The history of… tap dancing. (Really.)

tap dancing

You might remember that I danced all throughout my childhood. From age three to 16, I was involved in some combination of ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and lyrical dancing, and at one point, I even considered going professional. When I was 15, I tried out for my city’s professional ballet company, and I got in to their school. But it required a major change in direction from my life’s current trajectory, so I was at a fork in my road, and ultimately decided I’d rather do university.

So I left dance. But that didn’t mean I stopped loving the craft and the art of the thing, and to this day, I remain an ardent fan of dance. So for our first installment of The Intellectual Grownup, where we explore topics like history, science, and art—just because it’s good for our brains to learn new stuff (and fun to boot), I thought I’d naturally tap into one of my favorite topics. (See what I did there?)

My favorite form of dance was always, always, tap. So, today we’re exploring a fun topic you never knew you wanted to know—the history of tap dancing. Lots of fun video footage included, so if you’re reading this via email or reader, click over to read on the site directly.

The Intellectual Grownup

Early origins

Tap dancing has a number of ancestors; most notably Irish step dancing and African dancing (particularly something called “juba”), both of which were brought over to the United States through immigration and slavery.

slave dancing

In the mid 19th century, when vaudeville shows became popular, dancers (usually Irish) would blackface and dance in imitation of slaves as a form of comedy. This evolved to a form of stage performance where black performers would imitate the Irish imitation of slave dancing (got that?)—and this created the early movements of tap.

thomas rice
Photo from Wikipedia

In 1882, Thomas Rice added metallic soles to his shoes to add noise to his rhythmic movements, and other minstrel and vaudeville actors immediately followed suit. Tap dancing spread wildly, and soon became a popular form of comedy. (As an aside, tap dancing without the metallic soles is now simply called “soft-shoe dancing.”)

In the early 20th century, tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson broke serious protocol and decided to tour as a solo act (something African Americans rarely did at this time), and caught the eye of young Hollywood.

bojangles robinson

Jim Crow laws forbade him to be on stage with white performers—with the exception of children, so long as his role was that of a servant. Thus, his most popular gig on the silver screen was of a household servant with child actor Shirley Temple.

Sammy Davis, Jr. was born in 1925 to Vaudeville actors, and he started performing at age six:

As jazz music spread in the 1920s, so did a slight division in styles of tap dancing. The rhythmic complexity of jazz created a style of tap that could be considered a form of music in its own right—called “rhythmic tap.”

the cotton club

Prohibition laws created underground speakeasy clubs, where black dancers could find work performing for white audiences; the most popular was The Cotton Club in Harlem. As tap dancing grew in popularity, competition between speakeasies meant the entertainment bill promised more exciting performances. Thus, tap became more acrobatic and athletic.

During the second World War, the public was hungry for light-hearted, feel-good movies, so Hollywood started producing musicals in droves. A screen performance (rather than live) called for more lavish sets and acrobatic dancing, so this style of tap dancing became more popular, called “broadway tap.” With the exception of Bojangles, most actors were white—and thus, the rise in performers like Gene Kelly:

…and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire:

Tap dancing today

Tap dancing’s popularity died down in the 1960s and 70s, but its resurgence was reborn in the late 70s and early 80s from several performers, most notably Gregory Hines. And as a personal note, it was him that sparked my interest in tap—especially his movie with Mikhail Baryshnikov, White Nights. Hines re-popularized the “rhythmic tap” style, shown in this famous scene of the movie:

If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and find it. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Lots of cultural insight in to the Cold War of the 80s, plus amazing dancing to boot. Check out the scenes herehere, and here.

Hines also briefly had a show in the late 80s that added to tap dancing’s popularity:

The man was a genius. He also taught one of the most popular modern-day tap dancers, Savion Glover, who started as a kid:

And now has his own dance troupe:

Tap dancing mostly lives in Broadway productions these days, but it can be found in many neighborhood dance studios, popular with young children. It’s a great workout, so if you’re looking for something fun, look into adult classes in your area—you might be exhausted, but you won’t stop smiling. It’s really a ton of fun.

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

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. 1. I love the Mitch Hedberg quote.
    2. I never realized tap history was so diverse!
    3. Is it totally pathetic that I recognize Gregory Hines only from when he appeared on Mr. Rogers when I was a kid? 🙂

  2. Loving this new stuff! Tap dancing is about the last thing I know anything about, but I did learn something – thanks for posting.

