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"The History of Tap Dance: Past, Present, and Future"

By Wendi Isaacson

One of the things that makes tap dance such a special art form is the reverence that we have for our tap dance ancestors. Tap dance has a rich history, and young tap dancers today are eager to learn as much as they can about the men and women who helped establish the art form. Tap dance is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest. Television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, and Dancing with the Stars have ignited an interest in dancers and non-dancers alike.  Movies are being released that showcase dancers, have dance storylines, employ extraordinary dancers , and have over-the-top dance scenes. People want to see more dance, and they love having it so accessible through media sources such as TV, movies, YouTube, and social media. It doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The future looks full and robust for tap dance enthusiasts.


Let’s revisit where tap dance originated.  Tap dance is rooted in the fusion of many forms of percussive, ethnic, and rhythmic dance.  One of these is Spanish flamenco dancing which boast of highly expressive foot stomping, clapping, intricate rhythms, and specific timing. African dancing, deeply steeped in history, rhythm, spirit, and tradition, is given the greatest credit to the development of tap dance; the use of dance and rhythm was used to communicate messages and pass down history through generations.  English Lancashire clog dancing, with dancers wearing wooden shoes called clogs, developed as mine workers would have dance competitions between work breaks, attempting to outdo each other with intricate rhythmic battles. Irish jigs, with its quick footwork and attention to musical detail, also contributed to the history of tap dance, along with German schuhplattler, a dance characterized by stomping, clapping, and slapping the thighs and bottoms of the feet.


Tap performances in the United States began during the Minstrel Era (mid-1800s). William Henry Lane (popularly known as Master Juba) joined a minstrel group, and was one of the rare black performers known to join a minstrel group that in those days were made of mostly all-white troupes. Master Juba is given credit for being one of the earliest performers of tap dance. Minstrel shows were characterized by comedic acts, and music and dance numbers performed by white performers in “blackface” imitating people of African descent, often portraying them as dim-witted. Although the minstrel shows rose to great popularity, they became quite controversial as viewers began to recognize them as insensitive and disrespectful.


The Minstrel Era was eventually replaced by the Vaudeville Era and ran from the 1880s to 1920s. A typical “vaudeville” act consisted of a variety of small, unrelated entertainment acts, that all performed together in a traveling show, including clowns, musicians, dancers, magicians, trained animals, jugglers, actors, acrobats, and more.  Bill “Bojangles” Robinson appeared during this time. In the year 1900, he entered a buck-and-wing dance contest in New York City, won a gold medal, and defeated the best dancer of that time. This notariety helped him get jobs in several performing dance troupes. Bill Robinson became one of the highest paid black performers of this time, one of the only black dancers to be given solo acts, and became famous for his “stair dance." John Bubbles, the Whitman Sisters, and the Nicholas Brothers also became well known tap dancers in the vaudeville circuit.  George Cohan, future Broadway actor/producer/music writer, formed the Four Cohans with his mother, father and sister. Many family acts developed during this time, including the Four Covens--with their lightning fast footwork, and dancer/comedian Eddie Foy with his 7 tap dancing children--The Seven Little Foys. The Hoofers Club became an establishment in the heart of Harlem, New York City where African-American dancers would gather, dance, and exchange tap steps.


Leonard Reed, a vaudeville tap dancer during the 20s and 30s, toured with his partner Willie Bryant.  They were asked by the Whitman Sisters, a popular and successful touring musical troupe, to come up with a finale that the entire cast could perform together at the end of the show.  They put together a routine that consisted of four simple sequences of steps that were popular at the time, and connected it with breaks. It was originally called “the goofus” because of the comical way that they performed it, but it is now known as the Shim Sham and is considered the national anthem of tap dancers. After a quick shake of the shoulders was added in the 1930s, it became the Shim Sham Shimmy, and consists of 1) Shim Sham 2) Crossover 3) Tack Annie and 4) Half Break. You will see this number still performed by tap dancers all over the world as a finale number, and often audience members will be invited to come up and join!


