A History of Tap & Jazz

Tap Dance

A melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds – Tap Dance is an American born artform. In its early stages tap dance grew from different influences such as English, Irish and African musical dance traditions. You can trace the interaction of Irish servants and enslaved West Africans as far back as the 1600s up to the 1800s throughout American cities between African American free men and Irish performers. Tap Dance today is shared worldwide and is performed trained and taught in many different ways. There is no one single way to tap dance. Gregory Hines himself is famously quoted saying “If you have a pair of shoes on, you’re in” but it is very important that we recognize the roots, the people and the cultures from where this art form derived. Tap dance should be shared and celebrated by as many people as possible. The stories of its origins and history should be passed on from generation to generation, it is after all a part of who we are.

In the words of the great Dr. Jimmy Slyde: 

“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from” 

Music and dance are such an important part of a healthy society and we as practitioners of the craft have the responsibility and honor of sharing it with the world.

Here are some important cultural elements that contributed to the evolution of this art form.

  • The Irish Jig – Danced in an up-tempo 6/8 meter and usually done as a solo dance the “Jig “was popular in Scotland and Northern England in the 16th and 17th century and in Ireland in the 18th century. An improvised dance style with quick footwork the “Jig” also appeared as a stage dance and keyboard compositions as well. “Jigging” in the 1800s in America was one of the early terms that would later be called Tap Dance. 
  • Afro-Irish Fusion – The interaction of two cultures brought together by demographic location and the circumstances in American society at that time. They shared their passion for music, rhythm and dance styles absorbing both cultures together as they celebrated and shared their stories. Africans and Irish brought their music, dance and storytelling traditions to America and because of living in and sharing the same spaces they cultivated a cultural exchange that would transform into a new dance genre. In the 1700 when new slave laws banned the use of drums due to fear of creating uprisings Africans developed new ways of playing rhythms with their hands and feet. When these cultures collided, the Irish combined their step and clogging styles with West African dances, thus a style called “Jigging” was formed. This would later translate into Tap Dance. Tap Dance is without a doubt an American-born art form. 
  • Early American Folk Dance – As the pattern seems to be the same in many genres Folk dance or American Folk dance stemmed from a coming together of different European cultures in America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Scandinavian, German, Russian, Polish and Jewish to name a few all socialized tougher in the ghettos after migrating over from Europe. Their dances were group community bases with a “top-down” rule. They were pre-approved dances for what was intended. These dances were also a symbolic representation of a country’s essence. 
  • Gioube – Derived from the African Djouba this dance moved in a circle rotating counterclockwise. Consisting of rhythmic shuffling of the feet, patting of the body, hand clapping, jawboning and percussive footwork this was deeply rooted in their culture and passed along down generations. Later when the slave laws prohibited beating on drums of any kind, these forms of rhythmical communication were used. 
  • Scottish Highland or Highland Dancing – A form of dance that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. Scottish warriors used this dance to show and test their strength, stamina and agility. It also determined who was fit for battle and who was not. Highland dancing can be traced back as far as the 1200s. The Sword Dance was also a part of this culture, one of the first records of the sword dance was in 1573 as an attempt to assassinate Swedish King John the 3rd The dance was to be performed at a banquet for him and just so happened to be “the props needed” for this performance. The deed was never executed. 
  • Clogging – An American dance form, its origins began in the Appalachian Mountains and has now spread throughout the USA and abroad. The Irish, Scottish and Dutch Germans occupied this area in the 1700s. Their traditional folk dances combined and they shared their foot-tapping styles, this was the beginning of what would come to be known as Clog Dancing. Danced to fiddle and bluegrass music clogging was a means for these folk to express themselves and share cultural traditions and stories. The word “Clog” is a Gaelic term that translates to “time” Danced in time with the music and the heel usually dropping on the downbeat to keep the rhythm and time.  
  • Tap Challenge – The tap challenge has been an integral part of the evolution of tap dance from its early stages in America on the plantations when slave masters would stage challenges for the slaves. By the turn of the century and onward you could find dancers challenging each other on the streets, on stages across America, on Vaudeville and Broadway as well as the social clubs and dancing studios. Even today all over the world you can find the challenge present in this art form. The challenge helps push an individual to reach new heights in their work and practice. Creating new steps or stealing/borrowing others’ steps and making them your own was and is very popular and even encouraged. Challenging one another also builds courage and confidence in one’s dancing. Back in the early days, it was also a way to earn a gig, keep and gig or lose it depending on your execution. The challenge also presided in the jazz music scene as well from early on up to the present day. It is a healthy form of competition between colleagues and strangers, and because of their shared common passion, a level of respect is always present whether you’re the winner or the loser. 

