How did tap dancing start

A Brief Tap Dance History – UMS – University Musical Society



June 21, 2019

Originally published October 5, 2016. Updated June 21, 2019.

Photo: Dorrance Dance in performance. The company returns to Ann Arbor on February 21-22, 2020. Photo by Nicholas Van Young.

Brief History

Tap dance originated in the United States in the early 19th century at the crossroads of African and Irish American dance forms. When slave owners took away traditional African percussion instruments, slaves turned to percussive dancing to express themselves and retain their cultural identities. These styles of dance connected with clog dancing from the British Isles, creating a unique form of movement and rhythm.

Early tap shoes had wooden soles, sometimes with pennies attached to the heel and toe. Tap gained popularity after the Civil War as a part of traveling minstrel shows, where white and black performers wore blackface and belittled black people by portraying them as lazy, dumb, and comical.


20th Century Tap Tap was an important feature of popular Vaudeville variety shows of the early 20th century and a major part of the rich creative output of the Harlem Renaissance.

Tap dancers began collaborating with jazz musicians, incorporating improvisation and complex syncopated rhythms into their movement. The modern tap shoe, featuring metal plates (called “taps”) on the heel and toe, also came into widespread use at this time. Although Vaudeville and Broadway brought performance opportunities to African-American dancers, racism was still pervasive: white and black dancers typically performed separately and for segregated audiences.

Tap’s popularity declined in the second half of the century, but was reinvigorated in the 1980s through Broadway shows like 42nd Street and The Tap Dance Kid.

Tap in Hollywood

From the 1930s to the 1950s, tap dance sequences became a staple of movies and television. Tap stars included Shirley Temple, who made her film tap dance debut at age 6, and Gene Kelly, who introduced a balletic style of tap. Fred Astaire, famous for combining tap with ballroom dance, insisted that his dance scenes be captured with a single take and wide camera angle. This style of cinematography became the norm for tap dancing in movies and television for decades.

The Greats

Master Juba (ca. 1825 – ca. 1852) was one of the only early black tap dancers to tour with a white minstrel group and one of the first to perform for white audiences. Master Juba offered a fast and technically brilliant dance style blending European and African dance forms.

Dancer Jeni LeGon with dancer (and musician) Chester Whitmore in 2009. Joe Mabel/Century Ballroom

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878—1949) began dancing in minstrel shows and was one of the first African-American dancers to perform without blackface. He adapted to the changing tastes of the era, moving on to vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood Radio programs, and television. Robinson’s most popular routine involved dancing up and down a staircase with complex tap rhythms on each step.

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1907-98) continued to dance with after losing a leg in a cotton gin accident as a child. He danced in vaudeville, on film, and was a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. Bates also frequently performed for others with physical disabilities.

Jeni Le Gon (1916-2012) was one of the first black women to become a tap soloist in the first half of the 20th century. She wore pants rather than skirts when she performed and, as a result, she developed an athletic, acrobatic style, employing mule kicks and flying splits, more in the manner of the male dancers of the time.

The Nicholas Brothers Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000) Nicholas had a film and television tap career spanning more than 70 years. Impressed by their choreography, George Balanchine invited them to appear in his Broadway production of Babes in Arms. Their unique style of suppleness, strength, and fearlessness led many to believe that they were trained ballet dancers.

Gregory Hines (1946-2003) introduced a higher complexity of the improvisation of steps, sounds, rhythms. Hines’s dances were rhythmically involved and often strayed from traditional rhythmic meters. Savion

Glover (b. 1973) is best known for starring in the Broadway hit The Tap Dance Kid. Glover mixes classic moves like those of his teacher Gregory Hines with his own contemporary style. He has won several Tony awards for his Broadway choreography.

The Blues Project – Dorrance Dance Company with Toshi Reagan and BIGLovely


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.


Learning how to tap dance puts you right in the middle of the history of this fascinating and beautiful art form.

History of tap dancing




| Club dances

Social dancing

Tap dancing

The history of tap dancing in the United States is very old, its origins date back to the British Isles and Africa. While this dance style originated in the early 1800s, it took a full 100 years before the genre became popular on a national scale.

Tap dance

The early history of tap dancing

At its very beginning, at its inception, this style of dance looked completely different from the tap dance that everyone knows today. It was performed in shoes with leather or wooden soles. Currently, tap dancing is performed in special shoes with leather soles lined with metal plates. Despite the fact that shoes have completely changed since the beginning of the dance, as well as the movements in the dance, the basis of tap dancing is still beating the rhythm with the movements of the foot. nine0004

Tap dance

The earliest examples of tap dancing did not originate on stage, but rather were social dances among slave communities in the southern United States. With the addition of African dance moves, as well as elements of British clogging and Irish tap dance, African-American communities in the South began to develop their dance, which has evolved into modern tap dancing.

