JUBA - Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance

Tap History
tap shoes Tap History Timeline

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.

But tap didn't become a stage dance until the rise of the minstrel show in the late 1800s. White dancers (usually Irish) blackened their faces with burnt cork and staged performances based on their interpretations of African and African American dance and music styles, competing to see who had the most "authentic" material. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were the most popular form of American entertainment, featuring a variety of jokes, songs, dance and music in a loose format.

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

Bill Robinson
Bill Robinson

John Bubbles
John Bubbles

The Nicholas Brothers
The Nicholas Brothers

Tap was most popular of all the stage dances from 1920 to 1935, at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, black Broadway, the nightclub and vaudeville. The best known tap dancer of that era was Bill ("Bojangles") Robinson, who performed on stage as well as on film. Lauded for his clean footwork and for dancing up on his toes with minimal heel taps, his dances were graceful and nuanced. His patterns also set new standards, and his phrasing is still considered the classic structure of tap. As seen in the 1935 movie The Little Colonel with Shirley Temple, Mr. Bojangles brought the stair dance to such a level of excellence that, to this day, it remains linked to his name.

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.

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