How has tap dance changed over time

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 Irish Dance ⋆ Kelteria Dance School | Irish Dances

Viking raids destroyed most of the books from this period, as well as written records of any dances. However, the fact that one of the elements of the exquisite Gaelic culture was music and dance is undeniable.

Viking raids on Ireland ended in 1014 after the victory of King Brian Boru of Ireland at Clontarf. Irish dancing competitions originate from this period.

Brian Boru at Clontarf in 1014, painted in 1914
by James Ward. Photograph: courtesy of Dublin City Council

It was both a trade fair and political gatherings and cultural events with music, sports competitions, storytelling and craftsmanship. Over time, the cultural aspect has become central to Irish dance competitions. These events continue to this day. Although politics has faded into the background, they still have music, dance, crafts and trade.

The decline of Celtic culture

The Celtic tradition in Ireland quickly faded into oblivion during the twelfth century. The increase in foreign influence weakened the traditional arts, and in 1170 the conquest of Ireland by the Anglo-Norman knights took place. However, for the next two hundred years, the conquerors firmly entered the traditional Irish culture.

To prevent this merger, the Anglo-Irish Parliament passed the Rite of Kilkenny in 1366, which prescribed excommunication and severe penalties against all those who followed or were associated with native Irish customs. Another 128 years elapsed before the charter was enforced.

History records many dances performed by the Irish in the mid-1500s. These include the Rinnce Fada or Fading, where two rows of partners are opposite each other, the Irish Hey (figure dance), the jig (probably a group dance), the trenchmore (described as a large folk national dance (country dance) with free movements), and dances with a sword. It is not clear which dances among Irish, English and French influenced which, but it is characteristic that Irish dances had a faster tempo and side steps were present.

The British suppression of Irish culture continued, with the ban on bagpipes and the arrest of bagpipers exemplifying this. However, Queen Elizabeth I was "extremely pleased" with Irish songs and folk dances. The struggle for power between the Irish and the British continued throughout the 1600s. Penal laws passed in the late 1600s destroyed Irish commerce and industry.

Total prohibition and the emergence of secret schools

The education of Catholic children was also prohibited by law, which led to the emergence of secret schools (open-air schools for the poor). There was a degree of secrecy in traditional Irish culture. This period of brutal repression lasted over a hundred years, explaining the initial secrecy of the teaching of Irish dance.

National folk dances continued, one description says that on Sundays “a violin was played in every field and the girls danced to it until they were foaming at the mouth”; another states that "the youth danced until the cows were brought home." The dancing continued throughout the 1700s, often during holidays, weddings, baptisms, and memorial rites. However, the Church sometimes condemned dancing.

An Irish Jig before royalty 18710012

The main influence on Irish dance and Irish culture was the emergence of dance masters around 1750, starting a controversial tradition that continues to this day. The dance masters typically traveled around the towns, staying in the villages with hospitable families (who were honored to be chosen as hosts) for about six weeks.

Teachers taught Irish dance in kitchens, agricultural outbuildings, crossroads, or open-air schools for the poor. Students primarily studied jig and reel. Sometimes the teacher would tie a rope around the student's leg to distinguish the right leg from the left.

The presence of an outstanding dance master in the village was a matter of pride for the community. Each dance master had a set of dance steps and over time created new ones. (Eight measures in music are called "step", hence the term "step dance".)

irish dancecing lesson

Sometimes the masters participated in competitions in Irish dancing, the winner was not the one who danced better, but the one who knew the most steps. The loser had to cede the territory of the city to the winner.

These masters have created many staged dances and Caylees, and they carefully guarded the art of creating dance steps. Dance masters created the first dance schools, the most famous being in County Kerry, Cork and Limerick. One dance master described himself as an "artificial rhythm walker" and "an instructor in the art of dance for youth".

The villagers paid the dance masters at the end of the third week of teaching, in "benefit performance". They paid the accompanying musician a week later. Sometimes a dance master was both a musician and a dancer at the same time! Obviously, the level of pay for dance masters was relatively high for Ireland, and room and board were included.

McCarthy and Wife Additional title Champion Irish jig dancers posed in Irish dress 1873

The suppression of Catholics continued during this time, but ways were found to avoid control. One story says that the Catholics sent a child to watch the meetings or masses they held in the cellars of the eateries. The child danced at a certain pace and with a special tact to warn the Catholics of the approaching soldiers.

