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Tracing the Black Origins of Tap Dance

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

By Sandy Wilson, VP and Managing Director of Sales for Brown Harris Stevens' Harlem Office

As a child, I loved to tap dance. I grew up taking lessons and loved all aspects of it, especially the shiny shoes with taps on the bottom. It was a huge aspect of life in many Black communities across the country. I used to love to watch the old movies that had tap dance routines in them, especially ones starring the Nicholas Brothers.

Another favorite of mine was the stair dance, done masterfully by Bill Bojangles Robinson in 1932.

I wondered why it was that tap dancing was such an integral part of growing up in the Black community, so I did some research. Here is what I found.

During the time period when slavery existed in the United States, many slave owners prohibited enslaved people from using their native percussion instruments to communicate, for fear of not understanding what may have been "said" via the drum. In addition, slave holders wanted to remove all vestiges of African culture, which led to the ban of communication via musical instrument, the use of native language, and expressive dance. Despite this, enslaved Africans used their resourcefulness and creativity to embrace various forms of dance expression, one of which was the tap dance-—still flourishing today! It is a dance form that involves tapping your feet while wearing special tap shoes that make a percussive sound; it requires precision, grace, and skill if it is to be done right.

In the early 19th Century, Irish clog dancing and African rhythm dances crossed paths. The Irish brought their style of dancing over from the British Isles, and was called “step” dancing. It was taught in many local Irish dance halls, and is still prevalent today in many Irish communities in the United States, done in the form of the very popular dancing ensemble, Riverdance.

After the Civil War, tap dancing gained popularity as an art form, while being performed by both Whites and Blacks. These dances were performed at traveling minstrels shows and were very well received by the segregated audiences. Unfortunately, Black people were often portrayed through the use of negative stereotypes. In spite of that, African Americans overcame this immense obstacle, and the art form prevailed. The technique was enhanced and flourished through time.

In the 20th century, tap dancing experienced a surge in popularity within the United States. Tap was widely performed at Vaudeville shows and in segregated dance halls. It was successfully embraced by movie makers who were able to capture the movement, skill, and syncopation of the dance on the big screen. It allowed the Black people to raise the bar of the genre to include improvisation, movement, complex syncopation, and combinations. The variety of routines soon joined in collaboration with other musical genres like jazz and swing. Thus, with the advent of movie musicals, tap dancing's popularity soared within the 1930s and continued to peak through the 1950s.

Arthur Duncan on "The Betty White Show" (1954)

Even in modern times Tap's indelible influence on pop culture lives on. Below, you will find wonderful performances from Gregory Hines, and most recently Savion Glover in Happy Feet.

Gregory Hines in White Nights

Savion Glover with Happy Feet

Tap is one of many significant, impactful contributions made by the Black community in the United States. It is a testament to the talent and strength of the community at large.

Sandy Wilson is both the Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Sales for Brown Harris Stevens' Harlem and Riverdale offices. For more information on Sandy and her background, click here.


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