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 into 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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, 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 into the Cold War of the 80s, plus amazing dancing to boot. Check out the scenes here, here, and here.

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

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