tap dance

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

tap dance

tap dance, theatrical dance form in which the dancer, wearing shoes with metal heel and toe taps, beats out complex, syncopated rhythms on the floor.

The Beginnings of Tap Dance

Tap, an American dance genre, evolved from the 17th to 19th cent. through the intermingling of elements of West African percussive dance, brought to the New World by slaves, and a variety of step and clog dance styles that originated in the British Isles. Some historians see evidence of this cultural mingling in the dances of African slaves and Irish indentured servants living on Southern plantations, while others trace it to 19th-century northern cities, where various ethnic groups lived side by side in crowded conditions. Dance competitions or "challenges," a popular form of entertainment that originated in the mid-19th cent., were a way to display one's talent as well as to learn new steps and innovations from other performers. The minstrel show, a form of entertainment performed primarily by whites in blackface that dates from the early 1800s, featured an early form of tap, often performed in wooden shoes or hobnailed boots, as well as soft shoe. Minstrel shows were later supplanted by vaudeville, which incorporated tap dancers and many other forms of entertainment and was most popular from the 1880s to the early 1930s.

The Heyday of Tap

The early 20th century saw an increase in the popularity of tap dance, with tapping chorus lines in theatrical shows and, later, motion pictures. Elements of ballet, jazz, and military drills and the use of such props as canes and stairs were incorporated into tap routines. The jazz tap musical show Shuffle Along (1921), with a Broadway show with an all-black cast, popularized the form in the jazz age and reached white and black audiences, but its success was anomalous and limited in the era of segregation and separate black and white vaudeville circuits and nightclubs.

Popular tap dancers of the time included "Peg Leg" Bates, who danced with a prosthetic leg and a tap shoe on the other foot; John Bubbles, who featured offbeat accents in his "rhythm tap" ; Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson, who made many movies in the 1930s and 40s, several of them with the young Shirley Temple; the duo of Coles & Atkins (Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins), with routines that included soft shoe and swing dance as well as tap; and the Nicholas Brothers, who featured feats of acrobatics in their shows. Ruby Keeler, along with Eleanor Powell one of the few female tap stars of the time, enjoyed popularity in the Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s. Sammy Davis, Jr., who performed with his vaudevilian parents beginning in the 1920s, Fred Astaire, with his elegance and sophistication, and Gene Kelly, who had a dynamic muscular athleticism, changed the appearance of tap in their many movies of the 1940s and 50s and later enjoyed popularity on television.

Later Dancers and the Combining of Forms

After a slump in popularity in the 1960s, tap dance enjoyed a revival from the 1970s into the early 2000s. Several young, white female dancers,including Brenda Buffalino and Jane Goldberg, worked with older dancers to learn from them and find opportunities for them to perform. The tap renaissance also brought into being musical shows such as 42nd Street (1980), Stomp (1991), and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk (1995) and found an audience for such dancers as Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who combined jazz, pop, hip-hop, and other musical genres in their routines. Hines appeared alongside ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in the film White Nights (1985), and Glover choreographed a Broadway revivial of Shuffle Along (2016).

Bibliography

See R. Frank, Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900–1955 (1995); C. Valis Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) and Tap Dancing America (2010); M. Knowles, Tap Roots (2002); B. Siebert, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (2015).

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