History of Tap Dance

May 5th, 2013


History of Tap Dance

Tap dance meshes a combination of Irish and African American influence brought over from immigration and slavery. It combines elements of Irish step dancing and African American “juba” dancing, which officially originated in the 1800’s. African Americans were forbidden to use any types of drums or instruments, so they began dancing and making percussive beats with their feet. In the mid-19th century, minstrel shows became extremely popular, where white men (usually Irish) would paint on black faces and dance in imitation of slaves in a form of mockery and comedy. In retaliation, African Americans began holding performances themselves, where they would mimic the Irish imitation of slave dancing. These performances in conjunction marked the beginning of the early tap movement.

In 1882, a minstrel performer named Thomas Rice added metallic soles to his shoes to add percussive noise to his rhythmic movements. Other performers liked this idea so they in turn followed suit. Tap dance spread rapidly through vaudeville shows, yet still remained a comical venue of entertainment.

In the early 20th century, tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson took a serious progressive step in attempting to go on tour tapping as a solo artist. This was a risky and rare move made by him, for African Americans were not allowed to be on stage with white performers. In response to this barrier, Robinson consistently performed as a servant on stage, so he wasn’t really breaking protocol.

The laws of prohibition led to the development of speakeasies, where African Americans could find employment as tap dancers, performing for inebriated audiences who were predominantly white. It wasn’t long before the market for competitive dancing came about between competing speakeasies, so gambling and betting was very prominent. This transition from comedy to entertainment forced performers to become more athletic and creative.

During WW11, Hollywood began making screen performances (rather than live) musicals to help the nation deal with the hardships of the war. To make the musicals more entertaining, the use of acrobats were added to the genre to make it flashier. Dancers started incorporating synchronized choreography into their acts also to add to the already visually attractive entertainment. This combination of elements is what gave birth to the more modern form of tap dance, or Broadway tap dance.

The familiar face of Sammy Davis Jr. became performing at age 6. His style deviated from what was normal due to his incorporation of the growing popularity of Jazz music, so his steps became more difficult and improvised.

“I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.” – Mitch Hedberg

The previous statement is undoubtedly true, for being able to listen to the sounds of tap is just as important as seeing it. This dance form can clearly be connected to a cry out due to African Americans oppression and dealing with slavery. It is somewhat comical to see that those who were trying to mock African American culture contradicted themselves by making it a worldly accepted dance form still today, in it’s much more modernized format.

Antonio Garzone


One thought on “History of Tap Dance

  1. Antonio,
    I love the quote by Mitch Hedberg. Yes, to think that individuals probably actually did communicate through their feet. If I needed to survive, I believe I would communicate in any way I could. Nice historical retrospective. Thanks!

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