African American dancers in suits black and white with their arms outstretched on one leg

The History of Tap Dance

Tap dance is one of the most distinctly American art forms that enjoys worldwide popularity, in part due to the “melting pot” cultural milieu from which it arose almost two centuries ago. Forged in the oppressive landscape of slavery and indentured immigration in 19th century America, tap has evolved over the years into an energetic and truly musical dance form.

Tap, as a dance style, is percussive and rhythmically complex, and has movement that celebrates the marriage of motion and sound. This liberating dance style can stretch backward and forwards in time, evoking rhymes from before the birth of jazz music. Here’s a quick look at the history of tap, with a glance at where it might be heading in the 21st century and beyond.

In The Beginning

While the exact origin point of tap dance is often in dispute, most scholars agree that the conditions behind its development lies in the merging of West African dances and the clog dances and jigs of Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants. Where these groups came into contact to create modern-day tap has generally been focused into two very different geographical areas: The antebellum American South, and urban immigrant northern neighborhoods like Five Points in Manhattan.

A black and white drawing of William Henry Lane, known as “Master Juba,’ dancing in a long white suit and black boots in front of the audience.

Scholars who point to poor districts in larger northern cities as the birthplace of tap dance reveal that many of those communities hosted jig dance competitions before the civil war, where Irish and African American men would compete with each other for large sums of money. One of the most famous rivalries from this pre-war period was between the Irishman John Diamond, whose fame rose under the wing of P.T. Barnum before setting out on his own, and a new Barnum protégé, an African American man named William Henry Lane, better known by the stage name “Master Juba.” Master Juba and Diamond staged a series of famous dance-offs into the mid-1840s, whose popularity was part of a larger phenomenon that would dominate the American cultural landscape in the coming decades: The minstrel show.

From Minstrel Shows to Vaudeville

One unfortunate truth about the roots of tap dance is its shockingly racist history. The era of the minstrel show, for example, took place during the middle of the 19th century, and its aesthetics were usually built around crude caricatures of African Americans. Master Juba was one of many minstrel performers who was himself of African descent. The legacy of the minstrel era in America is also deeply enmeshed in the creation of some of its most noble African American artforms, from the birth of jazz and blues music to tap dance itself.

Black and white photo of a white woman with a cane and an African American man with a top hat and a monocle smiling together looking out in the distance

After the decline of minstrel shows in the 1870s, a new phenomenon called vaudeville emerged. During this period, performers began dancing in more relaxed soft-shoes, and styles such as the rapid, clog-wearing tapping and kicking of buck and wing dancing rose in popularity. Dancers would often perform as mixed-race duos with pianists, as cultural attitudes still prevented black entertainers from performing solo. The costumes incorporated more elegance too, with the use of tuxedos and custom suits replacing the “impoverished” stereotype styles of the minstrel shows. It was in the vaudeville period, particularly during the turn of the century, that the conditions for what we would recognize as tap dance were coming together. 

The Birth of Tap Dance

In the first decade of the 20th century, a young buck and wing dancer named Bill “Bojangles” Robinson saw his career gaining steam in the vaudeville circuit. Known as a versatile dancer with incredible control and the innovative use of the tips of his feet for “toe taps,” Robinson would go on to become the highest-paid African American entertainer in the new century, and is widely considered to be the first superstar in tap dance. Crossing his success over from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen, he starred in films with Shirley Temple, played the most esteemed stages across America, and influenced a generation of entertainers including: Fred Astaire, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and Ed Sullivan. Robinson is recognized as an early black groundbreaker into the American entertainment industry which at the time remained overwhelmingly white.

Black and white of Bill Robinson, known as “Bojangles,” dancing and smiling with Shirley Temple in a barn

During the rise of Robinson’s career he and other performers started affixing metal “taps” onto the toes and heels of their shoes to achieve “early tap shoes” which feature a more compelling and clear percussive sound. It was during this period that the term “tap dancing” became formally applied to dancers working with this popular practice.

Younger performers who followed in Robinson’s footsteps include The Nicholas Brothers, whose flash dancing performance in the 1943 musical film ‘Stormy Weather’ is still considered a milestone achievement in the history of tap. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers also incorporated tap into their musicals, with an elegant ballroom style that dropped some of the flashier aspects of tap dance. 

Beginning in the 1920s, tap dancing was a must for any dancer looking for a career in the vibrant club scene of the jazz world. And by the 1940s, tap dance was a universal spectacle in the world of Hollywood musicals. The footwear became more diverse and designed, with custom styles built for women, children, and men in all sorts of roles. Small flexible soundboards were attached to the sole before the metal taps were put on, allowing adjustments to be made by individual dancers for more tonal variety. In mid-century America, tap dance had created an entire industry around itself.

Hollywood, Broadway and Beyond!

Black and white portrait of the Nicholas Brothers; two African American men smiling in suits and bow ties

As the era of big musicals started to decline before the birth of rock ‘n roll and youth culture in the 1960s, a new generation of tap dancers were diversifying their approach and creative scope of the genre while pursuing new audiences. While Las Vegas live entertainment and television variety shows still showcased tap dance, it was clear by the late 1960s that tap dance was in danger of becoming stale. It fell on the shoulders of younger dancers to carry the torch forward and innovate the genre.

Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice were child prodigies, studying under older masters like Henry LeTang and Howard Sims and appearing as a family act on the club circuit with legends like Cab Calloway and The Nicholas Brothers. By the 1970s, Gregory had fused his triple-threat talents as a singer, dancer, and actor into a career that saw him performing in front of audiences around the world and starring alongside famous actors, comedians, and dancers from other disciplines like Mikhail Baryshnikov in many Hollywood films. Hines’ style broke out of the strict up-beat jazz trappings of previous decades to embrace a more freeform and improvisational kind of performance. At the time of his death in 2003 he was widely considered to be the most successful crossover tap dancer of all time. 

Another superstar tap dancer from a generation after Hines is Savion Glover, who was a student of the late master. He too broke down conventions within the tap dancing world with his full embrace of jazz-funk and hip-hop into his work. His choreography in the 1995 hit musical ‘Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk’ was an electrifying and groundbreaking exploration of Black American dance history, with an emphasis on a new hybrid style mixing tap dance and rap music. This innovative approach to tap dance, revived tap dance as an art form still capable of fresh innovations despite its age.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, posing together on Mt. Hollywood Drive overlooking the city

Today tap dance can be found everywhere, from hit Hollywood throwback films like ‘La La Land’ to modern fusions with ballet, hip-hop, and contemporary dance productions. At more than 100 years old, tap dance is still a wildly popular style, and its reign and influence shows no sign of declining as new generations of young dancers discover its wonderful intersection of rhythm and motion.

Want to give tap dancing a try? Dance online today with CLI Studios!

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