These are some important key elements from different cultures that came together in America and contributed to the formation of what we call Tap Dance. As time passed this art form evolved rhythmically and musically. With the onset of jazz music in New Orleans in the early 1900s (known as “Jass” in the beginning) these rhythmically percussive art forms grew and evolved together. The connection between jazz music, tap dance and jazz dance is deeply rooted in all of these cultures and cannot be disregarded. As stated above, you could always find the pioneers of tap dance performing and competing together in back-alley ways, social clubs, on vaudeville and in minstrel shows as well as Broadway and eventually on TV and film.  

Here are some traditional repertoires and historical dances that are extremely important and recommended for study as a part of one’s journey when learning about the history and foundations of tap dance. There are more but these are just a few to start with.

“Cakewalk” – Originating on the plantations and considered the graceful cousin to the “Buck and Wing” the Cakewalk played an integral role in the theatre as it was danced to the rhythms of Ragtime setting it free and it became the first black dance form to be accepted by white society on stage helping to pave the way of other dance forms such as the Buck and Wing.

“Buck and Wing” – Also originating on the plantations but made popular in Vaudeville It was also referred to as “hottin” at the turn of the century it was known as a close-to-the-floor flat-footed dance style. By the 1930s Buck and Wing combined wings with close-to-the-floor dancing.  

“The Walk Around” – Beginning in the 1840s in Minstrel shows it was done as the finale where dancers would walk in a circle performing flashy steps in competition. The walkaround has a close connection and relations to the Cakewalk.

“Shim Sham Shimmy” – Tap dances “National Anthem” choreographed by Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant in the 1930s. This dance is very often performed at the end of a show with the entire cast onstage together. It is very often performed 2 times through with shorter improvised solos taken by the dancers between the first and second time ending with the famous “Shave and a Haircut” 

“Traditional BS Chorus” – Performed and originated in Vaudeville in the 1930s. This dance is also very often performed at the end of a show with the entire cast with the same structure as the Shim Sham Shimmy. There are no set rules as to whether solos must be taken between or not. It was up to the dancers and musicians at the time. However, the history and tradition of these two dances are very important in both the evolution of Tap Dance and keeping the community connected worldwide. 

“Traditional Soft Shoe” – Originating in Vaudeville in the early 1900’s soft shoe was danced in “soft” sole shoes without the traditional taps

Eddie Brown’s “BS Chorus” – Choreographed by Eddie Brown

“Opus 1” -Choreographed by Harold Cromer

“Laura” – Choreographed by Buster Brown

There are other beautiful set repertoires to look up and study as well. These pieces that we have mentioned are just a few staple dances to start with. 

Here are some names of the great masters of this dance from yesterday and today we recommend you look up and check out. Again, there are many more we could mention but the list would be very long. We highly recommend that you look up and check out as many tap dancers as possible as the list is long and full of incredible dancers.

