The History Of Tap Dancing

Read this article for a history and overview of tap dancing, including how it exists today.

Tap dancing has been called the "Second American Past time." But how was this dance created? How does it exist today? Read this article to learn about the history of tap dancing, and how it's faring in modern times.

Tap dance has a number of ancestors. It is a mixture of the English clog dance, Irish step dancing and African drum rhythms and dance movements. African dances that are directly linked to the nature of the tap dance are "juba" and "ring shouts," rollicking dances with a rhythmic beat. Tap also contains the wild movements made popular in Swing and Lindy Hop, and the rolling glide so common to the Waltz and Foxtrot. So basically, it is a mixture of many elements.

Mock slave dances were added to early vaudeville shows in a degrading way, and this is how tap became known. Dancers would paint their faces pitch black and dance around in imitation of black farmhands. This type of performance was known as "blackface comedy." Often, rattles and other clacking materials would be placed on the blackface costume. In 1982, the first blackface minstrel show premiered a tapping dance by the famous dancer Thomas Rice. This performance was different from previous ones because of the hard, metallic soles he had blaced on the bottom of his stage shoes. His movements were then immediately imitated by other blackface dancers, and tap became an accepted form of comedy.

Three styles of tapping dance emerged at this time in the vaudeville. There were the kicking dances of chorus girls, namely, the Charleston, which created a clacking noise on the stage. The louder the beat during these dances, the more the audience cheered. There were the buck-and-wing styles of certain minstrel shows, featuring fast dancing in Dutch-style wooden-soled shoes, and a style known as the soft-show, or a light tapping created by semi-stiff leather soles on hard floor. When these three styles mingled, tap dance became a dance with a beat governed by noise, with a leather shoe and metal sole. The vaudeville began to be governed by tap masters, among these, John Bubbles and "Slap and Happy" (Howard Daniel and Leslie Irvin).

Tap became more and more popular during the 1900's. Dancers such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Shirley Temple made the tap dance an essential piece of the American dream. Movies, especially, used tap dancing to personify the slap-happy air of the new American ideal. Famous movies that include tap dancing are: "Brigadoon," "An American in Paris," "All that Jazz," "The Band Wagon," "Pennies from Heaven," "The Little Colonel," "Swing Time" and "Hooray for Love." The addition of jazz into the mixture of tap made it a separate art form from all others. Arms began to be added, to characterize a dance and add simple little gestures to a song. The most famous tap steps emerged, and still exist today: the shuffle, ball change, brush, side tap, flap, and cramp roll, the variations of which make up more complex moves. Tap has also appeared in several Broadway shows. "Black and Blue" and "The Cotton Club" are examples of successful integration of tap onto the stage.

Despite its popularity to most of the American public, however, tap has been a controversial issue for African-Americans. Because tap was initially meant to be a mockery of early slaves, many African-Americans protested the popularity of tap dancing, which even until the 1960's still contained irreverent references to black slavery. Certain movements of the feet in tap dance were originally meant to indicate clumsiness, buffoonery and running away. While these moves were eventually diluted by other influences, the idea of the dance remained to many.

But all that has changed. A popular African-American artist of today, Savion Glover, is popularizing tap throughout the U.S. for another generation. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Glover stands at the forefront of tap, having revolutionized it to include hip-hop rhythms and rap beats. Glover has been called the "man who saved tap dancing" by news sources all over America, and for good reason. Savion started his performances on Broadway and in Sesame Street as a young actor, and became famous after his Tony award winning performance in "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." This musical acheived international renown after introducing tap steps were blindingly fast and set to wild, thumping beats. Since his success, Glover personally has begun a crusade to keep tap dancing from being forgotten, and the programs he has started train other young artists to tap with new style and new expression. His protege, Cartier Williams, is another African-American 10-year-old prodigy. It is ironic and wonderful that a dance form that started as a mockery of the African-American people is now a venue for internationally acclaimed dramatic and physical expression for African-American artists.

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