Tap dancing has being a unique American art form, and its influence spreads far and wide across America. From Fred Astaire to the Hoofer Club in Harlem to the Annual Grammy Awards, tap has enthralled audiences for most of the 20th century and continues to do so in the current one.

Before there were tap shoes, dancers wore soft shoes. Tap dancing originated as Juba, a kind of dance started by African slaves. It includes Irish dancing and some influence of jazz dancing. No one really knows when the phrase “tap dance” was first used — perhaps as early as 1900 — but it didn’t appear in print until around 1928.

Merriam-Webster defines it in two ways, “A step dance tapped out audibly by means of shoes with hard soles, for soles and heels, to which taps have been added”. The second definition is” An action or discourse intended to rationalize or to distract”.

The early slave trade in America resulted in a rhythmic collision of cultures. African Americans held on to their traditional rhythms — by transferring them to their feet. The skill of tapping out was widely developed, and a vital physical code of expression was born. By the mid-nineteenth century, African Americans had combined their footwork steps to create a style called “Buck and Wing,” which would eventually become Modern Tap Dance. From its beginnings, the American art form of tap dance has been associated with four dancers: William Henry Lane, George H. Primrose, King Rastus Brown, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

William Henry Lane (1825 – 1852) was known as Master Juba and the “Juba dance,” also known as “Pattin’ Juba,” was a mix of European Jig, Reel Steps, Clog and African Rhythms. It became popular around 1845. This was, some say, the creation of Tap in America as a theatrical art form and American Jazz dance.

Clog dances were often performed in wooden soled shoes. In Irish clog dancing, no thought is given to upper body movements. Almost rigid — the shoulders and arms are kept motionless. This trait is also evident in the early, Black “Buck and Wing” style.

The Soft-Shoe is a form of tap only done with soft soled shoes without metal taps attached. Performers originally wore all kinds of shoes to perform the Soft-Shoe and as time went on, this is referred to as the Sand Dance. For several decades clogging and tapping flourished successfully. However, by the end of the 19th century, the Irish clog dance all but disappeared due to the mixing of traditional Clog steps and African American tap dances.

In 1902, Ned Wayburn created a show called Minstrel Misses. He coined the term “Tap and Step dance” in this musical play. This was the first time these names had been used professionally. Wayburn’s dancers wore light clogs with split wooden soles. Aluminium heel and toe taps did not appear until about 1910.

The Black Bottom
The Black Bottom was formally introduced by Perry Bradford in Nashville, Tennessee in 1919 when he wrote the song “The Black Bottom Dance.” The Black bottom was basically a solo challenge dance, predominantly danced on the “Off Beat.” The dance featured the slapping of the backside while hopping forward and backward, stamping the feet, and gyrations of the torso while making arm movements to the music with an occasional Heel-Toe scoop.

Black Bottom Lyrics:
(from George White Scandals – 1927)

Hop Down front and then you doodle (Slide) back,
Mooch to your left and then you mooch to your right,
Hands on your hips and do the mess around,
Break a Leg (Wobble) until you’re near the ground

Tap Dance has its own language which may give some clues to the nature of the art. The following are terms commonly associated with tap:

Shuffle ,Bojangles, Buck ‘n Wing, Irish Clog, Buck Irish, Appalacian Clogging ,Black Face ,Minstrel, Vaudeville, Time Step, Riffs, Riffle, Ball Change, Pearl Rolls, Patter, Keith Circuit, Tip-Tap, Steppen, Steppin, Claquettes, Zapateado, Sapateado