Tap Origins: A Brief History
Ziegfeld's variety shows, Ziegfeld Folliesbrought the revue to its high point
in the United States. Inspired by the Folies-Bergere, Ziegfeld in 1907 created
the first of his 21 annual Follies. Priding himself on "glorifying the
American Girl," he turned the beautifully costumed Ziegfeld Girls into
symbols of glamour and elegance. The Follies used top people in theirfields,
composers such as Irving Berlin, designers such as Joseph Urban, singers such
as Eddie Cantor, and comics such as Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, and Will
Rogers. Ziegfeld had many imitators, but none shared his taste, talent, sense
of timing, and commitment to artistic excellence.
has a long history of "stealing steps" and "challenges."
In reading any tap history performers will speak of dancing on street corners
or outside clubs trying to outdo other dancers.
street games of "one-upmanship" were called "challenges."
Challenges survive today in tap jam sessions and the techinique of "trading
fours" in a performance with several dancers.
refers to each dancer giving his
or her best for four measures before passing to the other dancer with a
non-verbal "top this!"
other phrase "stealing steps" refers to dancers trying
to figure out what another dancer is doing, how he or she is getting that
sound. The step is rarely taken literally by the viewing dancer. The motto is
"Thou shalt not do another's step, exactly." A step is usually
shaped and changed and incorporated into that dancer's personal style.
reference to tap giant John Bubbles and "stealing steps" occurs in
Marshall and Jean Stearns' Jazz Dance:Bubbles, however, had little trouble
adopting other dancers' steps. He had a reputation of being cagy, and his
technique for extracting a step from a competitor became notorious.
another dancer practicing at the Hoofers Club, Bubbles bides his time until he
sees something he can use. "Oh-oh," he says, shaking his head in
alarm, "you lost the beat back there--now try that step again." The
dancer starts only to be stopped, again and again, until Bubbles, having
learned it announces, "You know, that reminds me of a step I used to
do," and proceeds to demonstrate two or three variations on the original
step. The other dancer usually feels flattered."
dancing's early history includes "challenges" and "stealing
steps." Tapper and documentarian Jane Goldberg recently wrote in the ITA
newsletter that tap "came out of the lower classes, developed in
competitive 'battles' on street corners by Irish immigrants and those of
African desent and slaves."
Haskin's "Black Dance In America" the first name mentioned is
"Uncle" Jim Lowe a black man that did jigs and reels in saloons and
who was listed as an influence on the first great rhythm dancer William
Henry Lane, also known as "Juba." Lane was born in 1825 and was
well known by the 1840s. His dancing included African steps,like the shuffle
and slide, added to the jig steps. He was the first to add syncopation and
improvisation to his dancing. Haskins writes of an "emphasis on rhythm
and percussion rather than melody."William Henry "Juba" Lane
toured through New York and New England as well as traveling to London. He had
a memorable series of challenges in Boston and New York with noted champion
Irish step dancer Jack Diamond which had no clear victor.
This didn't keep Lane from declaring himself "King." He also is
known to have toured with white dancers dancing as a solo act (something that
wasn't easily accomplished by black dancers in the early years of tap's
explosive growth in the 1920s.) "Juba" Lane died in 1852 at the age
Another name that appears frequently in discussions of early tap dance is King Rastus Brown. I studied tap briefly with Robert Burden a protege of LaVaughn Robinson. Robert created and choreographed a presentation of the story of Cinderella called "Cyndi `Ella" using tap dance and a narrator to tell the story. In this telling King Rastus Brown appears as an apparition that gives Cyndi magical tap shoes after a "tap challenge." It was explained later by Robert that early tap was initiated by King Rastus Brown (and then changed stylistically by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John Bubbles.)
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
is also mentioned by one of the Four Step Brothers in Rusty Frank's book.
Brown whom he called "Mr Tap" had influenced him to become a tap
dancer and "tell the story" during one of Brown's solo tours through
Ohio in the early 20s. King Rastus Brown was already an older man by this
Brown has an entire chapter in Jean and Marshall Stearn's book "Jazz
Dance," another required book for tappers.)
Irish and Scottish immigrants had a cultural history James McIntyre
around the turn of the century. It was a flat footed step dance where the foot
of the free leg would rise and arc to the side while the elbows moved outward
in "wing" pattern. The shoes had wooden soles and heels to
amplify the rhythmic sounds of the dance. In the early part of this
century several disparate activities contributed to the further development of
tap. Toots Davis and Eddie Rector did tap in the review "Darktown
Follies" in 1913. The Volstead Act was passed in 1919 which began
the Prohibition Era and the Jazz Age. Prohibition outlawed the
sale of alcohol thereby assisting the growth of organized crime who created
and owned "speakeasies," clubs were alcohol was served and
entertainment was provided. These venues hired many black entertainers
as singers, dancers and 'exotics' to entertain their white clientele. The Cotton
Club being a noted example. The choreographer Clarence Robinson is
listed as bringing tap dancing to the Cotton Club in 1934 by the Haskins book.
