Written by Soumia Hammi, Jessica Finol, and Imani Woodin
Origins of Tap
Tap dancing is a style created in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries that has its origins in both Irish and West African dance styles.
Indentured Irish servants and African American slaves during the 1700s kept their cultures alive through dance, including Irish step dancing and the West African gioube. These two dance styles were eventually fused into a dance style known as jigging, the predecessor to modern tap. It is believed that tap dancing was born from these different groups of people observing each other’s dancing styles on southern plantations as well as in Northern urban areas.
During the mid to late 1800s, jigging and then tap became popular through minstrel shows that traveled around the country. However, these shows were often extremely racist, with both white and black dancers wearing blackface and performing bigoted stereotypes for their audience. These minstrel forms were considered to be “low” art, and tap was still not allowed in places like concert halls. Tap shoes in their modern form did not exist at this time; instead, performers would use clogs or even tape pennies onto the soles of their shoes to create a tapping sound.
Evolution of Tap
During this era of tap dance being performed at minstrel shows, many different styles emerged though they were mainly defined by syncopated rhythms instead of the sound of tapping itself, as tap shoes had not yet been invented.
One such style was the “buck and wing”, a technique that used shuffle steps and taps to mark the tempo, in addition to using the heels and toes to create variations in both the sound and the movement of the performance.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, one of the first Black tap dancers who would later have a major influence in bringing tap dance to the mainstream, first began dancing in minstrel shows and was one of the first African-American dancers to perform without blackface. His unique style involved dropping his heels, which marked a significant change in popular tap technique.
Master Juba’s own style of fast and technical tap would also have a significant impact on the following generations of tap dancers as the introduction of tap shoes created new possibilities for sound and dance to arise in the 1920s.
These early versions of tap shoes were created by screwing small pieces of flat metal to the toes and heels of dance shoes since they allowed for a louder and more rhythmic sound to be utilized by dancers.
Around the same time, traveling vaudeville shows allowed for tap dancing to become a group routine, instead of an individual performance, as it had previously been. The introduction of standardized steps and choreographers further grew tap movement, and jazz music soon became the common accompaniment to tap.
In 1918, Bill Robinson introduced audiences to the light and graceful elements of tap dance with his famous “Stair Dance”. In the 1930s film, The Little Colonel, Robinson actually taught a young Shirly Temple a modified version of the “Stair Dance”, making them the first onscreen interracial dance partners in Hollywood history.
1930s - 1950s
During the 1930s through the 1950s, with stars like Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire, tap sequences quickly became a staple in film and television. Performers began tapping faster, using props, incorporating acrobatics, and performing to new types of music, making tap dance quickly become a main attraction in the entertainment industry. This allowed for more unique styles of tap to emerge as well.
Gene Kelly’s style of tap incorporated ballet-inspired moves, and Fred Astaire was known for fusing tap with ballroom dance. Other notable dancers from this period that added their own styles to the growing tap culture were:
Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, a disabled dancer, whose unique combination of his deep-toned peg, which was made of leather and rubber-tipped, and a higher-pitched metallic tap shoe, allowed for melodically and rhythmically enhanced style.
Jeni Le Gon, who was one of the first black women to become a tap soloist in the first half of the 20th century, wore pants instead of skirts when she performed, resulting in the development of her athletic and acrobatic style. She performed mule kicks and flying splits, moves that were more similar to the style of other male dancers of the time.
The Nicholas Brothers Fayard and Harold, brothers whose rapid-fire synchronized tap dancing and acrobatics were so athletic that many people assumed they had been trained in ballet. They were simply masters at learning from observing the European ballet companies that toured and became famous for leaping into splits and landing without using their hands.
1950s - 1960s
When movies began moving away from musical classics, in addition to the replacement of jazz with rock as the popular music of the day, tap dance gradually lost popularity.
Although it was in decline, the impact of tap was still felt. Many aspects of tap led to the growth of jazz dance, which began to increase in popularity.
Gregory Hines’ style of tap introduced new and more complex series of steps, sounds, and rhythms. He improvised often, straying from traditional rhythmic meters, and is credited for bringing tap dance back to movies and stages.
1990s - Present
Marking a new era of tap was Savion Glover, active in the dance world since 1985 from Newark, New Jersey. While in the mid 20th century, Tap was likened with jazz music, Glover changed the narrative and mixed the dance form with Hip-Hop. Before he was a pioneer, he was a tap prodigy, referred to as “the sponge” by elder entertainers because of his ability to learn quickly and put his own spin on the art form, as seen in his Broadway featured choreography piece, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. You can watch a clip of his unique style here.
Tap is moving with the times, as it even has NFTs. To read more about emerging tap talent, such as 10 year-old Zyla Harris-Petter; 13 year old twins Freddie and Theodore TIsdale, who were featured on NBC’s “Little Big Shots”; or star in the making Bella Boye, check out this article to learn more.
Continuing the legacy of tap sensationalism are the Syncopated Ladies. The creator of the group, Chloe Arnold was featured in Savion Glover’s 1993 tap dancing crew at the age of 12 years old and went on to hit the stage with her jaw-dropping presence. To learn more about them, check out our article here and get your tickets here for their performance on February 17, 2023 at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium.