Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tap Dancing Drummers and Other Female Percussionists (Part I)

Tap/drum/percussa-what?* Isn't this is supposed to be a blog about moving images? Yes. And more generally, it's a blog about the sometimes harmonious, sometimes contentious relationship between things audio and things visual, and how they function in the world around them. I think this post might check all of the above boxes -- and a few more while we're at it.

The history of women in western percussion is relatively sparse. There certainly have been some notable women percussionists -- Evelyn Glennie, for example.

Or Sheila E., whose arrival on the pop music scene in the 80's was quite a relief to young female percussionists like me who liked playing but felt a bit awkward in the role. Before Sheila E. there was Karen Carpenter of brother-and-sister pop duo The Carpenters, whose family-friendly 1976 TV special attempted to explain to America what a nice girl like Karen would be doing playing the drums. (Karen Carpenter really did get started playing glockenspiel in high school marching band, as did I. Though real life, neither of us kissed someone in order to be allowed to switch to drums. But I'm curious how many other female percussionists got into percussion through the more acceptable-for-girls glockenspiel or other keyboard percussion instruments.)

So twentieth century percussion certainly did include prominent women performers in various genres. But overall, modern Western percussion has historically been mostly a man's world. (Ancient Mediterranean percussion? Another story entirely.)

As with many fields where women have been discouraged or excluded, women drummers were even more of a rarity before the feminist movement of the 1960's and 1970's. In the late 1800's and early 1900's American marching bands and brass bands were beginning to move indoors. By the 1920's the drum set had evolved as a means of reducing space and labor requirements in small indoor performances spaces: one performer could play several percussion instruments at the same time. By the 1920's and 30's jazz had emerged as a popular style; but as with earlier styles, jazz drumming was seen as a man's job. If women managed to find a way in, it was sometimes as much for their looks as for their sound. Meghan Aube writes of California-based jazz drummer Dottie Dodgion, who began her career in the 1950's :

Often gender was used by promoters as a device to sell records and gain audiences, and [Dodgion] found that as she aged gigs became even scarcer: "There is no gimmick for selling an old lady. If you’re a young woman and have a decent figure, they can sell you like mad."

And that brings us to one way many women participated in jazz percussion anyway: tap dance. Tap dance is of course a type of dance, with a rich history in that context. And I imagine that most tap dancers over the years got into it for that reason: to dance. But in the early twentieth century, tap dance also inadvertently functioned as a form of percussion performance -- one that afforded women the opportunity to participate while remaining in traditional women's domains: looking good and dancing. If you really listen to a tap dancer, what you're doing is listening to a percussion performance performed entirely with the legs. Of course there have been plenty of male tap dancers too, who should also be recognized for their work as percussionists. As should performers of tap's percussive ancestors, like clog dancing and Irish step dance.

As folk dances, clogging and Irish step dance are often performed in a social group context. Tap, in contrast, tends to be performed solo or by a small group of performers; it's typically associated with more traditional stage performance. Tap has garnered mass audiences over the years: It was a staple of 1930's and 40's Hollywood musical films, and its popularity spilled into American television variety shows for several decades afterward. Tap's popularity and its mass media emergence alongside jazz and drum set performance is one reason it sparked my interest in relation to female percussion history: "Everyone" (who viewed American popular media) watched and heard women performing tap's complex percussive routines onscreen for decades -- yet at the same time, "everyone" presumed that "women don't play drums." So I'm focusing on female tap artists to point out that more women have performed as percussionists than are generally acknowledged, because the areas of performance in which they found acceptance were often not regarded as percussion -- even though the performances sometimes had a high degree of public visibility. Clog dancing, Irish step dance and related step dances are similarly percussive and have long histories of performance spread among many countries and cultures. Like tap, they too seem to have largely slipped under the radar of what's thought of as percussion performance.

While most tap dancers haven't presented themselves as percussionists, some have made the connection abundantly clear:

Although many people's mental image of tap dance comes from movies, tap existed long before cinema. Its roots can be traced to a complex interweaving of Irish step dance with slavery-era African-American folk dance, among other things. Its popularity grew when Vaudeville came along, and, like other types of Vaudeville performance, it spilled over into the movies of the 1930's and 1940's. Although many people presumably purchased the films' soundtrack albums and listened to the recordings of the tap dance numbers, it's hard to imagine the tap-centric recordings having much of an audience had they existed on their own. As with other forms of dance, visuals have always had primacy when it comes to tap performance.

Part II - Onward to the present...

* Throughout this text, I may seem to use the terms “drummer” and “percussionist” interchangably. Most percussionists consider “drummers” to be a subset of “percussionists.” In the context of this text, the two groups’ concerns tend to overlap more than they differ. I have tried, however, to use the term I considered to be the more applicable one in each case throughout the text.