1650-1900: From Clog to Soft Shoe
Nobody could have predicted that the collision of cultures in the New World centuries ago would result in tap, the uniquely American dance form. Yet the fusion of British Isles clog and step dancing with the rhythms of West African drumming and dancing in colonial times created an ever-evolving art form that continues to flourish today.
In the mid-1600s, Scottish and Irish indentured laborers brought their social dances to the New World. Slaves in the southern United States imitated the rapid toe and heel action of the Irish jig and the percussive sensibility of the Lancashire clog, and combined them with West African step dances that were known as "juba" dances and "ring shouts." As a result, African dance styles became more formal and diluted, while European elements became more fluid and rhythmic, eventually resulting in a uniquely American tap hybrid.
Before the end of the Civil War, black and white performers were rarely allowed to appear on stage together, with the exception of Master Juba (William Henry Lane). Born a free man in 1825, as a teenager Lane became a well-known dancer in New York City. A superb Irish jig and clog dancer, Lane created such rhythmically complex dances that he was declared the champion dancer of his time. He even had featured billing above white dancers on the circuit.
After the Civil War, many black or mixed minstrel companies were founded. Ironically, African Americans had to perform in blackface. Though the stereotypes and caricatures were undeniably racist, the enduring popularity of minstrel shows testifies to the increasing influence and interest in black culture in the United States.
1900-1920: The Birth of Tap
The term "tap" came into popular use as late as 1902. In the 1800s, the dance had been referred to as "buck-and-wing," "buck dancing," or "flat-footed dancing." Metal taps attached to shoe bottoms weren't commonly used until after 1910. Before then, most shoes were made of leather uppers and wooden soles, while others had hobnails or pennies pounded into the toe and heel.
With the rise of vaudeville, travelling black road shows and Broadway revues, more and more opportunities for tap dancers opened up. Still, racism was prevalent, and black and white performers usually danced on different theatrical circuits and for segregated audiences.
1920-1935: The Harlem Renaissance
John W. Bubbles (John "Bubber" Sublett) is known as the father of rhythm tap. Bubbles brought tap down from the toes by slapping his heels against the floor like a drummer. He added a new range of syncopated accents to his rhythmical lines, freeing tap from the classic eight-bar phrase ending in a two-bar break by "running" the bars, or hooking together longer non-repetitive phrases. This style continues to be widely used in tap performances.
With the rise of film and the demise of vaudeville during the 1930s, performers turned to flashier tap routines with increasingly dangerous acrobatics. The Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard Nicholas) were the most respected tap performers who used flash techniques. Flash tap refers to spectacular tricks incorporated into tap phrases. Leaping from platforms and stairs as high as ten feet, they would land in full splits, bounce up, and continue tapping. Flash and acrobatic tap entails timing each feat precisely so that the rhythms of the dance are uninterrupted.