
It is illegal, for instance, to perform any of Balanchine’s ballets without written permission. And in getting that, you’re gonna have to pay royalties to the Balanchine Trust. You’re also gonna have to hire a “Balanchine approved repetiteur” to come sit in rehearsal with you and make sure you put the whole thing on stage the right way. Can’t be screwing it up, you know. Copyrighted material. For that matter, you can’t even print photographs of Balanchine’s work either. In 1976, the Balanchine Trust took a book publisher to court to prevent them from printing photos of Balanchine’s choreography on stage. Want the tl;dr? The Balanchine Trust succeeded. The photos never made it to print.
In more recent times and more popular culture, Beyonce was sued by a Belgian choreographer for allegedly stealing her dance moves. “It was a bit rude” of Beyonce to steal my choreography, said Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the offended choreographer. Rude, she said, because Beyonce didn’t even try to hide that she was stealing from somebody else.
I mean, if you’re gonna steal, at least try to hide it, right?
Basics, people, basics.
But in the tap dance world, De Keersmaeker’s statement doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.
Rude for stealing somebody else’s moves?
Good grief, tap dancers do it all the time. In fact if tap dance can be characterized by any one thing, stealing each other’s stuff is an awfully good contender for the title.
Evan Ruggiero said it well earlier this year in Dance Magazine: “As tap dancers, we’re always stealing steps from others. But we always give credit” when we do.
Now… what’s so important about tap dancers stealing from each other all the time? Who cares? Is that really some sort of revolutionary idea? Can you actually go so far as to say that tap dancing is the embodiment of a revolutionary idea?
Yes. Very much yes indeed you can.
Revolutionary? GNU don’t really mean that
Yeah, tap dancing is revolutionary. Want take a look at something else revolutionary? Take a look at some computer software for a bit.
In computers, software is either open source or closed source.
Now, I know that’s overly simplistic and I know there’s a few software geeks out there who’d love to jump on me for that one. But please bear with me for a moment and see where this goes. I’m not saying every open source license is the same. But hold off on the fine print of open source for a minute and see what comes of it.
Now, open source does not mean free. Literally what open source means is that you or anybody else can access the source code and do whatever you want with it.
Read it, write more to it, change it, distribute it.
Steal it. Inject a bit of your own stuff into and then pass the modified version along.
While films and music and books have copyrights, open source has “copy lefts.” The code belongs to the community, and anyone can take it and use however much they want without asking for anybody’s permission. The only thing that anybody asks is, when you take somebody else’s code and change it, give credit where credit is due.
Does this sound familiar? May want to go read what Evan Ruggiero said about tap dance earlier.
Now let’s go look at why this open source idea matters.
The most important idea of somebody else’s generation
Let’s take a look at one of the most important open source softwares in our generation: WordPress.
If you didn’t already know this, WordPress is the most popular content management system in the world. And it drives most of the most of the top blogs in the world too. About 15 percent of websites on the planet are powered by WordPress. And WordPress is 100% open source. In fact it’s the most open of all open sources. Its code is protected under the GPL 2.0, which is about as “copy left” as anything could ever get.
Now, the guy who built WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, has been very clear that WordPress’s use of the GPL has been vital to both its success and its innovation over the years. According to Matt, open source software is democratizing the web and WordPress’s success is in part a result of that fact. Under the GPL, improvements and innovations and extensions and new capabilities for WordPress are as much in the hands of the users as they are in the hands of the core developers. And the millions of users have millions of hands, far more than the 14 hands that make up the core development team.
It’s this democracy of access and innovation, and the effects its had worldwide, that led Matt to call open source “the most important idea of our generation.”
Now, on the significance of open source, Matt is right.
And on saying it’s an idea of our generation, Matt is wrong.
Tap dancers have been doing this for years. We were open source before we even know what that meant. And we’re open source now even if we still don’t realize it.
Thing is, that same revolutionary potential that software has applies to tap dancers too. In fact it applies much further and wider and in more ways than I think most people have begun to imagine (with a few notable exceptions like Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig).
Credit where credit is due
The same user-driven, community-based innovation that Matt talks about when he explains the power and significance of open source is the same user-driven, community-based innovation that’s been the driving force of tap dance since day one.
In both cases you have people looking to make something better.
Looking to imagine the same thing in a different way.
Looking to fulfill a need.
Looking to solve a problem.
WordPress was built because Matt wanted a better blogging platform. He had a need and he solved it. Then he shared his solution and set in motion a capacity that is literally changing the world.
Linus Torvalds wrote Linux because most comparable software at the time cost more money than the folks who needed it could afford. So he solved his own need and let others have the right to adapt his code and solve theirs.
Just like tap dancers needed to communicate, to express, to be seen and heard… sometimes they just needed to make a few bucks so they could have something to eat. Wherever it began, tap dance grew out of people solving a need and sharing their solution with others. Where other art forms copied right, tap dance copied left. And every ounce of innovation we’ve seen in the art form has been a result of that fact.
But what I’d contend is that tap dancing has the same amount of potential that open source software does.
Remember the dance’s history, after all, or what little we know about it.
The African portion of that history has something to do with sand dancing and slave owners being down on drums and scared of them, but not too worried about a bunch of slaves starting a revolt with their sand and their shoes. People had a need. Tap dance solved it. Later they needed work. Tap dance provided that too. It’s an art form born out of solving people’s needs, whether that’s the need to express something that otherwise can’t be expressed or it’s a need to put food on the table or maybe just the need to keep yourself sane.
Look at your own experience with the dance and how many of your own needs this dance has solved.
Now think about the power of democratizing that potential. Think of how revolutionary an idea that could be.
Don’t sell yourself short, fellow tap dancers. Tap dancing’s DNA is as powerful as it is revolutionary. It always has been. And maybe one day we’ll tap into the full extent of that potential (pun only somewhat intended). It would be an awesome thing to see happen. Give it some thought. Then give it a try.
And whether you’re a tap dancer or not (and I join Omar Edwards in saying that you are a tap dancer the moment you step onto that floor), look to your own needs and the tools you’ve used to solve them.
And if you really want to change the world, build something worth stealing, something worth sharing, and something worth attributing to you.
Open source genuinely is a revolutionary idea.
But it’s not one our generation can claim.
Some other folks beat us to it.
And they had metal on their feet and stole from each other more than you would ever believe.
So, with that, I’ll leave you. And I’ll also leave you with two videos about tap dance and open source so you can make the comparison yourself.
Until next time, thanks for stopping by. And I look forward to finding out what revolution you set in motion.
An update after the fact: I’ve written a follow up to this article explaining some of the thoughts and ideas behind it. Take a look, if you like, if you too have found that a part of your heart is always following your sole