The history of tap dancing in the United States is a long one, with influences ranging from the British Isles to Africa. While the dance style originated in the early 1800s, it was more than 100 years later that the genre would become popular on a national scale.
Early History of Tap Dancing
In the earliest days, before this style of dancing could even be considered tap as we know it today, tapping was done in leather-soled or wooden-soled shoes. Nowadays, tapping is done with closely-fitted metal taps fixed on the leather sole of a tap shoe (note that clogging taps are different from tap dancing taps). While the shoes have changed completely since the early days, and the steps have evolved considerably, the basis of tap dancing is to create a rhythm with one's foot movements. Because the goal of this dance is to create rhythmic sounds, it is referred to as a percussive dance. From the earliest days, tap was a percussive dance with catchy rhythms.
The earliest tap dancing examples were not on stage but rather a type of social dancing among slave communities in the southern United States. Incorporating African dance movements with the idea of British clogging or Irish step dancing, African American communities in the South began to develop what would become American tap dancing. Either accompanied by informal music or performed as a strictly stand-alone sound, impromptu performances would start up when groups of people gathered together for social reasons. Often taking place outside, these gatherings would include a board to lay down on the ground on which anyone could try their hand at this raucous type of dancing. Strong dancers can even make tapping sounds using their bare feet, which was probably often the case during this period of tap dancing history.
While tap dancing began on plantations among field workers, it would soon find its way into theaters and develop into the two main types of tap dancing: with wooden or leather-soled shoes. In 1828, the first tap dance took place during a theatrical performance by Thomas 'Daddy' Rice. As audiences were thrilled by the rhythmic sounds and freestyle movements, the genre began to grow. By the end of the 1800s, tapping was a common scene in minstrel shows and on showboats in the South.
Tap Dance's Heyday
It wasn't until about 100 years after the first performances onstage that tap really began to enjoy widespread popularity. In the 1920s, wooden and leather-soled shoes had been replaced by the modern shoe with a metal plate on the toe of the shoe and one on the heel. This new sound may be what kicked tap dancing into high gear, or it could have simply been the spirit of the times. Tap dancing was an audience favorite because people were surprised by the complex rhythms dancers could make with their feet, not to mention the impressive acrobatic style.
Further adding to the upswing of the popularity of this dance genre were the performers of the 1930s to 1950s such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who brought a whole new suave style to tap dance. By incorporating steps and movements from classical ballet, as well as postures and turns from ballroom dancing, this new generation of tappers continued to impress younger audiences with their rhythms, while also exhibiting the polished dance style that many mature Americans preferred. Featured in many movies of the times, tap dancing spread to the masses through the medium of film.
Tap Dance Education
While many other forms of dance are popular in America, the two most common children's dance classes are ballet and tap. These two types of dance together afford children many opportunities to acquire all of the basics of good dance technique. Discipline and technique are learned through ballet, while musicality and styling are often learned through tap. Many students abandon one or the other (or both) as they get older, but tap dancing is a fundamental class in many American dance schools. This widespread teaching of this rhythmic style has contributed to the popularity of the genre and expanded the history of this dance in America into a fully mainstream style for enthusiasts of all ages.
Sign up for a local tap class if you want to learn those fantastic rhythms you have heard from famous dancers. Enjoy shows like Tap Dogs or The Nutcracker as a tap dance production instead of a ballet if you want to enjoy this style. The history of tap dancing is already a long one, but it shows no signs of slowing down.