History of Tap Dancing

Benna Crawford
Tap dancer shoes

Tap, like jazz, is a uniquely American contribution to the performing arts. Its roots are buried in the antiquity of tropical and temperate tribal lands. However, its staccato and style are homegrown. From the West of Ireland to the West Indies to the dance halls of old New York, the drumming of rhythmic feet tapped out an American story that is still unfolding.

A Timeline of Tapping

The faint percussion of European and African feet echoes through the often brutal colonization of the Americas, across the wars that founded and nearly destroyed a nation, over dirt country roads and the scarred boards of stages, in the fading images of old celluloid, and under the pounding rhythm of a modern flashmob, hammering out a crowd-pleasing, syncopated beat. Tap is a relatively new dance form with an ancient provenance. It is an artifact of history with its own history of fusion and famous tappers.

1600s

In the 1600s, indentured Irish servants were imported to the colonies to serve British families, and Africans were enslaved to work the Caribbean and mainland plantations. Their lives were often unspeakable, but their spirits were irrepressible, and dance -- a tapping, stomping, stylized dance -- was a gift of their heritage that survived. The choreography of these poor people's dances didn't require music; they seldom had instruments, anyway. The dance was the music, its sound as important as movement in expressing the emotion and telling the story.

1800s

Over time, the two rhythmic dance styles borrowed from each other. By the mid-1800s, the fusion moves turned up in dance halls. Wooden shoes (or wooden soles) allowed tappers to transfix audiences with sound, as well as footwork. A Black tapper named William Henry Lane, renamed Major Juba, broke the color barrier in the late 1800s to appear alongside white acts in a segregated entertainment industry. (Juba, the capital of the Republic of South Sudan, was also a term for slave dance used to communicate like tribal drumming, only with feet, not drums. The stomping, slapping and patting steps were early precursors of a more polished hybrid that eventually dominated minstrel shows.)

1900s

  • Tap dancer with top hat
    By 1902, a show called Ned Wayburn's Minstrel Misses used a style of syncopated choreography called "Tap and Step dance," performed in clogs with split wooden soles. That was the first mention of "tap" and the precursor to split-soled shoes with aluminum heel-and-toe taps.
  • "Buck and Wing" dancing came out of the 19th-century vaudeville, and minstrel shows and gave the nascent dance form time-step, a rhythmic tap combination that marks tempo. The shim-sham from the same period is a time-step with a shuffle -- more vaudeville steps from the Savoy ballroom that you'll still find in tap class.
  • 1907 and tap exploded into mainstream entertainment when Flo Ziegfeld put 50 tap dancers in his first Ziegfeld Follies. The Follies eventually featured such marquee performers as Fred Astaire and used choreographers to advance the art of tap and create an enthusiastic audience.
  • It worked. From the 1920s through the 1930s, you couldn't go to a movie, a club, a Broadway musical or a vaudeville act without tripping over a tap routine.
  • Bill "Bojangles" Robinson captured public imagination during the heyday of tap until mid-century. His 1918 "Stair Dance" was a tour de force of light, graceful, exquisite tap, and his career encompassed Broadway and Hollywood fame. Robinson delivered some immortal film performances with tiny Shirley Temple in the 1930s. He was a towering figure who had a powerful influence over the next generation of tap dancers.
  • Fred Astaire, Donald O'Connor, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr., and other double- and triple-threats (performers who excelled at singing, dancing and acting) held sway over the world of tap from the 1930s through the 1950s and beyond. They were theatrical tappers, incorporating jazz, ballet and ballroom moves for sweeping and elegant dances that enthralled theater patrons and moviegoers.
  • 1950s Rock 'N' Roll edged tap aside as the Swing turned into the Twist and gyrating replaced syncopation. Modern had its passionate devotees; ballet twinkled and sparkled in the concert halls and opera houses; Broadway had a love affair with jazz; and tap languished -- a true step child in the dance world.
  • 1978 - Gregory Hines, a trained dancer who was mentored on the road by classical tappers throughout his childhood, receives a Tony nomination for the Broadway show Eubie and the tap phenomenon overtakes America again. Hines had a distinguished career on Broadway and in film (his 1985 film White Nights, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, is unforgettable) and mentored tap's next boy phenom Savion Glover.
  • Savion Glover is a supernatural kind of tapper -- his sharp, pounding technique is called "hitting," and he was a child prodigy who studied with Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr., starred in Jelly's Last Jam, choreographed and starred in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk (4 Tony awards), and found time to choreograph Mumble, the CGI penguin in Happy Feet.

Today's Tap - Two Styles

Glover is a rhythm tapper. He makes music with his feet. Theatrical tappers are "whole body" tappers, and you'll find them dancing as characters in Broadway shows or in those vintage movies you binge on where Gene Kelly delights in his puddle stomping and Ginger Rogers mimics every move of the incomparable Fred Astaire, in heels and backwards. Both rhythm and theater tap are staples of dance programs now. The Irish steppers and the African stompers merged their glorious fast-feet percussion and their considerable talents to contribute a novel dance form to a chaotic New World.

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History of Tap Dancing