Toots Davis is one of the unsung innovators of tap dance flash steps, and his contribution of the in-the-trenches step is testament to that fact.
He was a chorus member of the Darktown Follies and by 1916 worked his way up to a solo spot, where he began to develop his dancing amongst an atmosphere of competitive camaraderie. Each evening’s performance found cast members inventing new steps and embellishing on old ones.
In-the-trenches may be the most universally known flash step.
Created by Toots Davis, in-the-trenches is not limited to tap dance; jazz dancers aren’t afraid to throw down this traditional dance step.
A dancer, bent ninety degrees at the waist, alternates extending straight arms and legs, giving the performer the appearance of a full-on sprint, while at the same time being unaffected by gravity as the dancer’s staccato toe tips glide frictionless across the floor.
In-the-trenches has remained intact for just about one hundred years! When performed correctly, it matches descriptions of the original, described as a bent over version of the popular circle dance, the cakewalk.
The origin of the step’s name has to do with a little something called World War I (1914-1918), which saw the epitome of the military strategy known as trench warfare. While the etymology may be slightly macabre, that won’t stop thousands of dancers each year from learning this step. You’ll encounter in-the-trenches at your six-year-old’s dance recital, at the latest production of A Chorus Line, and at contemporary tap dance festivals.
And for those of you who write this step off as an easy closer to a number, think again. I dare you to take class with Dr. Robert Reed, revered tap dancer and director of the St. Louis Tap Festival, and ask him to give you a lesson on in the trenches.
I dare you.
Another of Toots Davis’ contributions, over-the-tops, became a popular flash and closing step in the early 20th century.
Unlike in-the-trenches, however, over-the-tops have moved past their branding as a novelty step and have proven to be fertile ground for innovation.
Traditionally, over-the-tops are performed with one leg jumping over the other leg, which is extended perpendicularly across the dancer’s body, making for a tremendous flash step.
Similar to Frank Condos’ 5-count wing, over-the-tops have transcended their all-purpose jazz dance roots and have become viable by the addition of tap steps.
The over-the-top method currently preferred involves the dancer bending the non-supporting leg so that the knee faces out and the toes are pointed at the floor. This way the tip of the toe can be added mid jump giving the step an extra syncopated beat.
Sounds easy, right? If you can do one tip, then try for two or three.
Front to back, no problem? Try back to front.
Now do it faster, or squeeze in any number of steps before takeoff: shuffles, wings, extra tips… almost anything if there is some thought behind the arrangement.
The combination of physicality and musicality make over-the-tops an excellent skill to hone for novices and professionals alike and is the reason why this step has endured the test of time.
(The Four Step Brothers: Closing their piece with a combination of over-the-tops and in-the-trenches.)
Tristan Bruns has studied the art form of tap dance with Donna Johnson, Ted Levy, Lane Alexander and Martin “Tre” Dumas and has a BA in Music from Columbia College Chicago. Tristan has been an ensemble member of such Chicago tap companies as BAM!, The Cartier Collective and MADD Rhythms. Tristan currently produces his own work through his company, TapMan Productions, LLC, which includes the performance ensemble The Tapmen and the tap and guitar “band” of The Condescending Heroes.