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From Margins to Mainstream: A Brief Tap Dance History

By UMS Lobby

Originally published October 5, 2016. Updated June 21, 2019.

dorrance dance performance
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.

Evolution

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 began her career as a tap dancer, 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

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.

Peg Leg Bates (1907-98) taught himself 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 the first black woman to dance with Fred Astaire on screen and later became an important tap pedagogue.

The Nicholas Brothers Fayard (1914-2006) and Howard (1921-2000) Nicholas had a film and television tap career spanning more than 70 years. Trained in ballet by George Balanchine, the brothers introduced an athletic, virtuosic style made famous by their performance in the 1943 film Stormy Weather.

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


Dorrance Dance returns to Ann Arbor on February 21-22, 2020. Content created in collaboration by Jordan Miller and Terri Park.

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