The Soundscape of Market Street: San Francisco’s Street Tappers

By Community Submission


The percussive sounds we hear as we walk down San Francisco’s Market Street become part of our city’s daily soundtrack. The chugging of the trains, the rumbling of trolleys, the squeaks of the bus breaks, coins shaking in a paper cup, people talking, yelling, singing, horns honking, and the clitter clatter of footsteps running down the sidewalk are just a few of the constant noises filling our day. These sounds are pretty ordinary and don’t faze most people. I, on the other hand, as a practicing modern dancer, see dancers performing randomly around the city, and it has never come across as shocking due to the high amount of site-specific work that occurs here. I must say though, that when this closeted tap dancer encountered a group of tap artists clicking away on Market Street I was shocked and thrilled, as my soundtrack for this city was suddenly enhanced.

While I do not like to categorize what makes a dance and where a dance belongs, the last place I expected to see a tap performance was on the sidewalk of San Francisco. Thankfully though, a group of talented hoofers seem to consistently come back week after week to share their amazing talent on the city streets, and I am guilty of catching their show as often as I can. Their performances are entertaining, technical, jaw dropping, and draw some pretty large crowds. I have most often seen a wonderful group of them perfectly placed next to the Powell Street trolley stop and BART station entrance. These tap dance crowds are full of tourists and locals who often watch for long periods of time, never missing a beat. I have often been among the many who lose track of time while watching these performers twinkling their toes and heating up the concrete below them. Camera flashes illuminate the space, and video recorders roll. The large audience ranges from toddlers to elders of mixed ethnicities and backgrounds. One thing that they all seem to have in common though is their amazement at the sound coming from the performers’ fancy footwork. To be honest, it is hard to walk past these dancers and not stop or at least watch closely as you walk by.

These star tap dancers really define “making the most out of what you’ve got.” Bring a few pieces of plywood, sometimes some music with a stereo, tap shoes and within moments they transform an everyday sidewalk into a true masterpiece of rhythm and movement. Taping on potholes, vents, against the light post to add an extra “high hat” accent and even right on the cold concrete. The performers take turns soloing, improvising, dueling one another and, when really lucky, showing off some set group choreography. These dancers sure do know what they are doing. The syncopated rhythms coming from their feet at times seem almost impossible and many viewers cannot look away.

Classifying these dancers is near impossible. Yes, of course they are tap dancers, but they are so much more than tap dancers. Their mixture of rhythms, use of weight, vocabulary and performance make them hard to categorize. These performers embrace many elements of the “Hoofer’s Club” (the famous 1920s-1930s jazz and tap performance hang out in Harlem, New York), the classic movement of Gene Kelly and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and more urban/funk tap of Savion Glover and the late Gregory Hines. Of course, these are not the only influences that the performers carry with them, but they are most defiantly present in the quality of sound, rhythm and performance. Each performer’s sound is quick, syncopated, clean and energetic. And one thing is for sure; they put on a good show. Playing towards the audience, not afraid to speak to them, posing for the cameras, and getting up close, they really seem to feed off the energy given.

The addition of these performers on Market Street is just another great element of the diversity of the San Francisco dance scene. While they may not be performing in front of thousands of people on a proscenium stage, they give a performance that might as well be, and their performance is free (but also feel free to give donations). I am not sure this would be considered a “hidden treasure” of San Francisco but there is no doubt in my mind that these tap artists are a treasure to our city and dance community. While finding them, for me, has always been by chance as I am not sure they are performing at any consistent time or day, they are worth the walk to find. Of course, if there is any doubt, please take some time to see for yourselves. These performers really show what they do for love and they keep audiences tapping their toes to the cities ever changing, ever delightful soundtrack.

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of In Dance.

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