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History of Tap Shoes

The Origins and History of American Tap Dancing

Distinctive sounds of rhythmic patterns beat from the wooden decks of southern river boats as the percussive footwork of black American slaves communicated wordlessly. Those percussions were the origins of the art of tap dancing.


The rhythms of the river boats transferred to the minstrel stage. Popularized by the performances of a white man, Thomas D. Rice, who performed adaptations of the slave dances in blackface, "Daddy" Rice sang and danced as black man, Jim Crow, in minstrels as early as 1828. However, the first black man to whom tap dance tribute is paid in historical registers is Master Juba, Master of Percussive Dance, William Henry Lane. Lane lived for just twenty seven years, but during that short time managed to influence the performance of nineteenth century American dance with a style that reflected the rhythms of black culture. Juba toured as a solo act with white minstrel troupes. He traveled to cultural cities like New York and then to London, where he lived for a short time. He founded a school at which the exuberant juba dance of plantation slaves was taught. Master Juba died in 1852.

Black minstrels continued popularity into the 1860's, when performers advertised themselves as bona fide negroes. Some blackened their faces and outlined their mouths, as white performers had done, to strengthen their facial features. After the civil war, African-American minstrel companies which by then included freed slaves continued, still dancing the choreography popularized by Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice's caricature.

Early Tap Dance Technique

Early minstrel performances had started to shape the technique of tap dancing. Born in Virginia in 1878, Bill Robinson became a hoofer at local beer joints from the age of six. Two years later he found himself on tour with a song and dance troupe. At twelve he joined a traveling company and by the time he was in his twenties he was performing in a vaudeville team, tapping in shoes that had wooden soles and heels. Even after having gained broad notoriety as a nightclub and musical comedy performer for decades, Robinson had not danced for a white audience until he was fifty years of age.

Bojangles, as Bill Robinson came to be known, was a master at creating both visual and audio sensations. Robinson had an expressive face and always appeared relaxed. Rarely did he use his upper body, his feet were his vehicle. His style of tap dancing was more on his toes than the flat footed dance style of the buck and wing version. Robinson danced on the balls of the feet. He could still dance his incredible time steps well into his sixties.

King Rastus Brown, was a buck dancer, who never danced for white audiences, and therefore never achieved the same notoriety as Bill Robinson. He executed a more flat footed version of tap dancing, a bent forward style of stomping and clogging and he was the very best at his craft. He had his own time step and was the master of improvisation. He could do the sand dance, an exaggerated cakewalk and incorporated the cane into his routines from time to time.

The next innovations came from John William "Bubbles" Sublett, sometimes referred to as "the father of rhythm tap," who together with piano player Ford Lee "Buck" Washington was the first African American to tap at Radio City Music Hall. Buck played piano and Bubbles sang and danced from Indianapolis in 1912, all the way to New York City. They broke color barriers by headlining the white vaudeville circuit across the U.S. Buck's variations in tempo forced Bubbles to adapt his dance steps in response. By then thin metal plates, or taps, had been added to the leather-soled shoes of dancers, the origins of tap shoes. This further enhanced performances by upgrading the dimension of sound. The development of a new tap style, which involved both toe and heel steps, was more complicated. Repetitive tap combinations, time steps, communicated tempo to the band. They continued to perform as the duo of Buck and Bubbles until the 1950's.

Hoofers and The Big Bands

Before television replaced vaudeville as the most popular form of entertainment, many big bands included tap dancers as part of their show. Traveling with Duke Ellington were the Four Step Brothers, who joined ranks in 1927. Although only four members performed at a time, the original members were replaced over the years to include Maceo Anderson, Al Williams, Red Walker, Sherman Robertson, Freddie James, Prince Spender, Flash McDonald and Sylvester Johnson. King Rastus Brown, noted as one of the best of the early buck dancers, helped the original Step Brothers incorporate moves such as Snake Hips, Camel Walks, 5 Tap Wings, Slides, Afro-Cuban Movement, Rhythm Tap and the Strut. The fascinating style of the Four Step Brothers was their presentation. Without the accompaniment of music, the brothers clapped hands to create a beat to which one dancer solo performed his tap routine, followed competitively by each of the other brothers. The ensuing one-ups-manship challenge of talents made for a high level of entertainment.