and Noble Sissle created a Broadway show in 1921 called "Shuffle
Along." According to Haskins "The dancing was jazz dancing,
including just about every current dance step, and heavy on tap, which
'Shuffle Along' helped to legitimize." The Charleston was
introduced in a black show called "Liza" but truly took off after
the "Charleston" song written for the musical "Runnin'
Wild" featured tap dancers Pete Nugent and Derby Wilson in 1923. Another
show "Dinah" (1924) introduced the "Black Bottom"
a dance that featured slapping the backside while hopping forward and back. Many
early tappers needed this dance as well as the 'buck and wing'
in their repertoire.
Word About Hardware
early buck dancers used shoes with wooden soles and heels. According to
a letter from Maxine Reddell in a (Nov/Dec '94) issue of the International Tap
Association (ITA) newsletter there were also 'split clog' tap shoes
used. It says: "These shoes were used as early as 1920 and since then.
Capezio has a patent on them." They were used by Bill 'Bojangles'
Robinson, Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller. The letter states: "Split clogs
are hardwood beechwood soles in three sections with beveled edges and
honeycomb hollow wood heels. When split clogs are used there are no aftertones
but a solid tone, thereby enhancing one's tapping technique." (These are
still available and can be heard on the cassette of "My One and
Only" danced by Tommy Tune.) Metal
taps developed later and aluminum became the standard. There were also
jingle taps used earlier which were metal taps with a washer loose under the
tap for more sounds. Following this early period tap really expanded and grew.
It was included in club revues, traveling shows, Broadway and Hollywood films.
Tap was performed by duos, solo acts and choreographed group routines. I'll
leave you to read other authors to chronicle its explosive development. A good
start would be the Rusty Frank book listed below which covers the years 1900
by Tony Curti s
Time Step is a repetitive tap combination which was initially used as a means
by which a tap dancer could communicate to his band, what type of tempo was
required, as dancers all preferred different tempo's or music speeds according
to their ability. Back in the 30's there used to be many many tap dancers who
each had there own distinctive sound and time step, and subsequently could be
recognized by the sound they made. Before the emergence of many of the main
innovators, tap dancers used to begin all of there routines by beginning with
a time step which was then followed by a routine or improvisation. The Time
Step is a rhythmic tap combination which is repeated just like a drummer who
plays along with a band in accompaniment. The basic time step has a rhythm
that can be instantly recognizable by saying the words, "Thanks for the
bu-gy ride", which is a 6 beats phrase with an accent on the fifth beat
"gy". Although the Time Step is taught to students in standard
single, double and triple form of execution, it is possible to just create
your own. By just putting together your favorite steps in a one or two bar
sequence, as mentioned above, each tap dancer had their own time step by which
they could be recognized. Form this basic Time Step, other steps can be added,
in order to create different sounds, beats and musical time signatures which
may be required. Today the Time Step is only really used as a training aid for
developing rhythm in students and is also a good way of putting all of the
shuffles and other combinations into one repetitive rhythmic sequence.
Time Step became such a standard association to a tap dancer that it was use
as a compliment by saying some one is so good they even make the time step
look good, or the reverse was used as a put down. No one really knows where the
Time Step comes from or where it originated from, but where ever it came from
it shall continue to be taught and used as an essential part of a tap dancers
there are two or more in a tap group, they usually fell into two categories. Flash
Acts and Class Acts. Although some act's managed to attain a performance
which was some where between the two, the distinctions held for the majority
Class Acts built up reputations, and were more refined than Flash Acts. They
were mainly geared to performing at class venues mostly. It was very rare to
see any gymnastic moves in there performances as it would interrupt the way
the dancers carried them selves.
of the unmistakable Class Acts was Coles and Atkins, who carved out a solid
reputation for them selves which became a bench mark for others to copy. There
act unlike other acts of the time did not incorporate splits, gymnastic flips
or gimmicks, as there sheer grace and style had standing ovations from
audiences all over the world. They were also famous for there slow soft shoe
tap routine which was later copied but never bettered by other acts of the
time. Before Honi Coles teamed up with Cholly Atkins, he was a well
established tap dancer, who after a rough start in a few duo's and trio's
decided to become the best that he could. He practiced diligently for years
until he felt that he was ready to perform again and he came back as one of
the fastest tap dancers of the time. Honi's was well respected through out the
tap community, during the latter days of his life he suffered some ill health
that halted his dancing but he still maintained a presence at many tap
celebrations. And also compared at many of them. Among the flash act's rivalry
between them was common, as they tried to out do each other until the actual
taps were no longer the important aspect of the performance. They became so
acrobatic that it was more like a gymnastic competition and some groups even
performed with out taps on there shoes.
