An indigenous American dance form that evolved as African and British dance traditions merged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tap dancing involves the production of syncopated sounds by the dancer's feet. Tap dancing has been a mainstay of virtually every type of popular performing-arts entertainment in the United States, from minstrel shows to vaudeville, revues, extravaganzas, Broadway and Hollywood musicals, nightclubs, precision dance teams, and television variety programs. A remarkably adaptive dance form, tap has fused with and reflected the changing entertainment sensibilities of American audiences for almost 200 years. Tap routines figure prominently in children's dance recitals, as dance instruction is a popular enrichment activity for youngsters and many are too young for, or uninterested in, the serious discipline of ballet. Adult amateurs also find tap dancing a fun form of recreation and exercise.
Though some trace the roots of tap back to the ships that transported enslaved Africans to America (as the Africans' dancing was observed by the Europeans, and vice versa) the significant merging of the two dance traditions began on southern plantations. When a mid-eighteenth century law forbade slaves from playing drums, they increased the use of their feet to embody rhythms in their dancing. Their observations of the articulated foot actions of Irish step dancing and other European dances practiced by their masters engendered a new hybrid dance form in which the Africans combined fancy footwork with their sophisticated rhythmic sensibilities. Oftentimes they were put into contests by their masters and won prizes for the most daring or complex dancing. This inspired individual creativity and competition, characteristics that continued to drive the development of tap dancing well into the twentieth century.
In the minstrel shows, the most popular form of American entertainment during the mid-nineteenth century, tap dancing became a codified stage dance form. Its most esteemed practitioner was William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba, a free African American who was one of the only blacks to be allowed to perform onstage with whites. The new social dances that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century were incorporated into the developing tap dance vocabulary. By 1910 the use of metal plates attached to the bottoms of the shoes' heels and toes became commonplace; previously, the dancers wore wooden-soled shoes or pounded nails or pennies into leather soles.
Vaudeville became the next important breeding ground for the advancement of tap dancing. Striving to earn a living in a business that depended on continuously pleasing and surprising audiences, tap dancers were constantly inventing more impressive maneuvers. Different categories of tap dancers evolved: eccentric dancers, such as Ray Bolger, sported a loose, rubbery movement style; comedy dancers, such as Bert Williams and George Walker, were duos who danced as foils to one another; flash acts, such as the Nicholas Brothers, added spectacular acrobatic tricks to their tapping; class acts, such as Charles "Honi" Coles, were elegant in their costuming and movements; and the rhythm-or jazz-tappers, such as John W. Bubbles, explored the complicated rhythms of jazz music.
By the 1930s tap dancing chorus lines had become a prominent feature of Broadway and Hollywood musicals. While such stars as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, Shirley Temple, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson advanced the popularity and artistry of tap dancing, the ensembles stunted tap's artistic growth. The art of tap dancing lies in the subtle nuances and complex rhythmic interchanges between the beat, the music, and the tapping sounds. When executed by large groups, the sounds must be simple, otherwise multiplication breeds muddiness. Precision teams, such as the Rockettes, have solidified tap dancing's place in American popular entertainment, but have frozen it, artistically. It was at the Hoofers Club in Harlem that the art of tap flourished as the great jazz-tappers held improvisational "challenge" contests and pushed each other to further develop their skills.
During the 1950s and 1960s tap "hibernated" as its performance outlets vanished. The Hoofers Club had closed and jazz-tappers found that the crowded rhythms of be-bop, the new form of jazz music, left no space for tap sounds. Rock 'n' roll was too loud for tapping. The age of movie musicals was ending, nightclubs turned to comedy and music acts, ballet had overtaken Broadway, and vaudeville had long since died.
The tap revival began when a group of old-time hoofers appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in the early 1960s and intrigued the public with their artistry. In 1968 a series of "Tap Happenings," held in Manhattan, provided opportunities for audiences to witness the legendary jazz-tappers. By the 1970s the rhythmic explorations of these early hoofers were recognized as an integral part of the development of jazz music. Their work, and tap dancing in general, began to be viewed with serious eyes.
The 1970s was a nostalgic decade on Broadway and re-introduced tap dancing in new musicals, such as No, No, Nanette (1971) and Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976). The release, in 1974, of Metro Goldwyn Mayer's That's Entertainment! re-acquainted audiences with the tap dance stars of old Hollywood musicals. New tap dance stars soon emerged and put a contemporary urban face on tapping. Gregory Hines appeared in the Broadway musicals Sophisticated Ladies (1983) and Jelly's Last Jam (1991), and in the film Tap he pioneered an electronic form of tapping, originally engineered by Al Desio, whereby the dancer makes music through electronic transmitters built into the tap shoes. Savion Glover fused tap with hip-hop sensibilities and wowed audiences with his fierce, heavy-footed style in the Broadway revue Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk (1996). In 1989 Congress declared National Tap Dance Day to be celebrated annually on May 25, Robinson's birthday.
Though many dancers of the 1990s approach tap as art, it is not commonly perceived as serious dance. Tap dancing has been called America's folk dance and, as such, will probably always be most appreciated for the joy it gives to its participants—both professional and amateur—and to spectators of popular entertainment.
—Lisa Jo Sagolla
Ames, Jerry, and Jim Siegelman. The Book of Tap: Recovering America's Long Lost Dance. New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1977.
Frank, Rusty E. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955. New York, Da Capo Press, 1990.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York, Schirmer Books, 1968.