Dance Tidbits – Tap Dance

What dance is as exciting to see and hear at the same time? That would be Tap dance, which is like no other dance. The visual effect and enjoyment of viewing a Tap dancer is equal to the sound the actual dancer makes with his shoes. Tap dance comes with its own music, so to speak. When shoes with taps on the heel and toe hit the floor, the sound it makes, is its own kind of unique, artistic and pleasing sound. Most commonly there are two types of Tap: Rhythm and Jazz Tap which has more of a musical element and Broadway Tap which focuses more on dance. I love to Tap dance and find it totally liberating.

How Tap dancing got started is a great story of different cultures discovering this fascinating dance form while being exposed to each other’s steps, learning from each other and then making it their own. They say it is a combination of British Isles Clog and Step with the rhythm of West African drumming and dancing in colonial times. In the 1600s, Scottish and Irish laborers brought their dances of their countries to the New World. At this very same time, the slaves from Africa in the southern parts of the United States imitated the quick toe and heel steps of the Irish Jig and the Clog steps while combining them with West African step dances known as Juba dances and Ring Shouts. From this unlikely pairing of styles, the African dancers became more formal, while European dancers became more fluid and rhythmic. This was the beginning of Tap dance in America. And what comes next, is history being made in America!

Tap was destined to become a stage dance and was introduced as a Minstrel show in the late 1800s. Before the end of the Civil War, black and white performers were not allowed to appear on stage together. One exception was made for William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba. He was born a free man in 1825 and became a well-known dancer in New York City. He was masterful at the Irish Jig and Clog dances and was the champion dancer of his time. He was always featured and got top billing over white dancers throughout the dance circuit.

In 1840 to 1890, it was customary for white dancers (usually Irish) to blacken their faces with burnt cork and stage performances based on their interpretations of African and African American dance and music styles. It became a competition to see who had the most authentic material. At that time, Minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment featuring a variety of comedians, songs, dance and music.

The word Tap became popular in 1902. Styles were developing like a fast version of Tap, danced in wooden-sole shoes called Buck-and-Wing and Soft-Shoe, a smoother, leather-sole style. Shoe styles changed when metal plates (or taps) were attached to shoe bottoms and added to leather-soled shoes.

In the 1920s, there was a famous club in Harlem known as the Cotton Club. It was known for black artists performing exclusively for white audiences. Also in the 1920s and 1930s, black dancers developed Tap teams that became popular with audiences for their acrobatics. At that time Bill “Bojangles” Robinson became America’s most famous Tap dancer. In fact, he taught the very famous child star, Shirley Temple how to Tap dance and starred with her in the 1935 musical hit, “The Little Colonel.” They were the first interracial couple to dance onscreen. Shirley said, “Bill taught me to feel the beat, rather than count it out.” Shirley learned to Tap dance by listening and not looking at her feet. Sadly, we lost Shirley Temple on February 10, 2014. Her name will live on, as she was one of the first and most talented child stars that ever lived!

Tap dancing style continued to grow in the 1930s and 1940s with dancers like Fred Astaire, Paul Draper and Ray Bolger. As you can imagine, when Tap hit the big screen in the 1930s, it gave opportunity to lots of dancers to be part of huge chorus lines. Audiences enjoyed seeing costumes, choreography and huge production numbers.

In the 1950s, actor and dancer, Gene Kelly added movements from ballet and modern dance. Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly said if it weren’t for “Bojangles,” they wouldn’t truly know what Tap was or how to dance it. As you may already know, both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were legends in their own rite, each for perfecting Tap in their individual, spectacular styles.

There were other amazing “hoofers” as Tap dancers are often called. Sammy Davis Jr. was very well liked as an actor and tapper. My personal favorite was Gregory Hines. He had a smooth, velvety approach to his Tap. He also starred in the 1989 classic film, “Tap.” This movie brought back a resurgence of Tap and even Congress voted in 1989 to give Tap dance its own day. May 25 is National Tap Dance day!

Today Tap is vital and varied. Probably the most famous young hoofer is Savion Glover. He brought Hip-hop Funk to Tap and even to Broadway. Tap goes beyond dance and is even considered an art form. It is embraced by people all over the world and can be reinvented to suit one’s individuality.

If you have never tried to Tap, I think if you do, once you get the hang of it, I bet you’ll wonder how you could have lived without it! As far as dance is concerned, it is a totally exhilarating experience. It can make you feel so good. I’ll even give you a secret hint. If and when you get your tap shoes, if you loosen the toe and heel taps ever so slightly, it will give you an extra bounce and sound in your step. Try it, it really works!

Happy dancing,

Thought Of The Week:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. – Anne Frank


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website