Charles "Honi" Coles was born in 1911 in Philly. His quick rhythm tapping style developed on the streets of his hometown. He first appeared in New York as a member of the Three Millers. He earned the reputation of having the fastest feet in the business with a near perfect sense of timing. In 1940, while dancing with Cab Calloway's band, he met and paired up with Charles "Cholly" Atkins. Their routines included fast paced tap numbers, precision swing dance, soft shoe, and tap challenges. Honi Coles gave tap its proper dues in the world of concert art when he performed in the Joffrey Ballet's production of Agnes DeMille's Conversations about the Dance. Coles taught dance and dance history at Yale, Cornell, Duke, and George Washington University. The world of dance lost Honi Coles in 1992.

James Buster Brown was born in Baltimore in 1913. Tap dancing was a facet of the man's kind heart. It is said that he had a boundless joy for life, and a never ending will to encourage others. He toured as a tap soloist with the orchestras of Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington. A master of his profession and a role model for all, Dr. Buster Brown, danced effortlessly and at the same time, amazingly. No list of tap dance greats is complete without the inclusion of Buster Brown.

Jimmy Slyde, whose real name is James T. Godbolt , is a world renowned tap dancer for his innovative jazz style tap. His dance is based on a serious and emotional connection with wood, the tones of iron taps against wood floors. His tap is audible and visual, but sound is more important than sight. Precisely counting out meters and bars, the true tap percussionist patterns out time steps with music as the driving force. The name Slyde and the description Tap Master are synonymous.

The famous Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold grew up in Philly, as so many persons of notable talent did. The sons of musicians, their mother played piano and their father at the drums, they had the opportunity to see Vaudeville firsthand as youngsters. Particularly interested in the talents of great tappers like Bill Robinson, Fayard imitated their moves. Harold watched and followed Fayard until he too became proficient at foot work. The Nicholas Brothers were well liked performers who developed unique styles that dazzled audiences. Dancing to jazz tempos, they worked spins, twists and flips into their tap routines. In addition, the brothers utilized their remarkable versatility by converting and incorporating ballet moves into their jazz tap dance patterns. Not unnoticed by the great Balanchine, master ballet choreographer, the Nicholas Brothers were invited to appear on Broadway in 1937. The compliments of these unique skills lead people to assume that they had formal training in ballet. In 2003, the Nicholas Brothers were inducted into the National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame.

Tap and the Movies

In the movies of the 1930's, Fred Astaire brought effortless grace to the screen with a Broadway style of tap dancing not intended to beat out anything but sheer glamour and entertainment. Fred and his partner, Ginger Rogers, became the silver screen's most popular dancing duo. Fred developed inventive dance routines throughout his career including one with a coat rack, and another dancing on the walls and ceiling of a hotel room Along with the mesmerizing stage spectaculars of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were those of Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, and Ann Miller, who actually took tap lessons to straighten her legs against the effects of rickets and who later became known as one of the world's fastest tappers.

She didn't create innovative technique, she's not listed on the rolls of tap masters, but oh boy, did she make little girls across America want to tap! Shirley Temple was a child star who brought happiness to American families during the time of the great depression. She made 30 films before she reached the age of 9, in 1937. It is an interesting fact that a shoe factory that specialized in dance shoes found itself swamped with orders, and a manufacturer of metal taps for the soles of those dance shoes reported a two-year rise in business of astronomical proportions. Dance schools from coast to coast were deluged with children who wanting to enroll in tap class. This phenomenon is credited to the popularity of the bright eyed, curly haired darling of the screen, and the need to pursue dreams even in financially troubled times.

The Radio City Rockettes

The Rockyettes as they were first named, were the creation of Russell Markert who pieced together a perfectly matched kick line of sixteen tappers in St. Louis. They were brought to New York by showman Roxy Rothafel in 1932, and opened at Radio City, sharing the stage with seventeen diverse acts, among them the Flying Wallendas, Ray Bolger and Martha Graham. Not long after, Radio City Music Hall shifted their format from live acts to movies, but the lavish routines of the Rockettes had become a mainstay.