  3. I loved this post. So, so fun! I always wanted to learn to tap dance as a girl and now my four year old granddaughter has decided she wants to. Can’t wait to show her these videos!

    • Awesome! Yes, I hoped to make this first one fairly “kid-friendly,” so that readers could share with their family. 🙂

  4. You just tapped into my favourite dance ever;) I can’t dance because of dyspraxia but a staple in my home growing up was Cinema from the 1920’s to 1960’s. I know every show you are talking about- Singing in the Rain being my favourite. I had such a crush on Gene Kelly and did not get that he was way older;) anyway, I loved his casual style versus Fred’s sophisticated one… And of course Mr Bojangles could dance!;) oh this post made my heart soar! Finally someone who can speak my language ( even if I can’t actually dance it;) if there’s a heaven I hope I can dance. I have studied it, savoured it and appreciate anyone who can! Sadly after a few frustrating attempts I learned to love it by watching and try not to feel jealous;)
    Thanks for this inspiring post;) I wish you a lifetime more of dancing…

    • Glad you liked it!

      • Fun history. Not sure your sources but you should check them. T “Daddy” Rice was dead well before 1882. Vaudeville as we know it not really a thing until 1870s or 1880s at the very earliest. Not trying to be an annoying fact-checking geek but your post is great and it would be a shame if you passed on this good info along with glaring mistakes (there may be others).

  5. Wow, this is fantastic!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together!
    What a fun read 🙂

  6. I’m bursting with excitement. How did I miss this fact about you, that you were a dancer? Me, too! So I’m completely jazzed (get it) about this first topic. The series is genius – I crave new information like this. Thank you! Plus, all the links and videos are a treat. I’m showing them to my boys 🙂 Well done.

    • So happy you liked it! Yeah, I mentioned briefly in a post last year that I danced, but I didn’t go in to too much detail…

  7. Love, love, love. Like an NPR segment, but with visuals! I couldn’t even wait until naptime to read : ) Thanks Tsh! And, if you’re looking for a good book that dips into Harlem during the era of the Cotton Club from a different perspective, try “Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First Hundred Years”. So much wit and wisdom from two elderly ladies who really did “see it all”.

    • “Like an NPR segment, but with visuals!” <-- Love that! And oh my goodness, I completely forgot about that book, but I read it during my junior year of high school. I'll have to dig it up again, because I remember loving it!

  8. Love this! Thanks for taking the time to write it up and link to so many things. I’m planning to come back and watch some of the clips with my kids later.

  9. Fun post! I’m a child of the 80’s and have always been a bit fascinated by tap dancing. One of my favorite Cosby Show episodes was the tap challenge. (But you have to imagine me saying challenge like they did in the episode)

  10. Tsh, I love this post. I’m so glad you’ll be doing more of them. I am really impressed. I didn’t know all of that about tap dancing. I really feel like I have learned something from the internet this morning. Thanks!

  11. Great post! Tap is my favorite form of dance, too, and I’m still taking classes at 33! I try not to think about how young some of the girls in my class are – but I have literally taken more yers of tap than they’ve been alive, ack.

  12. My hubby’s granny has been a dancer all her life, including a tap dancer. Up until recently, she even performed with a troupe called the Tap-Dancing Grannies here in Austin – they performed all over the city, even at Esther’s Follies!!! Can you imagine the awesomeness?!? 🙂 So, now that our 5 year old is taking ballet/tap combo classes, I am interested to see if the love of tap is in her blood. Thanks for this post! I can’t wait to share the videos with my girl.

    • Katie, that’s amazing! I had no idea. I’ll have to hear more about it the next time we’re together.

  13. As a former tap dancer myself, I’d have to say it is one of the most fun styles of dance to do. I miss it. After reading this, I want to dig my tap shoes out of a box somewhere. 😉 thanks for sharing!

  14. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us today. I love tap! My daughters both dance and will love watching these videos with me later today 🙂

  15. I love this post! Thanks for all of the YouTube videos, too. What a fun way to engage my Mommy Brain this morning.

  16. I started to read this with pretty low expectations, but it was really, really interesting. And now I want to watch White Nights again. It has been years since I’ve seen it. Oh…and now I have the song Mr Bojangles stuck in my head, too!

  17. Jennifer B says:

    Like everyone else above, I loved this post, and I am very much looking forward to more “Intellectual Grownup” material.