  • William Henery Lane – “Master Juba” 1825 – 185
  • George Primrose – 1852- 1919
  • “Ginger” Jack Wiggins – year unknown 
  • Dora Dean (helped to popularize the cakewalk) – 1872 -1949
  • Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – 1878 – 1949 (born Luther Robinson)
  • The Whitman Sisters 
    • Mable Whitman – 1880 – 1942
    • Essie Whitman – 1882 – 1903
    • Alberta Whitman – 1887 – 1963
    • Alice “Baby” Whitman – 1900 – 1969
  • Aida Overton Walker – 1880 – 1914 (“Queen of the Cakewalk”) 
  • Eddie Rector – 1890 – 1962
  • Fred Astaire – 1899 – 1987
  • Clarence “Buddy” Bradley – 1905 – 1972
  • John “Bubbles” William Sublet – 1902 – 1986
  • Pete Nugent – 1909 – 1973
  • The Four Step Brothers
    • Maceo Anderson – 1910 – 2001
    • Al Willams – 1911 – 1985
    • Red Walker – unknown 
    • Sherman Robinson – unknown 
  • Ginger Rogers – 1911 – 1995
  • Charles “Honi” Coles – 1911 – 1992
  • Eleanor Powell – 1912 – 1982
  • Gene Kelly – 1912 – 1996
  • Charles “Cholly” Atkins – 1913 -2003
  • James “Buster” Brown – 1913 – 2002
  • Nicholas Brothers
    • Fayard Antonio Nicholas – 1914 -2006
    • Harold Lloyd Nicholas – 1921 – 2000
  • Charles “Cookie” Cook – 1914 – 1991
  • Eddie Brown – 1915 – 1992
  • Henry Le Tang – 1915 – 2007
  • Jeni LeGon – 1916 – 2012
  • Howard “Sandman” Sims – 1917 -2003
  • Eddie “Stumpy” Hartman – 1918 – 1951 (of “Stump and Stumpy”) 
  • The Condos Brothers
  • Steve Condos – 1918 – 1990
    • Frank Condos – 1906 -? 
    • Nick Condos – 1915 – 1988 
  • James “Stump” Cross – 1919 – 1981 (founder of “Stump and Stumpy”)
  • Charles “Chuck” Green – 1919 – 1997
  • Mable Lee – 1921 – 2019
  • “Baby” Laurence Jackson – 1921 – 1974
  • Harold “Stumpy” Cromer – 1921 – 2013 (of “Stump and Stumpy” he replaced Eddie Hartman after his tragic death in 1951) 
  • Bernard “Bunny” Briggs – 1922 – 2014
  • Leon Collins – 1922 – 1985
  • Ann Miller – 1923 – 2004 
  • Sammy Davis Jr. – 1925 -1990 (born Samuel George Davis Jr. a part of the “Rat Pack”)
  • Donald O’Connor – 1925 -2003
  • Dr. Jimmy Slyde – 1927 – 2008 (born James Titus Godbolt)
  • Lon Chaney – 1927 – 1995
  • Shirley Temple – 1928 – 2014
  • Dr. “Willie” Gaines – 1928 – 2017 (born Royce Edward Gaines)
  • Debbie Reynolds – 1932 – 2016
  • Harriet Brown – 1932 – 1997
  • Ethel Bruneau – 1936 – 2023
  • The Hines Brothers
    • Maurice Hines – 1943 – 2023
    • Gregory Hines – 1946 – 2003
  • Chance Taylor – 1970 – 2012
  • Ivery Wheeler
  • Dianne Walker “Lady Di”
  • Heather Cornell
  • Brenda Buffalino
  • Babra Duffy
  • Sara Petronio
  • Roxane “Butterfly” Semadeni 
  • Jane Goldberg

It is so easy to access information these days. You can find information on all of these people online or in books. If you decide to go down this amazing rabbit hole you won’t be disappointed, it’s truly an inspiring journey! 

Here is a list of books we recommend. These books are a wonderful resource, they share information on the stories and history of tap dance from different people’s perspectives that we feel you will thoroughly enjoy. These are all accessible on Amazon.

  • Tap Dancing America by Constance Valis Hill
  • What the Eye Hears by Brian Seibert
  • Shoot Me While I’m Happy by Jane Goldberg 
  • TAP! The Greatest Tap Dance Starts and Their Stories by Rusty E. Frank 
  • The Souls of Your Feet by Acia Grey
  • Tapping the Source by Brenda Bufalino 

We hope this brief outline has given you enough information and insight to get started on your journey into tap dance. We encourage you to stay inspired, dig deeper, look further and share the stories and information with your people your students and anyone who will listen. 

Keep on “Swingin”

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