Tap dance was born in Louisiana, USA, but that birth came about through the contributions of several cultures. The dances that contributed to tap’s creation hail from points across the globe. Tap has experienced a renewed popularity in recent years. Fresh twists on the art form, such as gumbo tap, have helped in this rejuvenation.
Tap is a style of dance involving quick footwork. Dancers wear shoes affixed with metal plates, called taps, that are attached to the toe and heel portions of the soles. Clicking noises are made by tapping, shuffling and stomping the feet on a hard floor, resulting in percussive patterns that can be simple or extremely complex. Dancers can work several styles into their routines. In Hoofing, dancers focus primarily on the footwork, keeping the rest of the body mostly still. Flash Acts incorporate acrobatics and gymnastics into the steps, while Class Acts are more about grace and style, with the dancers typically clothed in formal attire.
Tap dance is truly an American art form; which is to say, it is a product of several cultures coming together, with each group contributing a little something to refine the whole into something completely novel. The resulting fusion of dance emerged in America.
The origins of tap can be traced back to the 1800s. Early American slave owners forbade slaves from having drums, but the slaves never gave up the beat—they just transferred it to their feet! These syncopated patterns grew into dances.
Irish slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work on plantations. The Irish shared their step dancing with the African slaves there. The new combination of steps migrated to America as slaves of both African and Irish descent were traded. At the same time, plantation owners in America copied the steps of the slaves, working Irish jigs and English clogging steps into the mix. Soon, a whole new dance emerged from the blend of styles.
In the mid-1800s, William Henry Lane, known theatrically as Master Juba, brought tap to the stage. He is generally credited as being the father of tap dance.
Tap became very popular throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the next century. In the early 1900s, metal taps were added to shoes to accentuate the sounds made by the fancy footsteps.
Tap dance grew up during the jazz era of 1920s America. On the streets, kids would affix bottle caps to the undersides of their shoes with chewed gum to make instant taps.
Tap dancing flourished during the 1920s and 30s. In 1927, the Black Bottom dance was introduced in New Orleans, Louisiana. This dance is said to be the forerunner of today’s tap phrasing, or collection of movements.
Specific moves and dances within the genre of tap arose. Buck and Wing (where the “wing” is an extended leg), the Shim Sham Shimmy, the Lindy Hop and other variations have all been worked into performances.
As the years passed, tap merged with swing. Swing Tap was featured in movies of the 1930s and 1940s. A magnificent display of the marriage between tap and swing can be seen in the 1936 movie, “Swing Time,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Rock ‘n’ roll took over in the 1950s and beyond, and for a time, interest in tap waned.
The art form saw a resurgence beginning in the late 80s, through movies, a successful Irish dance stage show, and Broadway tap performances. Modern tap sensations Gregory Hines and Savion Glover greatly helped bring tap back into vogue.
In some ways, tap has come full circle. Like the kids of long ago who used bottle caps to serve as taps, kids in New Orleans, Louisiana, the home of tap dancing, have cleverly found a way to make their own tap shoes. They simply crush a couple of empty soda cans, clamp them onto the bottoms of their shoes, and they’re instantly in business. Performing for money on the streets of the French Quarter, these young dancers offer up their talent and ingenuity to all who pass by.
An American group called “Buckets and Tap Shoes” brings tap into the 21st century with their unique gumbo tap style. Combining music, percussive instruments and syncopated foot moves, this high-energy group brings the beat to everything from drums to buckets to body parts, using their chests, mouths and, yes, feet as percussion instruments. Performers play instruments while tapping out dance steps, and seem to magically glide across the stage as if they were wearing invisible roller skates. As the “gumbo” name suggests, several different dance and music styles are thrown into their mix, including ballet and classical music.
Tap continues to evolve through international influences. Spanish flamenco dancing has been incorporated into tap performances. Perhaps gumboot dancing—a rhythmic stepping dance invented by South African miners—will be the next to join the panoply of moves within the world of tap. With so many cultures around the world adding their own flavor of footwork, there’s really no limit to how many variations can be poured into what is called “tap dance.”
National Tap Dance Day is observed annually in the US on May 25th, the birthday of tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Recognition of this day has spread internationally, and it is now celebrated in countries across the globe, including Iceland, Japan, Australia and India.
DanceMotion USA is an organization bringing the Jazz Tap Ensemble of Los Angeles, California, USA, to Africa. Through their efforts, over 300 pairs of tap shoes will be given away to young Africans interested in learning the art. In Seychelles, tap dance workshops have been introduced. It seems that this dance style left African shores in its infancy, traveled around the world, became defined in America, and is now returning to its ancestral home to welcome a new generation to the joy of tap.
Tap dancing is a great way to have fun, keep in shape, and join in on a multi-cultural experience founded centuries ago that continues to evolve today.