Most often impromptu tap dance performances started when groups of people got together for social reasons. The most skilled dancers could even tap the rhythm with their bare heels on the ground. nine0004

Tap dancing

Theater and tap dancing

While tap dancing started on the plantations among workers, it soon made its way into the theaters. In 1828, the first step was performed by Thomas "Daddy" Rice. The audience was enraptured by the rhythmic sounds and freestyle movements. After that, the genre began to develop rapidly. By the late 1800s, tap dancing was already a trivial scene in minstrel shows in the south.

Tap dance

Tap dance flourish

Approximately 100 years after the first stage performance, tap dance began to enjoy wide popularity. In the 1920s, wooden and leather soles were replaced by modern shoes with metal plates on the toe and heel. Also contributing to the popularity of this dance genre were performers of the 1930s and 1950s, such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who incorporated steps and movements from classical ballet into tap dance.


tap, tap, dance, Fred Astaire

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    Tap dance - the dance that conquered America

    Tap dance - the dance that conquered America

    "Music of the feet" - this is literally how tap dance can be described. For this dance, it is not necessary to use musical accompaniment - the rhythm is beaten off by special shoes with metal plates on the sole. This is the main advantage of the genre: a unique dance pattern is available even for blind people. Because they hear him. Who first began to tap dance, we propose to find out from our article. nine0004

    History of tap dancing

    In another way, this dance is called American tap dance, because the United States is considered the birthplace of the genre. This direction became the main highlight of Broadway, and then Hollywood. The frequent and rhythmic tapping of shoes with metal heels captured the minds of Americans, despite the Great Depression that swept the country in the late 20s and early 30s of the 20th century. People enjoyed going to musical performances to admire the performance of their favorite dancers. Who was "to blame" for such a stir? nine0004

    The origins of the tap dance can be traced in the ritual dances of the indigenous population of America - the Indians. Their movements during the ceremonies are indeed somewhat reminiscent of the tap dance rhythm. But the true "parents" of the direction are still the cultural traditions of the Negroes and the Irish, who settled the lands of the New World back in the 18th century. The Negroes brought African rhythms to America, and the Irish brought the jig. During the impromptu matches hosted by the immigrants, racial and other stereotypes were dissolved in the struggle for the best wooden sole dance performance. Peculiar competitions remained in the shadow of the general public until 1830, which is considered the year of the birth of tap dance. nine0004

    In 1830, a famous Irish dancer, who performed under the pseudonym Papa Rice, demonstrated a new dance to the public. He combined the jig with some elements of African rhythms, in particular, he borrowed certain movements of the legs, shoulders and arms. Papa Rice was greeted with a standing ovation - this is how the tap dance appeared, which excited America.

    Until the 20s of the last century, the step was inextricably linked with Broadway and the artists who masterfully performed this dance. One of the main tap dancers who shone on the stage was the African American Bill Robinson. The dancer managed to achieve something incredible at that time - to win over the white audience. After all, according to the rules of racial segregation of those times, blacks had to dance only for blacks, and whites for whites. Robinson changed these traditions. But not only this is remarkable for his figure in the development of tap dance. A kick with a toe, a glancing kick, a dance on the stairs - all this is his "hands" work, for which modern tap dance fans thank him. nine0004

    With the development of the film industry, step dance acquires a different status. Now style is becoming the main focus of musical comedy directors. New tap dance idols appear. Frederick Austerlitz or Fred Astaire became the main star of Hollywood musicals, although initially they were skeptical about his candidacy: the balding actor does not really know how to play, except for dancing a little. But the young man was able to charm film producer David Selznick and show his talent to the whole world. Aster's merit lies in the fact that he did not just perform the step. He masterfully combined it with the choreography of classical dance, creating a special aesthetic of the style. nine0004

    Who holds the palm among black tap dancers in Hollywood? It was Sammy Davis Junior who started his career at the age of 3. The talented African American won the love of the public and captivated her with his incredibly masterful movements.

    The post-war period is considered golden in the development of tap dance. The war is over - you can relax and enjoy the game of musical actors performing tap. The names of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Jinder Rogers do not leave the posters, and the great tap dancers do not stop beating a clear rhythm, turning dance into art. nine0004

    In the early 1950s, the genre experienced a period of stagnation. The big bands, whose music accompanied most tap dances, were taxed by the government. Musicals cease to generate income - producers are looking for new ideas for scripts. Thus, the tap dance remains on the sidelines of the film industry, to which it owes its development, giving way to ballet scenes.

    At the end of the 60s, Broadway was dominated by big dance events: directors began to revive old musicals, including those with tap dance numbers. At the same time, several programs about the step are launched on television. All this leads to a revival of the style, a new wave of its popularity. At the same time, step is no longer perceived simply as entertainment. Masterly tapping with shoes has become a subject of art - fans of the genre began to open schools for teaching step dance, festivals and competitions between tap dancers are organized across the country. nine0004

    At present, interest in style has not faded. Yes, tap is gone from the big screens. Where did he "settle"? In small chamber venues, where modern dancers continue to beat out a clear rhythm in an attempt to win the status of the most talented tap dancer.

