From Master Juba to ‘Happy Feet’: A Brief History of Tap Dancing

Beth Kaiserman


This uniquely American form of dance draws from a variety of influences. A Maxie Ford. A cramp roll. A pullback. Whether gliding effortlessly like Gene Kelly, or sticking to a spot creating complex rhythms like Savion Glover, tap invites dancers to find their own style.


The Birth of Tap


Master Juba is often credited as the inventor of tap dancing. William Henry Lane (a.k.a. Master Juba) performed in minstrel shows, which were popular from 1840 until 1890. Up until 1838, only white performers in blackface took part in these shows. When Master Juba began performing, he too was forced to wear blackface -- in order to look like a white man dressed up as a black man. Whites appearing in blackface remained popular in stage and film until the 1930s.


As slaves, blacks often weren’t allowed to use instruments, so many used their bodies as such. The “patting juba” included hand clapping, foot stomping, body thumping and thigh slapping.


Master Juba caught the attention of American and European writers, who dubbed him the greatest dancer of all time. Master Juba and other black dancers performed for blacks and Irishmen in 1840s New York City. He won many contests against talented white dancers, including some with Irish dancer Jack Diamond. Irish jig and clog-dancing fused with African-American moves like the shuffle and slide, which eventually led to tap dance.


King Rustus Brown thrived from around 1906-1910 and developed his rhythmic style from minstrel-style shuffle dancing. “Buck dancing” and “time step” were terms used to describe parts of his technique. He influenced popular ‘20s tappers like U.S. “Slow Kid” Thompson, Eddie Rector, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, John Bubbles (of the duo “Buck and Bubbles”), and Bill Bailey.


Florenz Ziegfeld featured tap in his revues, including 50 tap dancers in the first Ziegfeld Follies in 1907. Aside from featuring big names like Fred Astaire, he also hired choreographers and dance directors to ensure the form was receiving particular attention. Tap became more popular as a result.


Ned Wayburn was a hugely influential dance director. Aside from inspiring Fred Astaire to switch from ballet to tap, he also coined the term ‘tap dance.’ Ned Wayburn’s Minstrel Misses added feminine gestures to African-American minstrel movements. The dancers wore light wooden clogs with split soles, and Wayburn called this percussive movement “tap and step dancing.” It was the first time “tap dancing” had been used in the profession.



Tap dancing was a major feature of the vaudeville surge in the 1920s and played its way into Hollywood musicals. After World War II, choreographed routines became more prominent as opposed to solo shows.


Other Influences


Nautch, a popular dance form in North India, also affected tap. One dance involved spreading colored sand on the ground, and dancers tapping their feet to create designs, or to ensure they wouldn’t disturb designs already in the sand. Others would tap their feet to change the design, requiring a great amount of skill and precision.


Zapateado, a rhythmic Spanish dance, was brought to the Americas where it intermingled with Native American culture, and later impacted African-American culture. Spanish gypsies also influenced Irish jigging and English clogging when they moved into those countries. African dance, with fluid upper body movements and drum influences, intermingled as well.


Broadway Tap vs. Jazz Tap


Today, tap is often associated with Broadway musicals. Broadway tap is more about the dance movements and using the whole body, while rhythmic tap (a.k.a. rhythm tap or jazz tap) focuses more on the musicality, with dancers keeping their feet closer to the floor.


Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly used other dance forms (ballroom and ballet, respectively) in their tap dance, making it uniquely their own style. Gene Kelly especially focused on using his entire body, making tap into more of a sport.



Gregory Hines and Savion Glover are famous for their rhythmic tap, sometimes known as hoofing. Hines, a tap dancer, actor and singer, was the first to tap dance to contemporary music, as seen in the 1985 film White Nights and 1989’s Tap. These films helped the general public see tap in a new way, said tap dancer Barbara Duffy.


Duffy is a world-renown tap dancer, who teaches at Steps on Broadway and the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City. She also started Barbara Duffy and Company, an all-women’s tap ensemble. Hines was one of her mentors, and Duffy said he included tap and other tap dancers in his work whenever possible.


“Nobody heard rhythm like Gregory. It was different -- but totally understandable and approachable,” she said.


Savion Glover won the Tony Award for best actor and for his original choreography in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, a musical that used tap dance to chronicle the story of African American history. Glover called his style “free-form hard core,” using funk and hip-hop rhythms. He aims to honor those African rhythms that began during slavery.


Tapping into the Future


The director of the animated film Happy Feet (2006) recorded Savion Glover dancing as the character Mumbles the penguin. The dancers for the film wore motion capture suits and headgear to simulate penguins’ beaks.


Tony Waag is the director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, where there are hoards of both kids and adults determined to start tapping, he said. “People become a totally different person through tap dance,” he said. “I’ve learned to love it all over again through them.”


The American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF), formerly the American Tap Dance Orchestra, was started in 1986 by Brenda Bufalino, Waag, and Charles “Honi” Coles (whom you may remember from Dirty Dancing). The center offers classes, workshops and performances, including concerts and stage and film projects.


Waag started Tap City, a yearly tap celebration with master courses by renowned dancers, awards, performances and citywide events. The festival offers a diverse array of tap events to truly celebrate this unique art form.


Waag fell in love with tap dance after high school, when he danced with Brenda Bufalino and the Copasetics. He loves that tap gives dancers the freedom to be unique. “The personality can really shine, and you can really learn about the performer through his or her individual performance style,” he said.


For those who love tap, their feet won’t be stopping anytime soon. “You can dance until you die with tap dance,” Waag said. “You kind of just actually get better and better because you’re more of a musician than anything.”


Author Bio:

Beth Kaiserman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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