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What Is Foot Percussion?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 17, 2024
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Foot percussion is one of the most ancient and most powerful forms of music making. Before there were even rudimentary musical instruments, there were people beating time with their feet. Every type of music the world over includes some kind of foot music, whether it is as rudimentary as a bare foot and packed earth or as sophisticated as a rhythm device involving pedals, chimes, bells, and more.

In a sense, dancers can be described as foot percussionists. Some dance forms, such as Irish step dance, clogging, and flamenco, incorporate the dancer’s rhythmic choices into the music. The dancer can literally cause the musicians to change how they are playing by introducing a rhythmic pattern that emphasizes or counterpoints the musical pattern. Traditional cloggers are common at mountain music festivals, where they can be seen shuffling atop wooden boxes called stepatunes that reverberate and echo the beat.

Some types of simple, nondevice foot percussion types are little more than dancing while sitting down. A number of French-Canadian musical styles incorporate sophisticated foot rhythms tapped out by musicians who are simultaneously playing fiddle, guitar, or another instrument. Leather-soled shoes are usually used, and the patterns created are far more than just toe-tapping. Heel-to-toe, toe-to-heel, double taps, rolls, and other types of strikes can create rhythmic patterns that are complex. This foot music is sometimes microphoned, but most traditional musicians consider that cheating and prefer the rhythms’ natural, acoustic sounds.

Archeological digs have uprooted evidence of foot music in Southwest tribes who released rhythms by jumping onto hollowed logs, steadying themselves with long poles. Some tribal African dances add foot percussion with metal bells or conch shell ankle bracelets. Counterculturalists in the 1960s and 1970s delighted in decorating their feet in highly belled ankle bracelets to add musical accompaniment to the simple act of walking. Hollow tambourines were also often used as a type of foot percussion during musical jam sessions.

Tap dance, in which metal taps are attached to the toe and heel of leather-soled shoes, offers highly complex and artful rhythms as a solo form or a musical accompaniment. Early 20th-century jazz gave birth to the trap set, which comes from the word contraption, which is a good term for the first mechanical setups drummers created that permitted additional strikes to the bass drum or cymbal crashes with the hi-hat.

A great and very natural way to introduce music, foot percussion is great for youngsters. The little guys gravitate toward rhythm at a far earlier age than they do melody, and they love to play with beats and counterbeats. Tying on a jingly ankle bracelet for a dance session is one way to teach them to dance to their own drummers.

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