    Interesting Facts

    • Shoes with metal heels only appeared in jazz times. Initially, the step was danced in clogs and shoes with wooden soles. nine0069
    • Since 1989, every May 25, all dancers celebrate Tap Day. The date was not chosen by chance. On this day, step dance master Bill Robinson was born. In the US, the holiday has become an official status.
    • In the 1935 film The Little Colonel, Bill Robinson performs his famous "step step" with movie star Shirley Temple, the youngest Oscar winner. It was the first film in which representatives of the black and white races danced hand in hand. For this reason, the film was banned from showing in the southern states. nine0069
    • During World War II, Fred Astaire inspired American soldiers with impromptu tap dancing. He specially flew to London to raise the morale of his compatriots before landing in Normandy.
    • At the beginning of the 19th century, step was considered a dance of the black population of the United States, since it was closely associated with the development of jazz. Jazz melodies seem to have been created for tap dancing, so the dance was called “jazz” in the 1920s and nothing else.
    • In the 1920s, tap dance became a pastime for former hard drinkers. Prohibition, adopted in the United States that year, completely banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. In order to somehow entertain the audience, the owners of drinking establishments invited black tap dancers.
    • In 2000, the Guinness Book of Records has an entry about tap dancer Jerry Adams. This dancer covered the distance from Washington to New York in 6 hours. What is remarkable here? What he did was tap dancing. By the way, the distance between the end points was 328 km. nine0069
    • There is another entry in the Book of Records, dedicated this time to the fastest tap dancer. 28 beats per minute - this is the result of Michael Ryan Flatley, an Irish-born choreographer. The record was set in 1989. Exactly 9 years later, the dancer broke his own record, setting a new bar of 35 beats. But not only Michael Flatley is famous for this. His large-scale dance shows, such as "Lord of the dance" and "Feet of Flames", won the love of tap fans around the world. nine0069

    • According to experts, the best and fastest tap dancer in the world is a woman. This title was awarded to Elinor Powell, whose career fell on the 30s and 40s.
    • Irish step impresses with its vigor and rhythm. This is a rather difficult style to perform, since the number of kicks with one foot varies from 4 to 6. At the same time, the body remains motionless, only the legs are involved in the dance. They perform it to folklore, Celtic music. nine0069
    • Russia has not bypassed tap dancing. Our version of the dance is called drobushki. Unlike foreign dancers, Russians have abandoned shoes with metal plates. Instead, double-soled shoes were used.
    • The government of the Soviet Union in the post-war years was negatively disposed towards the tap dance - the development of the genre was hindered by the "Iron Curtain". Despite this, the traditions of the American tap dance were actively developed by the Gusakov brothers.
    • nine0068 Tap-dancing scenes can be admired not only in old American musicals. They are also present in Soviet films. So, Lyubov Orlova demonstrated her talent in tap dance in the film "Circus".
    • There is a legend that Steppe was born on a ship carrying migrants from Europe. During the journey to distant shores, representatives of various countries came out on deck and beat a clear rhythm on the wooden floorboards. Sailors were not inferior to European dancers, who, for a better sound, came up with the idea of ​​\u200b\u200bnailing small English coins to the soles - pennies. nine0069

    The best melodies in tap rhythms

    As we said earlier, the history of tap dance is inextricably linked with the development of jazz music. It was used in musicals. Therefore, the best melodies are presented in old Hollywood musical comedies.

    " Chattanooga Choo-Chu " was featured in the film Sun Valley Serenade. In 1941, the record with this composition became the leader of the American hit parade. And the story of the song began on a train that raced along the Southern Railroad through the town of Chattanooga. Lyrics by Mark Gordon, music by Harry Warren. In the musical, the song is performed by the Glenn Miller Jazz Orchestra. nine0004

    Chattanooga Choo Choo (listen)

    " Singin' in the Rain ". The composition itself was released in 1929, and gained fame in 1952 after the release of the film comedy Singing in the Rain on television. Her popularity is directly related to Gene Kelly, who performed the tap under a simple melody. At the same time, the choreography was choreographed by the actor himself. In the early 2000s, the song took 3rd place in the list of the most popular compositions according to American film critics. nine0004

    "Singin' in the Rain" (listen)

    " The Continental " is the title song of the 1934 film The Merry Divorce. The famous duet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dances to it in the musical. Literally a year later, the composition won an Oscar in the Best Song nomination and became the first song to win in this category. Just before 1935, this nomination did not exist.

    "The Continental" (listen)

    Professional tap dancers note that there are no restrictions on musical accompaniment for step dance. This is a free style that can be performed to both classical and modern melodies. It does not matter how many dancers will be involved - one, two or a whole corps de ballet. In any version, the tap dance looks bewitching and spectacular.

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