Despite COVID-19 restrictions that have isolated dance students across the globe, Barnard dance classes are in full swing. In their Zoom rectangles, dancers listen to their lectures and clear spaces in their homes for technique classes in disciplines like ballet and modern. In 2018, Barnard still offered tap classes such as Tap Ensemble and Tap as an American Art Form, which were classes that taught beyond the introductory levels of these dance styles. However, tap classes and lectures have disappeared from the Barnard dance course offerings despite still being listed on the Barnard dance department website.
While tap classes cease to exist, disciplines with European backgrounds such as ballet and modern dance continue to have six levels of technique courses offered at Barnard. Additionally this semester, Barnard is only offering one hip hop and one Afro-Cuban class.
Beyond traditional classes, Columbia is home to 23 different student dance groups on campus that represent a range of styles, from Columbia Society of Hip Hop to Shalhevet Dance Troupe. The limited number of non-Eurocentric dance classes offered often restricts the growth of many dance students and stifles their sense of global citizenship. A Barnard dance student can achieve expertise in ballet and modern dance while remaining an amateur in a dance form they are passionate about, like classical Indian dance.
UnTapped, Columbia’s tap ensemble, is one of the only dance groups that does not cut those who want to join. UnTapped has five levels of dancers: absolute beginner, beginner, intermediate, advanced, and advanced advanced. With these levels, any student can tap, which creates an accessible and creative space to engage with the art form. UnTapped is one of the few non-Eurocentric dance groups on campus that allows all students to learn about the deep history of tap.
Tap originated from the dance traditions of both indentured Irish and enslaved African people in America. One of the reasons why enslaved people created a musical dance form that used their bodies was because of their lack of access to instruments. Although tap dance has spread across the world, its origins have not been forgotten. With technical and historical tap classes no longer being taught at Barnard this semester, however, these origins may be erased, leaving students with no knowledge of this history.
This summer, Barnard claimed it was committed to being an anti-racist administration. For the fall 2020 semester, it required all first-years to take a new course, Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020, which was one of the college’s attempts to teach its students how to be anti-racist themselves. By internalizing the lessons of the four course lecturers, first-years were expected to create a zine to teach their community how to be anti-racist. However, many first-year students of color and allies boycotted the zine project because they felt like the course overwhelmingly focused on Black trauma and the lived experience of Black individuals in a performative manner. They said the project ignored the fact that students of color lived through the big problems of 2020 every day of their lives, rather than just in 2020.
Despite these efforts, Barnard has yet to restore tap dance courses, a form of dance with a long legacy in the Black community. In summer 2020, Barnard decided not to renew the contract of professor Margaret Morrison, the only tap professor at Barnard. With the termination of her contract, Barnard tap classes—both technical and lecture-based—ceased to exist.
The Barnard dance department told Spectator that they plan to offer tap dance classes in the coming year, potentially as early as the summer. Additionally, the department will offer a new seminar called “Dance in Africa” in the Summer A term that will introduce students to current dance scholarship from and around Africa.
“Foremost, just last week, the Department initiated its search for a new tenure-track professor of African/African-diasporic/Black dance studies,” Paul Scolieri, chair and professor of dance at Barnard wrote in a statement to Spectator. “Though the Department already offers several courses that focus on race and performance, Dance faculty and students are excited to welcome a new full-time faculty member to expand and deepen offerings in this vital area of dance performance and research.”
Although this information is promising, it is still not a full commitment to the revival of tap dance for the Barnard community. Following the contract decision, members of UnTapped and Barnard’s dance community spoke with leaders of the dance department, including Scolieri, about reviving tap classes. Andrea Patella, BC ’21 and the vice president of UnTapped, was at the forefront of these conversations.
“[Scolieri] was saying, ‘Oh, I have all these ideas. What do you guys think?’ and was very open to input and ideas from the students, which is great,” Patella said. “But at the same time, it’s difficult, because I just hope that the burden of ensuring that tap stays alive at Columbia doesn’t fall on students. … It should be on the department to ensure that the curriculum is well-rounded and diverse and is serving the students’ needs.”
The department, however, notes that no one from UnTapped has followed up on Scolieri’s invitation to discuss the future of tap at Barnard. For the time being, though, UnTapped groups that meet weekly to learn short combinations remain one of the only outlets for tap dancers. Further, the history lessons that surrounded each official tap class at Barnard are still not provided.
While technical tap classes taught students the history of combinations and the history of different tap icons, the tap program also included a course that was more focused on the origins and legacy of tap. Tap as an American Art Form, taught by Margaret Morrison, was a favorite course for many dance students at Barnard and Columbia. The course explored different eras of tap in America while also focusing on Black tap dancers who are usually hidden from popular culture, providing a distinct break from the largely white Core Curriculum.
“My tap dance courses … provided a direct connection between the necessity of racial justice and [of] learning histories of Black and brown people in America and what I do for a living, which is dance, and how those really overlap,” J.P. Viernes, CC ’18 and the former president of UnTapped, said. “It was like a way to see racial identity in dance, something that maybe I didn’t see in other classes.”
Following the parting of Margaret Morrison, tap dancers, especially those who are members of UnTapped, continue to hold the administration accountable for the disappearance of tap classes offered at Barnard. In an open letter, Morrison wrote that “as leaders in the dance field, we must protest your disregard of an essential art form, as you chose to maintain all nine of your other dance styles.”
“We cannot help but notice that your decision to discontinue all tap dance—a form rooted in Black artistry—appears contrary to recent statements made by the College and the Department,” Morrison wrote in the letter. “In the wake of protests against racism and calling for an end to anti-Black violence, the Barnard Dance Department put out a social media statement of support that you are committed to making ‘anti racism a guiding force.’ … We can only hope that the Department will indeed follow through on these statements.”
For the moment, students understand why UnTapped is their only realistic option to find a community for tap dance at Barnard and Columbia at the moment: While other dance forms like ballet and contemporary require dancers to be light on their feet, tap requires just the opposite.
“Teaching dance classes over Zoom [is] already really hard, and tap just brings in so many more of those difficulties, because it’s such an auditory experience. … Most [people in New York] don’t have a place to pull on tap shoes, and people who are at home … might not have a floor that they can tap on, and tap boards are expensive,” Patella said. “It’s a lot harder to teach tap over Zoom. … That’s why I think we haven’t seen the return of tap this year.”
The future of tap dance at Barnard remains uncertain. For now, students continue to carry the burden of reviving tap courses at Barnard themselves. Whether that be through further conversations with the dance department or committing to growing the UnTapped community, students will carry the tap torch until the administration decides to take it back.
“I hope that current students and future students will continue to push for tap and advocate for it and advocate for the education of tap,” Patella said. “But also, I hope that the department realizes that there’s now a hole in [its] curriculum, and that [the department will] step up and also make sure that that hole is filled.”
Correction: Spectator reported that Barnard’s tap dance department only offers one level of hip-hop and Afro-Cuban dance but instead offers multiple levels for these genres. Spectator also neglected to mention that Barnard’s dance department intends to offer tap dance courses in the coming year. Spectator regrets this error.
Editor’s note: Editor in Chief Sarah Braka is the treasurer of UnTapped. She was not involved in the editing of this article.