The troupe grew to include thirty six dancers. Yet throughout the more than seventy five years of their performances, the stringent requirements of becoming a Rockette have never lessened. Each year hundreds of women proficient in tap and jazz audition with the hope of becoming a member of the quintessential American chorus line. Those shorter than 5'6" or taller than 5"10" need not apply. The concept of the dance line is to achieve absolute precision and ultimate uniformity in their movements as though one dancer was reflected thirty-six times over. Every step has to be timed perfectly, every costume has to be exactly the same, every high heeled tap shoe looks and sounds the same. The illusion of absolute uniform height is achieved by putting the tallest dancer in the center, and gradually decreasing the height with the shortest women at each end. Since 1932, more than 3,000 women have kicked in the lines of the Rockettes.

Resurgence of Tap Popularity

The popularity of musicals declined in the 1950s, and so did tap dancing. Rock and Roll music over the airwaves and a new era of dance emerged. Television shows like American Bandstand exposed viewers to new dance styles. Except for variety shows, tap was seldomly showcased on television.

Revived by the extraordinary talents of Gregory Hines, tap found its way back into the hearts of the American people in the late 1970's. Hines was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City. When he was a toddler, he mimicked his older brother, Maurice's, tap dance steps. At four, he and brother formed a tap-dancing act called the Hines Kids, later renamed the Hines Brothers. They performed at nightclubs and on the vaudeville circuit. In 1963 their father, Maurice Hines Sr., a drummer, joined the act and they toured as Hines, Hines and Dad. They appeared on television programs, including "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. In 1978, Gregory Hines moved to New York and began dancing and acting in Broadway plays and musicals. His acting talent landed him straight acting roles in addition to those requiring dance. In 1992 Hines received a Tony Award for his portrayal of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton in the Broadway production of Jelly's Last Jam. His success on Broadway led to roles in motion pictures. He made his film debut in History of the World Part 1. His danced rolls in The Cotton Club, White Nights, and Tap. Appearing in a number of television programs, he earned an Emmy Award in 1989 for the Public Broadcasting Service special "Gregory Hines: Tap Dance In America." Noting his awards speaks to his recognized accomplishments, but the man's true accomplishments were in his ability to convey his emotions to others in an amazing way. He held an appreciation for those tap masters who preceded him, recognizing that his talents were a direct result of their experiences. He incorporated the diversified styles of Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Slyde, and Sammy Davis, Jr. into his own, and tap danced creatively and impulsively. Gregory Hines died on August 9, 2003 of cancer, and will be remembered as a great artist for many generations to come.

Tap greats like Brenda Buffalino continue to advance the development of creative dance sequences. A tap dancer with a strong jazz orientation, Ms. Buffalino formed the American Tap Dance Orchestra, an ensemble of dancers, backed by vocalists and musicians, thereby creating a totally new concept in tap. The dancers' feet become instruments, tapping out tones and rhythms in the manner of conventional orchestra. Ms Bufalino's unique choreography, based on counter rhythms and fugues, is a style she exhibits and teaches across the U.S. and Europe.

Is it New Tap, Is it Old Tap?

Mentored by Gregory Hines, Savion Glover holds the respect of tap aficionados world-wide as a gifted foot percussionist. His dedication brought him to prominence as a performer, choreographer, director and producer. A long list of accomplishments such as the youngest man to be nominated for a Tony Award, Broadway at age 12, dancing with Gregory Hines, costarring with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Spike Lee, and the list of credits goes on and on. But, to define Savion Glover would not be to offer a list of his trophies. What is important is that he is a talent above talents. A street savvy, hip-hop kid, Savion Glover's address is SoHo, but he lives in dance. If his feet are not beating out rhythms, his mind is, if not dancing, then choreographing. He dances a hard hitting style of tap presented with powerful awe. He has a knowledge of his craft and an intense dedication to keep it alive. He keeps it alive in media forms never afforded to the tappers or earlier times, like television advertising, performing at the Olympics, or reaching the hearts of children on Sesame Street. Young in years, Glover is already considered by some to be one of the best rhythmic dancers ever. If will played a roll in genetics, the rhythms of Buster Brown and Jimmy Slyde, and the passion of Gregory Hines would most likely be found in the DNA of Glover. Students who come prepared to learn from Savion Glover, in turn, take away with them the styles of the masters. His dance company, NYOTs, Not Your Ordinary Tappers, aptly describes Glover himself. He is not your ordinary tapper. Good wood to him.