  18. This post was very enlightening especially since what I know of tap dance is limited to what I’ve seen on Happy Feet! I know, it’s terrible…

    • Well, that’s the point of this post! Not terrible at all. We all have so much to learn, and I’m excited to explore some of it here. 🙂

  19. I grew up loving musicals and all forms of dance and now I have a 4-year-old who loves all typical “boy” things, but also being the only boy in his dance class 🙂 Can’t wait to share this with him!

    • I remember there was always only 1 or 2 boys in all my dance classes, and I’d feel badly for them how outnumbered they were. But I think it’s SO COOL that your boy’s in dance class. Yes, show him the greats! Tap, and in other forms of dance. I always loved Baryshnikov, too.

  20. A couple of months after I turned 40 I saw an ad for adult tap classes that fit into my schedule, actually my 2 year old’s mother’s day out schedule, and I started taking lessons for the very first time! I loved it and it was the highlight of my week for almost 2 years. I was the youngest person in the class, by far! They’ve recently been cancelled due to lack of interest and that saddens me. Moving to a new area soon and I will seek classes in the new area. Thanks for the lovely post!

    • You’re my hero for taking those classes. You’re really making me want to look up adult classes in my area once my knee heals!

  21. I’m a former dancer, too, though only ballet. My big ballet crush was always Rudolf Nureyev. Have you ever seen him tap dance? There’s a fun Muppet Show clip worth checking out!

    • Just felt like adding: I took flamenco for a summer as an adult. It was MARVELOUS. Something I’d like to do again.

    • I remember him being on the Muppet Show, yes! A few times, no? I did like him, but Baryshnikov was always my favorite. Had a little crush on him… 😉 And flamenco sounds like such fun!

  22. As soon as I read “tap” I flashed back to Sesame Street as a kid! Aww…love the street!

  23. What a great post! I’ve loved dancing all my life but was never interested in tap until recently. I’m 60 now and have been tapping for about 4 years and absolutely LOVE it! Not only is it great exercise, but it’s great for my brain as I age. I intend to continue as long as I’m able.

  24. This was really fun to watch, my daughter (who loves any type of dance) watched them with me until her brother distracted her 🙂 I knew a bit about the history of tap (past clogger over here) but I loved the overview and the Shirley Temple & Bojangles video. Gosh I loved those old movies.
    Sarah M

  25. tap is my absolute favorite as well. love gene kelly, fred astaire, and ginger rogers but one of my favorites is vera ellen and her amazing speedy toes. i took tap with a friend for about a month in a trial class and soooo wanted to keep going. maybe someday. thanks for sharing the fun!

  26. Thank you for posting! As a life-long tap dancer (age 2 to 38 now) it is nice to see this lost art form pop up in unexpected places. My old teacher (may she rest in peace) studied with Bojangles years ago, and definitely focused on the ‘broadway style’ you mention. Such a lost art!

  27. Such a fun and informative post! I had no idea about the history of tap, so interesting about the cross -culture imitations. I love Gene Kelly and I think I’ve seen all the Fred and Ginger movies. My sister and I used to imitate them as best we could. Such fun memories.

    And I’m adding White Nights to our list of movies to watch. It sounds intriguing.

  28. Nice post! My five-year-old daughter tried on tap shoes at the store recently and had a good time clicking all around the aisles. I took tap (and ballet, and baton) when I was about her age, so we agreed that she could start tap lessons next year when some of her other activities are over–I’m a firm believer in NOT over-scheduling kids!

  29. I just learned so much!

  30. Melissa W says:

    I absolutely LOVE tap!!! What an awesome post. My kids all gathered around for the videos. I have taken dance over the years and always loved tap the most. Could never only take tap. Several years back I even bought some instructional DVDs to relearn it all. This might just be the motivation to get them back out and try again!

  31. I love this! My grandmother was a professional tap dancer in the 40s and met my grandfather on a tour (he was part of a comedian/singer/songwriter duo. Think “White Christmas” because that was pretty much my grandparents’ life!)

    She even auditioned for Gene Kelly when she was 16 years old. He told her to immediately go audition for his current Broadway production, but she got cold feet and never auditioned.

    I love me some tap!

  32. I don’t think I realized you were a dancer. My 12 year old girl is a competitive dancer…we have mixed feelings about it (love that she loves it but not that it dominates her life at such a young age). Her dad and I love her tap dances the best. 🙂 I can’t wait to share this post with her this weekend. Thanks for sharing!

