STARTING Friday, four generations of female tap dancers will descend upon UCLA to celebrate their contributions to the historically male-dominated field of tap over the last 100 years. And nothing exemplifies that spectrum of experience quite like Friday night's lineup: a performance by the teenage tap prodigies of the Jazz Tap Ensemble's Caravan Project to be immediately followed by the screening of a documentary about the Silver Belles, a group of former Apollo Theater chorus girls now in their 80s and 90s.
That generational juxtaposition thrills organizer Lynn Dally. Since tap's resurgence in the late 1970s, "there have been presentations of women along the way," says Dally, an adjunct professor in UCLA's World Arts and Cultures program. "But the idea of having a conference where this many of the gifted women of all these generations are brought together to share with each other and share with the public what they've accomplished" is a first.
A central aim of the conference is to unearth stories of female tappers whose contributions have been neglected. Panel discussions and oral history workshops will highlight tap's foremothers, while Saturday night's concert will showcase 14 living legends, including Brenda Bufalino, Dianne "Ladi Di" Walker, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Dally.
"If you look at the coverage of tap dancing and the awareness of it even after all these years . . . you would think it was all the men" who did the work, Dally says.
In tap's Golden Age, women seldom received recognition as serious soloists; they were usually relegated to roles as chorus girls. Beginning in the 1970s, women sought to level the playing field -- and their shoes -- by casting off the high heels of the chorus line and adopting the same shoes that the men wore.
Now, after decades of effort, women have reached a level of acceptance that allows the new generation of female dancers to reclaim their glamour. And, similar to the tension between second- and third-wave feminists, this tap step is fertile ground for debate.
"Younger women have returned to high-heeled tap shoes when women in my generation fought so hard to get rid of them," says Dally.
With so many opportunities now available to the women of tap, Michelle Dorrance, 28, a conference presenter and a cast member in Broadway's "Stomp," sees the glamour issue in a historical context.
"It is coming full circle," Dorrance says. "In a way, we might have a few more choices than men do. We can basically wear the same costumes as men and do choreography with the same stylistic elements, but then we can put on heels and a dress. And that's not a choice a lot of men are going to make."
WOMEN IN TAP CONCERT
WHERE: Glorya Kaufman Hall, UCLA, Westwood
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sat.
INFO: (310) 475-4412; www.jazztapensemble.org/ womenintap.html