A Brief History of Tap Dancing

Like speech or art, the history of tap dancing can trace its origins from around the globe. Its exact beginnings can only guessed. Derived from a mix of Irish, Scotish, and African tradition, modern tap dancing has had a long and complicated history.

Over the years, two branches of tap dancing have evolved. Precise “Broadway” tap was made popular by the glamorous shows taken from that famous street in New York Broadway tap features large chorus lines of woman. The point of a chorus line was for everybody to look the same, do the same step, at the same time, with large showy smiles. To keep everybody in sync, tap steps are simpler. The overall affect of the show, the sounds, and the formation of the dancers is what is important.

The other main branch of tap is Rhythm (also known as Jazz) tap. Rhythm tap is rooted in the American slave trade. Slaves passed on traditional dances which became more and more influenced by Caribbean and white culture. Rhythm tap features complicated polyrhythms, a looser body, and improvisation. With a fair bit of (maybe not-so-nice) mocking, slaves would do steps practiced by Irish step dancers and English cloggers, but with traditional African flavor. After the Civil War and the slaves were freed, ideas about Rhythm tap were spread as African Americans moved north into cities.

The popularity of Vaudeville shows also helped to spread and mold the different styles of dance. By this time, tap dances were starting to look a lot like modern tap. The next great boost for tap dancing came from Hollywood’s production of musical comedies.

Through the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, tap influenced and was influenced from the rise in jazz, swing, and bebop. In the 1950’s though, the rise of rock and roll brought about a downfall in the popularity of tap. The simple, easy rhythm of rock wasn’t exactly conducive to tap’s complicated rhythms. The 60’s were hard on tap as well but its impact can still be seen. Tap masters taught Motown groups, such as the Temptations during this time.

In the 1970’s, there was a movement to preserve the history of tap dancing. The great masters of tap taught a new generation of tappers. Performers such as Michael Jackson influenced by this era.

The tradition of tap dancing is continued by the likes of Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs, Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and many more. Every May 25th (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday) hoofers around the United States celebrate National Tap Day. The future of tap dancing is only limited by the creativity of those who preserve it.

Learn more about the history of tap dancing!

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