History, Herstory, Our Story

Jason Samuels Smith—the first tapper to win an Emmy award for choreography since Hermes Pan in 1958—performs at the cutting edge of tap, but he still holds an enormous respect for the past. “Tap culture is all about celebrating the past and accumulating its vocabulary over time,” he says. “If we don’t maintain our history, we lose what’s valuable about tap.”


He’s not the only one who thinks that way. Performer/scholars like Professor Ann Kilkelly from Virginia Tech have also been working hard to preserve the past. “Tap history is mostly an oral tradition,” Kilkelly says, “and a single definitive history has not yet been written.” Still, she and others like her are working hard to uncover the truth about how the artform developed.

The Early Days
The common theory is that tap began in the 1840s, when two groups—emancipated slaves and Irish immigrants—met in NYC. As Kilkelly notes, both groups were poor and ostracized from mainstream society, but they also shared something else—a love of percussive dance. By blending their knowledge, they created an early form of tap dance. From Europe came steps typical of clogging and Irish step dancing, and from Africa came the syncopation, phrasing and “feel” of tap, meaning its sense of looseness, its groundedness and its use of a crouched (as opposed to an elevated) stance. African dancers also contributed an improvisational element.


The best dancer in this new style was William Henry Lane, who went by the stage name “Master Juba.” Lane won all but one of a series of challenges against John Diamond, the preeminent Irish dancer of the time, and was famous not only in America, but also in Europe—the result of an article written by English novelist Charles Dickens, raving about Lane’s dancing. Lane could not only imitate the best dancers of the era, he could improvise his own steps. Critics noted his grace, execution and endurance, but especially praised his mastery of the new dance form’s unique rhythmic elements.


Tap dance developed throughout the early 1900s, primarily in vaudeville. While male tap dancers acted as headliners, women tappers filled out the chorus lines. Though many of their names have been lost, these women were incredibly versatile and talented. Headliners often did the same act week after week (or even year after year), but the chorus had to learn a new routine every few weeks, often working with props and in outlandish costumes, performing as many as four shows a day.


Vaudeville produced the man known as perhaps the greatest tap dancer ever—Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Though he toned down his talent to dance on film with the young Shirley Temple, he is remembered for his “stair dance” and his uncanny ability to sound the same on both the left and right foot. His skill also paved the way for the golden age of tap. Technically precise, with clean and clear sounds, he sat beautifully in the groove, never having to rush or resort to theatrical moves to win the audience over. Instead, he would watch his feet, “croon and laugh with them,” as one critic put it, seemingly just as amazed as his audience at the sounds they produced.


The Golden Age of Tap
During the 1930s and 1940s, tap dance was hot. Dancers found work in film, on Broadway and in jazz clubs around the country. Hollywood made stars of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, all of whom combined fantastic feet with the kind of style and innovation that turns a tapper into an icon. African-American dancers were barred from performing in mainstream movies except as novelty acts (though rumor has it that Gene Kelly insisted on working with the Nicholas Brothers, whom he considered the greatest tappers alive, in the film The Pirate) but flooded the nightclubs and starred in movies aimed specifically for black audiences.


Dancers during this era vied to come up with the flashiest, most difficult, most surprising acts. Fred Astaire danced with canes, hat racks and firecrackers. With his acrobatic background, Gene Kelly swung on rigging and leapt on and off furniture. Both of them combined tap with other forms of dance, such as ballroom and ballet. The Nicholas Brothers had all the pizzazz of a “flash act”—the splits, the leaps, the lightning-fast feet—but had the style and full-body control that epitomized a “class act.”


“Fred and Gene were instrumental because they got men in America dancing,” says Bessie Award–winning tapper Sam Weber. “But Astaire was particularly important because he was so natural in his movements and really helped define the vocabulary of tap.” Still, Weber realizes that singling out individual dancers is problematic. “The best-known people were not necessarily the first or only people doing a particular step or style,” he says, particularly during a period of racial segregation.

The Tide Turns
In the late ’40s, the work for tappers began to wane and by the early ’50s it had totally dried up. Oklahoma!, with its innovative dream ballet sequence, was a huge success on Broadway, and tap dance was no longer in. The baby boom meant people stayed home with their families, closing nightclubs and putting jazz tappers out of a job. During the 1960s and 1970s, just about the only tappers with a steady gig were Sammy Davis, Jr., who was so cool he could do anything, and Arthur Duncan, who appeared regularly on the Lawrence Welk show. All of the other great tap masters had disappeared.


The 1980s saw the resurgence of tap through the festival movement (see “Tap’s Renaissance,” p. 78) and by the early 1990s, percussive dance was back, with Stomp, Tap Dogs and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk touring the country and the world. Today, tap artists have many more opportunities. They can work with live musicians in the pure jazz tap tradition or create conceptual performance pieces. Though solo work exists, there are a growing number of companies dedicated entirely to tap.


Still, tap remembers its roots. Educated dancers not only know historical breaks and rhythm patterns, they are able to recognize them when other dancers quote these lines in a dance. “It’s like a code or secret language,” says Samuels Smith. “Outsiders may not recognize the reference, but educated dancers know it and appreciate it.” Tap also remains a uniquely American artform. “Although global influences have started trickling in,” says Weber, “the impetus of tap is still from the U.S. out.”


Though tap is proud of its past, today’s artists recognize that history has not always been entirely inclusive as a matter of race or gender. “Now we’re at a time when we can change that,” says Samuels Smith. “We can recognize and celebrate the foundation of why we’re all here.”

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Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.


You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)


As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.


Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).


Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.


We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.


You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.


Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.


You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?


You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.


You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.


Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.


Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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