When it comes to American dance, tap is the ultimate form of artistic expression. That’s because tap is both movement and music. Unlike other forms of dance – which are normally described as being performed to music – tap creates it’s own sound. It’s percussive. Even if a dancer is performing with accompaniment, the most important sound at any tap recital is the one being made by the dancer’s feet.
So in honor of National Tap Dance Day, we at Art&seek share a few interesting facts and fascinating videos pertaining to the history of America’s coolest form of dance.
A Brief History of Tap
Tap has been around since the 1800s. Its origins can be traced to the slums of New York City where Irish and West African immigrants lived and worked. Though tap dancing is most notably associated with African American culture, it’s DNA actually hails from multiple continents. The percussive dances that birthed tap include African ceremonial dances, Irish Jigs and British Clogging.
During the mid-1800s, tap dancing became well known outside of New York City and spread across the U.S. because to the popularity of minstrel shows. But as time moved on, the racist form of entertainment became less popular and tap found a new home in the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage in the late-1800s and early 1900s. Vaudeville helped turn dancers into stars and suddenly tap was everywhere. By the 1920s and ’30s, tap dancing was seen in movies, musicals and night clubs.
Tap is also an extension of another one of America’s other homegrown forms of artistic expression – jazz. In fact, tap is actually considered a form of jazz music. And like jazz, tap saw a steep decline in popularity in the 1950s. People stopped going to clubs. They stayed home to watch television. And popular forms of music changed. Rock and roll became king.
But according to “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” by Brian Seibert, tap had a second coming in the 1970s, thanks to Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg (white women tappers) who decided that tap needed to be saved. Bufalino and Goldberg started organizations, festivals and schools that celebrated the dance. They even got retired dancers from the early days to put their shoes back on to teach a new generation.
One star to rise out of this period was Gregory Hines. Hines and his brother were child tap dancing stars that were accompanied by their father Maurice Hines Sr.. The three had an act called Hines, Hines and Dad that appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson several times. Gregory Hines went on to star in several musicals and films and was nominated for several Tony Awards. At the height of his career, Hines participated in an extended competition dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Hines held his own against ballet’s rock star, which cemented his place in the pantheon of dance. Unfortunately, Hines died at age 57 due to lung cancer.
Since Hines’ death in 2003, his protégé, Savion Glover, has carried the mantel for tap. The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella says Savion “is certainly the most accomplished tap technician living” and “probably the most accomplished who ever lived.” Glover is known for bringing funk to tap. Throughout his career, he’s made the most of tap’s musical qualities and he’s even starred in and choreographed the musicals, “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and “Shuffle Along.” Glover received a Tony Award nomination for each.
No one has stepped into the national spotlight in the ways that Glover, Hines or even past stars like Jimmy Slyde, Teddy Hale, Bill Robinson or John Bubbles have, yet (see videos below). But Glover is still teaching kids in New York and Hollywood still loves tap. Stars like Anna Kendrick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum have all tapped in film in recent years.
A Bit of Info About Noteworthy Tap Dancers
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878 – 1949) was one of the most famous tap dancers of all time. He starred in movies with Shirley Temple and was one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup. He was a Broadway headliner, a civil rights activist and a retired member of the United States Army.
John William Sublett, known by his stage name John W. Bubbles (1902 – 1986) is known as the father of “rhythm tap.” Rhythm tap is a form of dance characterized by using the sounds of tap shoes striking the floor as a form of percussion. Bubbles was also a member of a duo known as “Buck and Bubbles.” Buck played on the stride piano and sang, and Bubbles tapped along. One of Bubbles’ most interesting credits was creating the role of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” in 1935.
Jimmy Slyde (1927 – 2008) is a world-renowned tap dancer that was known as the “King of Slide.” He was especially famous for his innovative tap style (the sliding) which he mixed with live jazz music. Unfortunately, Slyde’s fame began at a time when big band music was on it’s way out in the U.S., so he he had to travel to Europe to gain popularity. Eventually, he found spots in America’s jazz hubs where he performed at regularly and he was able to star in movies with Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr.
Eddie Brown (1915 – 1992) was a tap dancer known for clarity of taps and complex phrasing. His signature style was called “scientific tap,” because his rhythmically intricate steps were performed with his feet so close to the floor that people could not see him tapping. Brown was one of the tap dancers that had a career in the 1950s, but who didn’t garner popularity until the 1970s and 80s. During the 15 to 20 years that Brown was not performing, he lived as a drunk. Jazz’s second coming not only saved his career, but his life.