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The Origins of Tap

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We’ve all seen it and we definitely have heard it, the distinctive sound of the metal tap on the heel and toe striking the floor.

Tap dancing can be traced back to the mid 1800s in dance styles such as Juba, English Lancashire Clog and Irish step dancing.  Minstrel shows incorporating these forms were on the rise in this era and were the most popular form of American entertainment.  Despite black and white performers infrequently allowed to appear on stage together, William Henry Lane, often described as the forbearer of Tap, was one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel group.

In 1902, the term “Tap” became popular.  There were two techniques.  The first was a fast style using shoes with wooden soles, often called Buck-and-Wing and the second, Soft-Shoe characterised by a smooth, leather-sole style. By the 1920s, the two techniques merged and metal plates, or taps, attached to the bottom of the shoe were added to leather-soled shoes. Black dancers began to contribute to Tap dance in the 1920s and 30s, creating new styles, often acrobatic in nature.

As vaudeville began to decrease during the 1930s, flash techniques became popular.  This meant stunning tricks incorporated into Tap phrases which included leaping from platforms and stairs, landing in full splits, bouncing up and then continuing to tap. Each move is timed precisely so that the rhythms of the dance are uninterrupted.

Unfortunately, in the 1950s, Tap became less popular.  This is in part due to a change in musical styles, such as rock and roll and pop, and a move towards classical ballet in films.  Whilst Tap still continued in the clubs, it was a social dance for pleasure.

The late 1980s saw a return to Tap with many African American male dancers showing an interest in it.  In 1989, in the US, Congress voted for Tap to be recognised, creating National Tap Dance on 25 May.

Looking for some Tap inspiration?  Watch, perhaps the most famous Tap pairing, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who broke into the scene in the 1930s and 1940s.  For something equally special, check out Gene Kelly, from the late 1950s, who combined balletic and modern dance, bringing a new dimension to Tap.