During the 1800s, the pie dance was especially popular. The pie was placed on a stand in the center of the field, it was a prize for the best dancer. After the competition, the winner took the cake for himself. Attempts by parish priests to ban dancing were not uncommon, but proved to be largely ineffective.

Gaelic League Ard Fheis and Oireachtas 1913

Establishment of the Irish Dance Commission

This period dates back to 1893 when the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was founded. This group contributed to the revival of Irish culture, which for centuries was suppressed by England. In 1929 the "Commission for Irish Dancing" (Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha) was founded in order to lay down rules regarding teaching, judging and competition.

Up to 19For 29 years, there have been many types of local dances, music, costumes and rules for Irish dancing competitions. This led to the development of standards to be followed in competition. Throughout the 20th century, Irish dance has changed dance techniques, costumes and venues.

For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller, including tabletops, door leaves, and sometimes the "stage" was just a crossroads. (An old poem called the dance of "light walking on the floor"). The dance ability test included dancing on top of a barrel or on a soap table!

As the stage grew in size, there were at least two changes to the dance. The range of motion of the dancers on the various stages was greatly increased (the judge now deducted points if the dancer did not "use the stage"), and dance steps that required a significant amount of space (such as the running jump) became possible.

The venue has also changed over time, from barns or open areas where flat trucks were used as a stage (and still are) to rooms in hotels, schools or fairgrounds. areas in general. (Note that the fairgrounds hosted ancient Irish dance competitions and their use is especially appropriate in a historical context.)

During the 20th century Irish dance developed in different ways. Education began at a younger age. Among the students, girls began to predominate, not boys (the turning point occurred before 1930).

Girls performing a solo dance in a competition were very rare until the 1920s. The dance styles also changed; for example, hands and palms did not always have to be in exactly the same position during solo dances. Previously, in some cases, they were more relaxed and even placed on the hips.

Apparently, the influence of parish priests led to keeping the hands in one position; some argue that it was not all that provocative, others are convinced that the Church was trying to increase the self-control of the dancers. Hand movements are still present in figure (group) dances.

The ability to dance was useful to many immigrants from Ireland in the 19th century. They could rarely find suitable work in the USA (the east of the country was full of ads that said they were not hiring Irish people) and therefore began a career in show business.

On Broadway, tap dance became popular, which appeared due to the fusion of the African-American "shoe dance" and the Irish "tap dance". In the early 1900s Irish show groups traveled around the USA, entertaining the audience with national songs and dances. Becoming a show for the public, Irish dance began to differ from the original national one.

In the 30s 20th century there was a keili (another name is a figured dance). In the 50s. 20th century Irish dances made their way into the show grounds, they were shown on the Sullivan Show and other television programs, and competitions among masters resumed.

In 1969 Dublin hosted the World Irish Dancing Championships and since then they have gained momentum around the world.

The culmination and turning point, after which the whole world learned about Irish dance, was the performance of the Irish dance show Riverdance at the Eurovision Song Contest on April 30, 1994, which was held in Ireland. And in February 1995, the Riverdance dance show was first shown at the Point Theater (Dublin, Ireland). The show is touring to this day.

By 2021, the world of Irish dance will have dozens of different shows in different parts of the world. Several Irish dance commissions have been set up. Hundreds of thousands of people in different countries began to practice Irish dance. Dance technique has become much more complex and more acrobatic, and dresses are more technological and colorful.


  • Brennan, Helen. The Story of Irish Dance (Mount Eagle Publications, Ltd., 1999).
  • Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine,
    1845-1850 (SHoughton Mifflin; Reprint edition, 2005).
  • Burgard, Anna Marlis, Leighanne Dees. Flying Feet: A Story of Irish Dance (Chronicle
    Books, 2005).

From "Khrushchev" to studios

Half a century ago, all apartments in our country had only two types of layout - standard and improved. How is the situation with this parameter in modern residential facilities? We tried to trace the main fundamental differences and understand whether the residents got better from this.

Goodbye crowded?

Small closets with an area of ​​6-7 to 8-9 meters, in which the inhabitants of "Khrushchev" and even "Brezhnevka" cooked food in the new series of houses are practically absent as a class, representatives of some architectural bureaus of the capital say. The fact that in the era of industrialization and the construction of developed socialism was, so to speak, a “production necessity” (saving materials, accelerating the pace of construction), today is regarded as nothing more than a relic of the “dark past”. And this is not surprising, experts say: in such kitchens, a maximum of 3-4 people were somehow accommodated, in other cases, tables for a meal had to be set in other rooms, or even in corridors believes").