  33. Thanks for sharing this today! I was a dancer through childhood and college, and tap was my absolute favorite too. Hadn’t danced since college until going to a Tap Dance Day party almost 2 years ago. I still soft-shoe every once in awhile under the table. My tap shoes are all too small now! I’d love to get back into it.
    A very favorite time was when I was 17 and took a master class from Savion Glover who was probably only 21. Amazing.

  34. Wow! I never knew that tapping was such a blend of cultures. I’m going to share those videos with my kiddos when they wake up from nap. Thank you for sharing!

  35. Jennifer Erickson says:

    With over 14 years of tap, and failed attempts to get my 3 daughters (16, 14, & 8) interested, I haven’t actually danced for over 16 years now and just started regular Zumba. I missed it so badly and happy to find my body still has rhythm. Wonderful blog! I am also desperate to reclaim my brain. Thank You.

  36. I love this series…feed my brain…great!! Love the movie “White Knights” also! Thanks

  37. What a neat post, Tsh! I loved seeing all the videos you included. I grew up watching classic movies with my Grandma, including many with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. And I vividly remember that tap dancing on the stairs clip . . . such an interesting/sad history behind it!

  38. No way! This is awesome!
    I also grew up dancing and loved tap. It’s so much fun.
    When I moved to the US from Australia, to marry my husband (14 years ago), I brought my tap shoes with me! They were important 🙂
    This post makes me want to break them out again.
    So glad you’ve started this new feature.

  39. Wow! I never knew the history of tap. As a child of the 80s, I took tap dancing lessons for years. It was really fun! And of course, i love Gene Kelly and “Singing in the Rain.” Thanks for sharing! Kate

  40. I love that you wrote about this so much. Also? I now need to see you dance. 🙂

  41. Thank you! As much as I love being home with my babies, sometimes I really miss thinking on an adult level. This was fun brain food that I can’t wait to share with my girls.
    I am looking forward to future posts!

  42. Great post, loved watching the links with my kids!
    What do you think of Stomp, or what about Tap Dogs? Are they considered rhythmic tap?

  43. I am reading this while lying on my bed, foot propped, recovering from surgery. Great post but bad timing ‘cuz now my feet (both) are itching to move.

  44. Eeeek! So fun to see this. I discovered Fred and Ginger just a few years ago and have since seen every movie they’ve ever been in. So wonderful. I am so going to sign up for tap lessons very, very soon. I have fallen in love with it. Thanks for the fun post.

  45. So very excited about this new series. Smartness for all! 🙂

  46. Crystal A. says:

    Love this post! I’m sharing it with my “Tappin’ Moms” group! 🙂

  47. So great. Such fun to read. Thanks, Tsh!

  48. So fun! I read this post to Gigi for a little homeschool lesson and she loved watching the videos. That last one was amazing. Gigi’s favorite was Bojangles & Shirley Temple dancing on the stairs. 🙂

  49. I am a dance teacher and love the information you have given. It has proven very difficult to find all of these in one place. I will show these to my middle schoolers as a bellringer or as an introduce to our tap dance genre. Thank you for all of your hard work and intense passion for the art(s).

  50. I started tap dancing after I got over from an accident (broken tail bone and toes, displaced hip) and I absolutely love it. I started very late because of that (I’m 24) but I don’t regret. Great post by the way.
    All the best!

  51. N. Rivera Berrios says:

    On your early history the statement “African dancing (particularly something called “juba”), both of which were brought over to the United States through immigration and slavery..” comes to recall the teaching of “yuba” rythm in the Puerto Rican Plena Y Bomba. There are many ties that appear to bound them together, resonance, movement, and the conversation between the dancer and the music. In Plena and Bomba the conversation is more of a response to both both dance and drum’s rythm; more than a response, I would say a flirtatious one.

  52. miranda says:

    How can you live this stuff isn’t even trueWilkdfjdghfhgufhugif invented it.

  53. Barbara Hill says:

    reading Hidden I Plain sight, a book about the secret signs used by the slaves to escape their enslavement. It mentioned the circle dances from Africa. When they arrived they continued these dances, which included drums. The slave owners wouldn’t allow them to use the drums (fear of communication with other slaves nearby) so they began using their feet to continue the rhythms. They think that was the beginning of soft shoe/tap. Thank you for fleshing out this story with the film archives and the people that made it happen.

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