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"Tap dance is a deep and complex art form, masquerading as popular culture, and pioneered by a people who were almost invisible to mainstream society."

Two famous tap dancers performing on stage. The photo is in black and white

The Nicholas Brothers "An All-Colored Vaudeville Show"


A dance of sound and movement, tap dance developed from a fusion of African polyrhythmic music and movement, Irish step dance, and North American folk dance. The influence of the culture of the Caribbean, with its Afro-Cuban elements, plays a strong role in the growth of North American tap dance. Jazz music, an outgrowth of African music, has had a singular influence on tap and vice versa. Made in America, tap dance developed in the early 1800s, with its roots originating as far back as the 1600s.

Tap dance grew out of the culture of slavery and oppression that has defined America. Enslaved people faced unimaginable indignities, and, at the same time, held on to their heritage. They made lasting contributions to the cultural life of the United States, such as the blues, ragtime, swing, bebop, rock, rap, hip hop, while enriching American literature, visual arts, education, politics, science, and every other aspect of society.

In talking about the history of tap dance, the stain of blackface cannot be ignored. Used by both black and white performers, blackface ridiculed and stereotyped African Americans. Whites wore it to imitate and demean blacks. Black performers were forced to wear it to even get onto a stage, to appear as if they were whites imitating blacks.


In the early 1820s, William Henry Lane, a freed Black slave, known professionally as Master Juba, danced in Europe as well as in America. He appeared in blackface and also danced for Queen Victoria without blackface. His expertise showcased what we know today as the beginnings of rhythm tap dance. Tap dance was an integral part of tent shows, medicine shows, and traveling carnival shows of the early 19th century. Minstrel Shows traveled the U.S. from the 1840 to the early 20th century. They, were, of course, segregated.


It was in Black Vaudeville that tap dance reached a pinnacle of development. In the 1920s, many Charleston dancers became tap dancers. These dancers incorporated the movements of the popular vernacular dances of the day into their tap dance work. With the swing era, the heyday of the big bands in the 1930s and early 1940s, tap flourished.

A group of tap dancers standing in the street in the movie Stormy Weather. The photo is in black and white

Library of Congress, Music Division.

There were venues for all kinds of hoofers. Many bands had dancers who traveled with them. When bebop music emerged in the mid to late 1940s, the rhythms of tap changed as well. The great drummer, Max Roach, has credited tap as a major influence on bebop. However, in the 1950s tap, though still practiced and performed here and there by great rhythm dancers, seemed to fade from public view. Film, where popular tap had flourished, no longer showcased the form. Big bands began to disappear. The dance hall tax made the presenting of music nearly prohibitive. Television emerged. Popular stage dancing changed from tap to a more balletic-modern kind of dance. Rock and roll entered the picture.

For nearly 20 years tap dance took a decided rest from the public view. In 1969  tap dance began again to take its place once again in American cultural life. A substantial number of women also began to explore and perform tap dance.  Men had dominated the form for more than 100 years. The venues for tap changed from the early days. Music and dance festivals included tap, and tap began to take its place on the concert stage.

Today, in the 21st century, tap dance is once again a vital part of our artistic life. The traditions are continuing. and bold new experimentations are occurring. Appreciation is vital to the growth of tap dance. Through education and exposure people can learn to understand the nature of this indigenous American art form — that it can both illuminate America’s tragic past and fulfill America’s hope for a future of justice and inclusion.

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