Tap Shoes and Tap Attire

The forefathers of American tap, the slaves, had natural tap shoes, calloused feet. Their rhythmic sounds beat out in tones borrowed from skin rapping against wood. Minstrel performers danced in clothing that depicted the downtrodden times of blacks in the south around the time of the Civil War. Early tappers like Bill Robinson, Bojangles, derived sound from shoes with wooden soles and heels and wore clothing much more suitable for stage performances. Then came metal taps for the bottoms of shoes. This invention created a phenomenon.

Famous stage tappers like the Four Step Brothers, Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde and the Nicholas Brothers danced in upscale suits or tuxedos and frilly shirts and had leather oxford style tap shoes with sound making iron taps applied.

When Fred, Ginger, Gene, Eleanor, Ann and Shirley danced, the clothes got bigger and shinier and the taps got bolder and louder. Pleated front slacks were worn by both men and women for rehearsal. They were comfortable and allowed freedom of movement throughout the hours and hours of continuous choreography each and every day. But the transition from practice to performance was not without major catastrophes. Stage productions had become fashion extravaganzas, they became bigger than life entertainment, they became Showbiz! Gowns with glitter on billowing chiffon, rhinestoned bracelets on gloves, hats with plumes and furs that hung, starched shirts with tail-coats and white ties were the costumes that showcased the talents of the Broadway tap dancers on stage and in films. Having rehearsed in casual attire had not revealed the restrictions of the actual costumes. Not only were the dresses spectacular in size, but they were weighty with heavy beading. Some weighed as much as twenty-five pounds, which had the tendency to knock a dancer off balance during a spin. Fabric got caught up around dancers' legs, and sleeves slapped at partners' faces.

Shirley Temple had fewer costuming problems than her adult counterparts. Her performance dresses were always ruffled starting from mid-chest down, with wide ribbons ties at the back. She typically wore ankle socks with flat tap shoes, the style designed for children. Accenting bows bloomed from the eyelets of her tap shoes. When she needed a more down home look, she wore overalls and a straw hat. It is an interesting fact that a shoe factory that specialized in dance shoes found itself swamped with orders, and a manufacturer of metal taps for the soles of those dance shoes reported a two-year rise in business of astronomical proportions even though this was during the time of the Great Depression.

The Radio City Rockettes, with their long legs, and their studded, sparkling, and sometimes furred, velvet skirted leotard costumes, how they steal the show! Perfectly matched in every way are the dancers of the New York City stage. Their costumes are perfect, their dance tights are perfect, their high heel tap shoes not only look the same, they sound the same. They are synchronized to the max.

More casual was the style of Gregory Hines. He was not of the tuxedo genre, he was not a rhinestone shining, ruffle on the shirt kind of guy, his was a more natural presentation. His tap shoes were the most important things he wore. Good strong rhythms, rung out by bold sounding taps, made Hines a happy man.

A different look is presented by Savion Glover than Gregory Hines. He carries a sassy, funky street look. Clothes do no inhibit the movements of this tap giant. There is no holding him back. He has appeared on covers of magazines in baggy pants and Capezio tap shoes as looks just as comfortable in workboots.

Tap attire and tap shoes have come a long way through the ages of American dance. Childrens tap shoes are still designed to imitate the famous eyelet styles that Shirley Temple wore with big bows laced through them. But teachers dislike having to constantly stop class to retie laces. SoDanca, an innovator in the world of dancewear, has added a feature of the sewn in elastic across the instep to keep the shoe on without the bother of tying bows. The eyelets remain for bow decorations at recital time. Capezio designed a great ankle strap tap shoe with Teletone taps and non-slip applications called Mary Janes, and Bloch made their version called Merry Jane. These shoes are perfect for dancers through intermediate level because they are sturdy and have high level taps. High heeled tap shoes remain popular for those interested in the Broadway style of tap and now come fully set up with taps and rubberizing, since cobbling if an art of the past. Split sole tap oxfords by Capezio and lined oxfords by Bloch offer comfort to anyone seeking it. Harder, firmer, more structured tap shoes, designed to withstand punishment and pounding are out there for the hard working, dedicated Glover wannabes of the world. All of these products are purposed to spur the progression of talent from childhood through stage performance with style, technique and most of all sound, the distinctive sounds of rhythmic patterns as they beat from wood, the percussions that are the art of tap dancing.

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