Tap: An American Original

Tap: An American Original

by Hannah King, Curator

Tap dancing originated in the United States sometime in the 1800s. The style is most likely a combination of several ethnic dances, including Scottish, Irish, and English clog dances and African tribal dances. The integration of diverse practices is an American tradition. This specific mixture could have happened two ways: African slaves and Irish indentured servants may have shared dance steps on Southern plantations or tap may have developed in jumbled New York neighborhoods where there were many points of contact between a variety of ethnic groups. As tap evolved, it continued to be a style that crossed racial borders. Various styles developed, such as Juba, rhythmic, soft sole, and ballroom. The duets between Shirley Temple and Bill Bojangles Robinson are an example of rhythmic tap. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers most often performed ballroom tap. Even the type of shoes used changed with time. Early tap used bare feet, clogs, and wood-soled shoes. True tap shoes with metal plates on the soles did not become popular until the 1920s. Soft-soled tap was popular in the 1940s. Tap performances were a popular form of entertainment in many setting. It was a standard part of minstrel shows and vaudeville acts and carried into nightclubs and Hollywood films.

Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple The Littlest Rebel 1935
William Henry Lane a.k.a. Master Juba 1848
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Throughout its history, tap dancing evolved to keep up with widespread social changes and cultural fads, as well as the influence of individual trendsetters. Tap traces almost all of American history, from forced immigration caused by slavery and indentured servitude to the birth of Hollywood to modern reality TV. Cultural exchange and respect for innovation, regardless of its source, created tap dancing and has kept it vital. And the remarkable fusion of cultures and the willingness to accept that mixture is not just a hallmark of tap, but of American society in general.