History of Tap

Percussive dancing is something I define as any form of dance in which the body, or ground, is played as a percussive instrument, which makes tap one part of a large family of human dance that involves the principle of percussion. Rhythm is the great communicator in the world.” – Sally Sommer

Tap dancing is an indigenous American art form, with influences from African (juba) dance and drumming rhythms, and European (jig) step dances, beginning during the colonial era. Tap grew out of the social dances of that time – whether performed in a ballroom or on a plantation. This melding of two very different cultures gave rise to the unique percussive art of tap dance.

By the early 1900’s, society’s appetite for live tap performance was extraordinary – from vaudeville houses and nightclubs, to theatres. Tap increasingly gained popularity until it’s golden age between 1920 and 1935, the year Jeni LeGon and Bill Robinson performed in the film Hooray for Love. During this period, tap was the most popular dance on Broadway and the silver screen, and many “Big Bands” had a tap act as part of their show. Female dancers – while often not honored in history books – were important to the appeal and success of tap during this period.

After the 1929 depression hit, many theatres and clubs closed. Eventually tap dancers could only find work for pre-movie performances and many African American dancers were further marginalized. Interest in tap virtually disappeared from 1950-1970 due to economic forces, the death of vaudeville and a new form of Broadway choreography called “jazz” dancing.

Since then tap has re-emerged and found new vitality in its expression. Women dancers have been an integral part of this new life, bringing a uniquely compelling quality to the dancing. As Idella Reed-Davis, a principle dancer in all three of the Taps Are Talking: Women In Tap performances and founding member of Rhythm Iss, says, “I think we [women] take the edge off the tension in the performance. You can breathe while we dance. While when men dance, like Savion [Glover], I’m so awed, so caught up in the tension. I’m so on the edge of my seat that I can’t breath. But when women dance you can sit back, absorb what it is that we’re doing. You can feel. You can be in the moment with the dancers.”

Whatever tap will become, whatever will be expressed through this vibrant art form, women dancers will continue developing tap as a unique voice for women.