Nicholas Brothers, who seemed to encompass the qualities of both Class and
Flash act, which is possibly why they became so popular, not to mention that
the were a sensation as they were relatively young too. For specialty the
Condos Brothers who were the wing kings were more Class than Flash as
even with there near athletic wings, they still
a certain grace and composure.
International Tap Association Newsletter, Nov/Dec (1994), Vol 5:No.4 [ITA c/o CDF, PO Box 356, Boulder, CO 80306.]
Magazine, Sunday, Feb. 19, 1995 "Tap Roots: Ira Bernstein" article
by Maralyn Lois Polak. Pp 9-10.
Dance from 1619 to Today", Lynne Fauley Emery Priceton Book Co. 1988
"Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance", Roger Pryor Dodge Oxford University Press, 1995
Black tradition in American Dance", Richard A Long, Prion 1989 (more
on the Blues" Jacqui Malone
The Greatest Tap Stars and Their Stories - interviews with a wide variety of
living tappers (at that time.) Great anecdotes and killer indices on tap
dancers and filmography. A must have for tap reference.
Jazz Dance - The Story of American Vernacular Dance - written in the early
sixties, this documentary of American dance includes much on tap an it
practitioners to that time.
must read for tappers.
Dance Over The Years
The 19th Century's answer to the lambada, this German import won the scorn of even romantics like Lord Byron, who denounced its "lewd grasp and lawless contact." The first dance to owe its popularity to the hoi polloi and not the moneyed or the titled, the "turning dance" reached the apex of its popularity in the 18908, then petered out after World WarI.
After it was performed in Paris, this plucky Bohemian folk dance caught on in royal circles, and was soon giving the waltz a run for its money.
Ziegfeld Follies performer Harry Fox's two-step caught the eye of the show's producers, who helped refine and market it. In their time out of the foxholes, American Gls fox-trotted, helping popularize it in Europe during the Great War.
A dance with a tangled pedigree, the tango traveled from villages in Spain to the bars of Buenos Aires (where it mingled with the dance idioms of African slaves), to Paris-bound luxury liners where rich Argentinians repatriated it to Europe. The tango spread in America at lightning speed, and by war's end encompassed close to 200 different steps. But its erotic overtones led to its banning in cities like Boston and Cleveland.
The original rumba (or, as it's sometimes spelled, rhumba) started out as a come-hither display in Caribbean brothels, then landed in the United States in a less flamboyant form via Cuba. Perhaps imitiative of the courting manuevers of barnyard fowl (including flouncy costumes resembling ruffled feathers), the sexually charged dance merges Moorish, African and Spanish elements.
Named after Charles Lindbergh, who in that year flew across the Atlantic, the lindy hop, as it was also known, got its start in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Like the famous pilot who lent it its name, the dance featured a striking "flying" element - the female partner.
This folk dance shuttled from Rio de Janeiro to Queens, where it bowed at the New York World's Fair. Another sensuous Latin step, the samba's signature was a forward-backward leaning motion.
1950 Cha-cha and Merengue
An evolution of the mambo, which was popular a decade earlier, the onomatopoeic cha-cha was supposedly named for the sound made by slip-on shoes worn by female cuban dancers. The loose-legged steps of the merengue, which hails from the Dominican Republic, were purportedly inspired by a crippled general whose deferential guests mimicked him on the dance floor.
This homegrown American dance form started in the social clubs of East Harlem and then filtered down to the gay clubs. The 1975 disco anthem "The Hustle" spread this salsa-rooted dance into the mainstream.
is a circle dance that rotates in a counter clockwise direction. Starting Off
SR with the right foot:
Toe (16 Steps)
Heel Toe (Left) Heel Toe (Right) (16 Steps)
Heel Toe (Left) Brush Heel Toe (Right) (16 Steps)
Hop Heel Toe (Left) Brush Hop Heel Toe (Right) (16 Steps)
STEP: Brush Hop Heel Toe (Left) Brush Step (Right) Heel Toe (Left) (SIX times)
(Right Left Right Left) to come out of the circle and make two lines
(Right foot to the side) Step (Cross right in front of left) Step (Left foot
to the side)
Repeat and reverse Grapevine
III.) SHUFFLE COMBINATION with BREAK
Shuffle Step Heel (Right Foot To Right Side) Touch (Ball of Left Foot Touches
Floor Next to Right Foot)
and Reverse A.)
Shuffle Step Heel (Right Foot to Right Side) Step Heel (Left) Step Heel
(Right) Step Heel (Left) Step (Right)
Repeat and Reverse Whole Shuffle Combination
Shuffle Ball Change (Right) Riff Brush Step (Right) Riff Brush Step (Left) Shuffle
Ball Heel (Right crosses in front of Left) Toe (Left Toe in Back of Right
Foot) Flap (Left foot to side)