In the early 1910s, the cinema began to rise in popularity. Musical theater moved to the center of New York City that is now known as Broadway. Song and dance was at the heart of all of it. “Shuffle Along,” a musical produced in 1921 starring an all-black cast, featured dancing with some of the most exciting jazz rhythms that had ever been seen onstage. The Nicholas Brothers, already a successful vaudeville act, lit up the screens in movies such as “Stormy Weather,” and their dance scene with them leaping over each other down the stairs and rising back up without using their hands is still considered one of the greatest dance sequences of all time.  Bill “Bojangles” Robinson broke racial barriers as he danced in many films with Shirley Temple. During the next few decades, Hollywood embraced singers and dancers such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly, and there were many movies produced with elaborate tap dance sequences.


During the 1950s, the world of tap dance began to experience a decline with the rise of rock and roll music, and the shift toward modern and ballet dance.  Although tap dance was not forefront in the public eye for a while, there were many tap dancers who persisted in the art, and in the 1970s there was a resurgence in the world of tap dance.  In 1979, the documentary “No Maps on My Taps,” received an Emmy award and helped bring tap dance back into the spotlight. In 1989, President George Bush passed a law naming May 25 as “National Tap Dance” day (in honor of Bill Robinson’s birthday). Other tap dancers that contributed to the “renaissance” of tap dance during the 1970s and 1980s include Gregory Hines, Brenda Buffalino, Jane Goldberg, Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, and Savion Glover.


The present world of tap dance is a very beautiful place to be.  Tap dance is taught at studios all across the country, many studios requiring tap dance of their highest level of well-rounded dancers.  Dance professionals recognize that tap dance teaches musicality, improves timing, works core strength, improves balance, and teaches rhythm patterns and music theory. Because of the cognitive work required in tap dancing, it is also said to help ward off Alzheimers and Dementia. Tap can be done at any age, anywhere, and it is a lot of fun!  Tap dancers such as Savion Glover promote the art of tap dance improvisation and expressing one’s thoughts and feelings through impromptu movement. Tap dancers are continually exploring new rhythms, syncopation, experimenting with counterpoint rhythms, style, and dynamics. Tap dance has given a voice to many searching for a way to express themselves.  We are seeing more and more tap dance in the young dance competition scene, as well as on the professional level. Tap companies such as Dorrance Dance, Tapestry, and Syncopated Ladies are exploring new areas of creativity and movement that we have never seen before.  


To honor some of the great tap dancers for their contributions, Oklahoma City University awarded Honorary Doctorates degrees of Tap Dance to nine master tap dancers, including David Howard, Donald O’Connor, Cholly Atkins, Bunny Briggs, Buster Brown, Jeni LeGon, Henry LeTang, Fayard Nicholas, Leonard Reed, Jimmy Slyde, Prince Spencer, and Arthur Duncan.


If you want to gather with other tap dancers, one of the best places to be is a tap dance festival.  There are tap dance festivals all over the country, even all over the world! Some of the more well known ones are the Stockholm Tap Festival, the L.A. Tap Fest, Big Apple Festival, Beantown Tap Fest, Riff Dallas, Tap City, the DC Tap Fest, St. Louis Tap Festival, Utah Tap Fest, and the New York City Tap Festival.  But this is only a small list. You can find tap festivals in almost every state. Tap festivals can include workshops from master tap dancers, history lectures, panel discussions, cutting contests, showcases, and they often end with an incredible show featuring tap fest faculty and professional tap companies.


What is the future of tap dance? I think it’s safe to predict that tap dance is going to continue rising in popularity.  Broadway, television, movies, YouTube, Facebook, see tap dance everywhere. I can’t wait to sit back and watch.


Author bio: Wendi Isaacson: director, choreographer


Wendi Isaacson is a Utah-based freelance writer with a dance degree from Brigham Young University.  She is on faculty at Brigham Young University, and Center Stage Performing Arts Studio. She is the founder/director of Rhythm Nation Tap Company, Time Bomb Tap Company, and runs the annual Utah Tap Festival.

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