Origins of Popular Dance
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (c. late 1920s). Courtesy of Photofest.
Unlike all of the African American dance innovations before it, tap dance was as much influenced by European
tradition as it was black custom. Beginning in the 17th century the Irish jig and the English clog dance—social
dances of the Scotch-Irish indentured servant class—slowly melded with the step and ring dances indigenous
to African slaves to forge a uniquely American form. While some of the arrangements of tap's British Isles
predecessor were preserved—notably, employment of soft- and hard-shoe routines—flourishes
common in West African secular dance such as accent differentiation, syncopation, and "polyrhythmic, multimetric
percussive sensibility," lent the style its most recognizable traits. The first tap performances to occur
outside of slave plantations began in the 1820s with the rise of the minstrel show. The country's most popular
form of entertainment for much of the latter part of the 19th century, minstrel shows—and thus, tap—were
at first exclusively performed by whites in blackface. With the exception of Master Juba (William Henry Lane), who
was actually given top billing in a show in New York City, blacks were virtually shut out from performing the very form
they created until the end of the Civil War (Sommer). Following the war, mixed and all-black companies began to
develop, evolving and popularizing the dance even further, and with the rise of vaudeville and Broadway tap broke
squarely into the mainstream. Tap was so popular by the 1930s that no less than Bill "Bojangles" Robinson,
still considered one the most popular dancers of the 20th century, appeared with Shirley Temple in the 1935 movie The
Little Colonel; until its decline two decades later, Hollywood—in particular white actors (and gifted
dancers) Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—couldn't seem to get enough of the dance.
Sommer, Sally R. "Tap Dance." In International Encyclopedia of Dance. Edited by Selma Jean Cohen.
New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2004.