Tap dance has a long history of development and innovation, and most of that history happened before the creation of Hollywood, in front of live audiences. However, just when the American film industry was entering its golden era of cinema, tap was also enjoying a creative peak of its own. When the two joined forces, tap dance became an unstoppable force on the American cultural landscape, and the world at large. Dancers became actors, and actors had to brush up on their skills to stand out in the scene. Here are some of the greatest tap dancers and the movies that brought them to new heights on the silver screen.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – ‘Stormy Weather’ (1943)
This final film in the career of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was an appropriate Hollywood swan song for a man who is perhaps more responsible for the rise of tap and African American visibility in films than anyone else in his era. A loose biography of the life and times of Robinson, ‘Stormy Weather’ is notable for being packed with talent with its African American cast. Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham and her company, and Lena Horne all make memorable appearances, while Cab Calloway plays bandleader for a famous dance sequence with The Nicholas Brothers set to his raucous tune ‘Jumpin’ Jive.’ At the center of the action is the star himself, who even at the end of his life had plenty of gas in the tank to work the floor. ‘Stormy Weather’ is a must-see celebration of tap dance during its jazz age heyday.
Jeni Le Gon – ‘Double Deal’ (1939)
Another film featuring an all-black cast, this crime drama features the amazing Jeni Le Gon as Nita, a nightclub dancer and singer who gets caught up in a love triangle with the wrong sort of men. Because of the prevailing racial attitudes of her day, Jeni Le Gon’s career in Hollywood was unfortunately restricted to supporting and background roles. In her song and dance sequences in ‘Double Deal’ Le Gon shows off a talent that rivals any leading lady of her time and gives the viewer a glimpse into what might have been. Still, she is remembered as the first black female dancer to dance with Fred Astaire, breaking the color barrier in Hollywood. Le Gon lived a long and fruitful life as a celebrated choreographer and dance instructor in Vancouver, Canada until she died in 2012 at the age of 96. Today she is remembered as an important figure in the world of musical theater and tap.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – ’Swing Time’ (1936)
Little can be said about this dancing duo that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over. To put it simply, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the King and Queen of Hollywood dance productions, and over the course of nine films together, created a blockbuster dance sensation that in its time rivaled any level of fame in the history of the world. And while it’s certainly difficult to pinpoint any one performance from their repertoire, when it comes to tap dance, ‘Swing Time’ is a great place to start. Considered by many critics and dancers as their greatest dance musical, ‘Swing Time’ has Astaire playing a man named Lucky (whose luck may or may not be attached to a quarter) pursuing a woman named Penny (Baker), who might be the real secret to a good fortune. With a score by Jerome Kern and a libretto by Dorothy Fields and Astaire-led choreography, anyone watching this film will quickly realize that the real “Lucky”’ is the viewer, because it is simply splendid.
Eleanor Powell – ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ (1940)
Trained in ballet and acrobatics, Eleanor Powell was one of the most versatile and athletic dance stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In their only on-screen pairing, Powell and Fred Astaire showcase a dynamic that is very different than the one Astaire shared with Ginger Rogers. Here we find Powell as a powerful, almost leading force, with the choreography supporting her in this role–particularly in the sequence featuring Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’ In that full ensemble dance scene, Powell comes drifting out into the stage, beguilingly twirling and swaying until Astaire joins her for a magical partnered tap dance under the starlight of the stage. Besides being an excellent display of Powell’s considerable talent, ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ is a wonderful mix of musical theater and tap.
Gene Kelly – ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)
Although not a blockbuster at the time of its release, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is widely considered to be one of the greatest dance musicals of all time, and a classic in terms of movies featuring tap dance. It also premiered in the later period of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which might account for its slower path towards widespread acclaim and recognition. Although there are many great dance scenes in the film, including some with a young Debbie Reynolds, the true classic tap dance scene that needs mentioning is the title song’s sequence. Kelly’s character Don Lockwood turns what could have been a wet and wretched experience into a jubilant expression of everything that makes dance movies magical.
Shirley Temple – ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ (1938)
In her four-film appearances with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ has the plot and characterizations that are probably most recognizable to modern viewers. This comedy of errors about a pint-sized beauty queen who is tossed into a rustic setting is full of dance sequences that seem incredible to have been performed by its nine-year-old star. The colorful dance scenes work largely due to the incredible talent of the young actress and the effortless adaptability of her adult counterparts, particularly Robinson. Their closing dance of the wooden soldiers is a tap dance marvel to behold for dancers of all ages.
Ann Miller – ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (1953)
One of the first 3D musicals that Hollywood ever produced, this musical revision of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ stars Kathryn Greyson and Howard Keel, who were both excellent actors and dancers. However, special mention must go out to Ann Miller as Lois Lane (no, not that Lois Lane), whose risqué scene-stealing dance to the Cole Porter tune ‘It’s Too Darn Hot’ was about as spicy as things could get back in those days. Though not necessarily a classic in the same sense that a lot of the other films on this list are, ‘Kiss Me Kate’ earns a place on this list for Miller’s presence and the innovative way Hermes Pan choreographed the action to work with the emerging 3D technology.
Gregory Hines – ’Tap’ (1989)
Before Gregory Hines came along, tap dance was declining, largely seen at Las Vegas variety shows and the occasional mention on television. That all changed with Hines, whose career rejuvenated the genre and presented it with new innovations for a fresh generation of dance fans worldwide. ‘Tap’ is a worthy vehicle for Hine’s talent, and the ensemble cast is chock full of dancers and entertainers from yesteryear, including Sammy Davis Jr. in his last film role. The entire film is an homage to the past and bridge to the future, with a young Savion Glover representing the future of the style. Veteran choreographer Henry Le Tang puts his vision into the club scenes, and an iconic tap dance challenge scene finds Hines dancing with some of the greatest masters of the past, including Steve Condos, Howard Sims, Harold Nicholas (the younger half of The Nicholas Brothers), Jimmy Slyde, Bunny Briggs, and Arthur Duncan. If you want to see a movie that has more legendary tap dancers in it than an entire studio catalog, ‘Tap’ is a film you don’t want to miss.
Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates – ’The Dancing Man’ (1992)
This documentary about Peg Leg Bates might be a little hard to find, but it deserves a special mention solely on the merits of its subject, whose on-screen career was only confined to television. Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates was born in South Carolina in 1907 to sharecroppers. A dancing bucker practically since he could walk, he lost his left leg in an accident at the age of 12. Undaunted, and desperate to earn money as a dancer, he overcame his disability and taught himself to dance on a specially crafted wooden peg leg that his uncle made for him. Soon he became an attraction up and down the east coast and by his early 20s was appearing on Broadway. A true veteran of the variety show, his career spanned an incredible seven decades and took him around the world to perform for adoring crowds including movie stars and royalty. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show over 20 times, and many of those appearances are available on YouTube today. He lived to the age of 91 and performed for an audience of high schoolers the day before he died. Apart from telling the story of his incredible talent and perseverance, ‘The Dancing Man’ also shows the viewer the wonderful power of tap dance.