Today, the architects say, citizens are not satisfied with the standards of the last century, so in new buildings the usual kitchen has been replaced by dining rooms - spacious rooms with separate areas for cooking and eating, as well as subsequent heart-to-heart conversations. This trend, they continue, has even penetrated the secondary market: in one-room Khrushchev apartments, designers are increasingly removing the walls between the kitchen and the room, turning them into studios with a kitchen cluster and a seating area with a TV and an ottoman.

“Currently, if you believe the statistics,” says independent realtor Kirill Morozov , “the most active exit from the implementation of the studio in new buildings with an area of ​​​​up to 30 square meters. But not because the Russians are so imbued with the ideas of zoning. It's just that these are the most affordable objects, since now you have to buy housing with your hard-earned money, which is by no means dense. Let's put aside the brochures and think - is it really so comfortable to live in the kitchen? When in one corner a man is trying to sleep after a hard day's work, and his wife is rattling frying pans in the other corner. It’s good if she just warms up something, but what if it’s the process of baking pies with its constant smoke and characteristic smells? In my opinion, as they used to build extremely compact apartments accessible to most, they continue to do so now. Only if in the past tightness could be justified by the imminent onset of a bright future, then now, when the future is basically clear and quite predictable to everyone, they explain it with all sorts of "trends". In the meantime, I know a lot of situations when, after buying studios, the owners began to fence in a lot of partitions in order not to zone the spaces, but actually separate them.

The trams are gone

Quite common for Soviet residential architecture were the premises commonly called "tram" because they were an elongated parallelepiped in plan. Moreover, quite often they arose not due to some special plan, but simply as a result of not very thoughtful planning. In such spaces it was very problematic to place at least some furniture or even to operate them normally. There were also characteristic narrow corridors with walk-through rooms. In the first, citizens usually placed all kinds of cabinets, which greatly narrowed their already small dimensions, and in the second, they always had to be, so to speak, on the alert, since there was a high probability of other people appearing in them at the most unexpected moments.

Today's new buildings, experts say, do not have all these shortcomings. All rooms in projects either have the shape of a square or are as close as possible to it. In large apartments, hallways are a spacious hall, while in compact apartments they are simply absent. Corridors, in pursuit of the maximum functionality of each room, have also been moved to the dustbin of history, and at least the bedrooms are always isolated (the only exception is the studios mentioned above).

Now, in many new buildings, even comfort-class ones, special niches for storing things or even entire dressing rooms are being designed, states a freelance designer Nadezhda Agafonova . - Yes, on the one hand, this saves the rooms in the apartment from the dominance of all kinds of closets. But, on the other hand, in mass projects they are still not enough to talk about a positive and full-scale trend in this matter. And it turns out that some shelves and cabinets, which would look quite organically in a corridor that is neutral from all sides, have to be shoved into rooms that are alien in purpose. This is where the legs grow from all sorts of bookcases in the hallway and others like them.

Where was the tap dance born?

In the Soviet era, a very relevant anecdote for that time was circulating that the tap dance was first born in the family of a man who had 12 children and 1 toilet. Indeed, the elderly secondary fund has only one bathroom. And it doesn’t matter if it is combined or separate, the main thing is that at certain periods of time, in the best stagnant traditions, you have to stand in line for it.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, this drawback, according to architects, developers are systematically trying to eradicate. And they arrange 2 toilets in the apartments at once. Moreover, they are often carried to different places, supplying each with its own sink. Finding any significant drawback in this innovation is quite difficult. And, to be honest, members of large families are hardly dissatisfied with her, who thus get the opportunity to perform the necessary hygiene procedures in the mornings and evenings without creating problems for each other. So, perhaps, the only “slippery spot” in this trend should be considered only the need to spend twice as much time, effort and, of course, money on sanitary cleaning of such premises.

Peace to bay windows, war to balconies

At the dawn of mass housing construction, balconies performed quite a few functions. In the cold season, for example, they turned into refrigerators for food storage. And during all four seasons they still played the role of pantries, where they usually kept skis, sleds, bicycles, as well as rubbish that was unnecessary in the household, but set aside “just in case of a fire”. But the main thing is that for most Russians they were still a kind of relaxation zones.

From the beginning of the 90s of the last century, balconies began to be massively glazed and insulated, which made architects panicked to grab their heads and shout about a real “aesthetic disaster” (this problem was considered in the material “SP” “The cult of a balcony or balcony culture").

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