A History of Tap Dance

A History of Tap Dance

Exuberant dance moves, energetic and fast movement, a focus on footwork and skill, and not to mention the sound, the tapping, the clanging, the shuffles across the floor, the sound of shoes scuffing – these are the things that I think of when I think of tap dance.

I think of Broadway musicals featuring elegant dances, men in top hats and tails and women in stunning gowns or their own version of an elegant tuxedo. I think of shows like Broadway Melody, and Singing in the rain, and dancers like Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire. But there is so much more than this to tap dance.


Tap Dance


A type of dance in which a rhythm is formed by the noise of the dancers shoes on the floor.

You will find this simple and to the point definition in the Cambridge Dictionary. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the definition it fails to describe any of the skill, emotion or heart that goes into great tap dance.

19th Century Tap Dance

Tap dance originated in the 19th century and is the result of the fusion of African and Irish dance styles. At a time when African born slaves were banned from creating their traditional music with the use of percussion instruments, they turned to creating sound with their own bodies; clapping, hitting their hands on their chests and legs and stamping their feet to create a rhythm of their own making.

This new style of creating music became blended with the Irish clog dancing and the early form of tap dance emerged. This was a new form of dance combining rhythm, movement, and sound in a way that had not been done before. It provided a way of freedom of expression and bought communities back to life as they danced and celebrated with each other.

It was after the American civil war when tap dance saw its first real boom and rise to being a household activity and dance style. Early tap shoes had wooden bottoms and often had a penny attached to the toe and heel in order to enhance the dance and create the sounds that we now associate with tap dancing.

20th Century Tap Dance

From the 1920’s onwards the ‘tap’ became a common feature on shoes and it evolved to being a metal plate on both the toe and heel of the shoe, with the sole of the shoe being made from leather rather than wood.

Through the 1930’s to 1950’s many Hollywood films began to feature tap dance and this cemented its popularity across the classes and tap joined other mainstream dance styles in both dance schools and dance competitions. Actors such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and even Shirley Temple bought their own twist to the dance style and the silver screen.

Shirley Temple was just 6yrs old when she made her debut film appearance in 1934 and she went on to record 24 films between 1934 and 1940 with many of them featuring powerful tap dance routines.

Although tap saw a decline in the late 20th century a string of Broadway shows helped it to regain its popularity.

Important figures and early influencers.

Master Juba (1825 – 1853) was an African American dancer and was instrumental in the beginnings of tap dance. His style of performance varied but is reported to have been expressive, percussive, dynamic, and not like anything else that had been seen at the time.

Bill (Bojangles) Robinson (1878 – 1949) has had his contribution to tap dance described as iconic – he transformed the style from flat footed dancing to a more upright swing style with the dancers spending much of their time on their toes or balls of their feet. This meant the style became much ‘lighter’.

Clayton (Pag Leg) Bates (1907 – 1998) bought his own unique style to the dance. He lost his leg at the age of 12 but was already into dance and performing. He incorporated his wooden ‘peg leg’ into his routines and by the age of 20 was dancing on Broadway.

Jeni Le Gon (1916 – 2012) was one of the first African American women to have an established solo career in tap dance, she was also an actress and dance instructor.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914 – 2006), Harold (1921 – 2000), were dancing brothers who bought acrobatics and a touch of flair to tap dance. They had a unique style of dance that never failed to draw the audience in and their performance in the film Stormy Weather is still highly praised today.

Tap dance today.

Tap dance is a dynamic artform featuring complex footwork often to a fast rhythm and can incorporate spins, jumps, the iconic ball change move, and costume props amongst many other things. Tap dance can be choreographed and performed by large groups or individuals but it can also be a spontaneous dance style that can be used for dancers to express themselves and various emotions.

Learning to tap dance takes dedication but can be incredibly fun and will help with developing fitness, commitment, dedication, and discipline.

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