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A Brief History Of Tap Dance


Looking to start tap dancing? When you take tap dance classes, you’re participating in an old and very interesting form of dancing.


Tap dance has evolved over the years and had a large impact on other types of dances and cultures.


Here is a brief history of tap dance:


Early Years In the U.S.


Tap dancing originated in the U.S. and brought together elements from a number of other ethnic dances, including West African step dances and Scottish, Irish, and English jigs.


Many elements of modern tap dance, including syncopated rhythms, come from African tribal dances and songs. When enslaved people couldn’t perform with their traditional drums, they found ways to make similar sounds with their feet and bodies to keep their culture alive.



Tap is believed to have first originated in the U.S. from African and Irish slaves observing each other’s dances on Southern plantations in the 19th century.


Dance competitions and minstrel shows were popular forms of entertainment in the post-Civil War era.


Traveling shows would include both Black and White dancers. Early wooden shoes allowed performers to combine fancy footwork with sounds that transfixed audiences. At these events, dancers would showcase their skills and learn techniques from other dancers.


One of the most famous early tap dancers was William Henry Lane, also known as Master Juba, who was one of the only Black dancers to perform with traveling white minstrel groups. His fast dancing blended African and European styles and had a huge impact on the next generation of tap dancers.


During these years, tap dancing was defined more by syncopated rhythms than by the tapping sound itself because most people performed in soft shoes or wooden shoes, similar to clogs. Some performers attached pennies to their shoes for the earliest versions of modern tap shoes.


Many variations of tap dance came out of minstrel shows, including “buck and wing”, which includes shuffle steps and taps to mark tempo. Dancers also started using both their heels and toes to create variations in movement and sound.


The Addition Of Tap Shoes


The type of tap dance we would recognize today was introduced in the 1920s when tap shoes were first created. The first tap shoes were built by nailing or screwing small pieces of metal to the toes and heels of dance shoes.


Performing groups and chorus lines started performing in tap shoes, and the dancing and footwear quickly gained popularity. Metal taps allowed for a louder and more rhythmic sound.


Around the same time, tap dancing became a popular addition to traveling vaudeville shows. Tap dancing had previously been largely an individual performance, but it became a group routine with the help of choreographers and standardized steps.



Groups and families of tap dancers traveled across the country sharing their unique rhythms. As the taps got louder, they also got faster and drew bigger crowds. Because tap dancing was defined by its unique syncopations and rhythms, many solo performers would improvise their dances. It was also at this time that tap battles were introduced.


Tap battles are still popular elements of the dance style today and involve two dancers improvising and battling back and forth with feverish footwork and taps. Tap battles became a hallmark of the style and a great way to bring the audience into the performance.


The unique sounds of tap dancing paired well with the sounds of jazz music. Jazz even soon became the most common accompaniment to tap dance. Many tap dancers began collaborating with jazz musicians to create unique performances.


Tap Goes To Broadway and Film


Tap dancing soon expanded from small traveling stages to the biggest stages of all on Broadway. Popular stars like Fred Astaire and Bill Robinson were known for their elegant and charismatic dancing.


They added a performative element to tap dancing and used it to tell a story and share emotion. Fred Astaire combined ballroom dance with tap to create a new version of the dance that was elegant and refined.


Robinson was one of the first Black tap dancers to perform for major audiences and had a major influence in bringing tap dance to the mainstream. His famous “Stair Dance” from 1918 introduced many people to the light and graceful elements of tap dance as he performed complicated movements up and down a set of stairs.  



Tap dancing soon became a requirement for performers on stage and screen, which pushed dancers to create innovative new steps and styles to gain attention. It was at this time that performers started using props, incorporating acrobatics, tapping even faster, and wearing attention-grabbing costumes.


Tap dance was no longer just a simple performance—it was the main attraction and a full-fledged show. Tap dancers started performing to new types of music and crossing genre lines.


Tap dancing continued to make its way into major stage and film productions. Stars like Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple added their own personal takes to tap and continued to evolve and personalize the style. Kelly was known for adding ballet-inspired moves to tap.


During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, nearly every theatrical production and movie had some form of tap dance sequence.


At the same time, tap dance performances became a regular occurrence at nightclubs and musical venues. Tap dancers often performed to classical music and with live orchestras at some of the best venues in major cities, especially New York. With the invention of television, tap dancers found new audiences.


Variety shows that were popular in the early days of television, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, often featured tap dancers. The new medium allowed tap dancers to perform for a wider audience.


Many performers also moved off Broadway and started tap dancing in Las Vegas, which was gaining popularity as an entertainment destination.


A Decline In Popularity


As movies moved away from musical classics, tap dance started to lose popularity. Musicals, starting with Oklahoma, moved away from tap dancing routines and more towards ballet.


During the 1950s and 60s, jazz music was replaced by rock and pop music, which was less conducive to tap dance. At the same time, fewer people were going to nightclubs as the baby boomer generation focused on getting an education and joining the workforce.


Although tap was in decline, its impact was still felt. Many aspects of tap led to the growth of jazz dance, which surged in popularity.


Tap Is Back


Despite its lull, tap managed to stay alive during the 1960s and 70s—but barely. Although most dancers found themselves with nowhere to perform, it was in the 70s that tap troupes were created. These groups kept tap alive and eventually led to younger dancers asking to learn how to tap dance.


In the 1980s, Broadway shows like 42nd Street and The Tap Dance Kid introduced new audiences to tap dance, and the style began to regain some of its original popularity. Gregory Hines is largely credited for reviving tap dance and bringing the dance back to movies and stages.


One of the biggest proponents of modern tap dancing is Savion Glover, who was taught by Hines and who starred in The Tap Dance Kid. His style of tapping adds many contemporary elements, which made it a hit with a new generation of dancers.



Modern tap dancers have largely moved away from old-timey music and incorporated more popular music, especially pop and hip hop, into their routines to better connect with audiences.


Modern tap dance has two main categories: rhythm and theatrical. Theatrical tappers bring back elements of classic dancers from the 1930s and 40s and dance with their entire bodies as they move around the stage.


Rhythmic tappers like Glover use their feet to make music. For these dancers, it’s more about the rhythms and precise sounds, and movement is typically contained to the feet. Both types of tap dance are staples of the dance world and growing in popularity as a new generation of tap dancers emerges.


Today, tap dance is popular among dancers of all ages and there are dance studios teaching tap across the country. Many popular movies including Happy Feet have revived the dance style and shown how it can be performed in a variety of situations.


Because tap can be interpreted in a number of ways, dancers can add their unique style and make each performance their own.


Participating in tap dance classes allows you to join the unique history of tap dance and add your own personal spin. Tap dance has evolved over the years and played a major role in shaping the culture of the United States.


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