Tap dance originated in the United States in the early 19th century, during the early slave trade, at the crossroads of African and Irish American dance forms. It has been said that when slave owners took away traditional African percussion instruments, slaves turned to percussive dancing to express themselves and retain their cultural identity. These styles of dance connected with clog dancing from the British Isles, creating a unique form of movement and rhythm.
Tap gained popularity after the Civil War as a part of travelling minstrel shows and, in the early 20th century, tap was an important feature of popular Vaudeville variety shows and a major part of the rich creative output of the Harlem Renaissance. Tap dancers began collaborating with jazz musicians, incorporating improvisation and complex syncopated rhythms into their movement.
The modern tap shoe, featuring metal plates (called “taps”) on the heel and toe, came into widespread use at this time - early tap shoes had wooden soles, sometimes with pennies attached to the heel and toe. Although Vaudeville and Broadway brought performance opportunities to African-American dancers, racism was still pervasive, as dancers of different races typically performed separately and for segregated audiences.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, tap dance sequences became a staple of movies and television. Tap’s popularity declined in the second half of the 20th century, but was reinvigorated in the 1980s through Broadway shows like 42nd Street and The Tap Dance Kid.
Born on May 25, 1878, Bill Robinson invented a new way to tap, transforming it from a flat-footed dance to a style that pushed the performer to his toes. Many of Robinson's steps, including the famous "stair dance," are commonly used today.
Tap stars included Shirley Temple, who made her film tap dance debut at age six, and Gene Kelly, who introduced a balletic style of tap. Fred Astaire, famous for combining tap with ballroom dance, insisted that his dance scenes be captured with a single take and wide camera angle. This style of cinematography became the norm for tap dancing in movies and television for decades*.