There are several styles of tap dance, including rhythm (jazz), classical, Broadway, and post-modern. Broadway tap often focuses on formations, choreography and generally less complex rhythms; it is widely performed in musical theatre. Rhythm tap focuses on musicality, and practitioners consider themselves to be a part of the jazz tradition and as such, improvisation is essential to their work. Many influential rhythm tap dancers were members of the Hoofers Club. Classical tap has a similarly long tradition which marries European "classical" music with American foot drumming with a wide variation in full-body expression. Post-modern or contemporary tap has emerged over the last three decades to incorporate abstract expression, thematic narrative and technology.
Soft-shoe is a close relative of rhythm tap dancing that does not require tap shoes. Rhythm is generated by tapping the feet, and also by sliding the feet (sometimes using scattered sand on the stage to enhance the sound of sliding feet). It produced what is currently considered to be modern tap, but has since declined in popularity.
Tap dance has its roots in several ethnic percussive dances, including Gioube Juba Dance, English clog dancing and Irish jigs. The relative contribution of different traditions is a point of disagreement among historians and dance scholars. Tap dance is thought by some[who?] to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. Known as Master Juba, William Henry Lane became one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel troupe, and is widely considered to be one of the most famous forebears of tap dance.
As minstrel shows declined in popularity, tap dance became increasingly popular in vaudeville. Due to the "two-colored rule", which prohibited black people from performing solo, the majority of vaudeville tap acts were duets. This gave rise to the famous pair "Buck and Bubbles", which consisted of John William Sublett tap dancing and Ford "Buck" Washington on piano. The duo perfected the "class act", a routine in which the performers wore impeccable tuxedos, which has since become a popular theme in tap dance. This contrasted with the older minstrel concept of tap dancers as a "grinning-and-dancing clowns." John "Bubbles" Sublett is also known among hoofers as the "Father of Rhythm Tap" which incorporates more percussive heel drops and lower-body movements.
Another notable figure to emerge during this period is Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who was a protégé of Alice Whitman of the Whitman Sisters around 1904 (then 'Willie Robinson'). Well-versed in both Buck and Wing dancing and Irish step dancing, Bill Robinson joined the vaudeville circuit in 1902, in a duo with George W. Cooper. The act quickly became famous, headlining events across the country, and touring England as well. In 1908, however, the two had an altercation and the partnership was ended. Gambling on his popularity, Robinson decided to form a solo act, which was extremely rare for a black man at that time. Despite this, he had tremendous success and soon became a world-famous celebrity. He went on to have a leading role in many films, notably in movies starring Shirley Temple.
Shortly thereafter, the Nicholas Brothers came on the scene. Consisting of real-life brothers Fayard and Harold, this team wowed audiences with their acrobatic feats incorporated into their classy style of dancing. They never looked less than suave and were always in total control of their dancing, even in childhood numbers such as Stormy Weather. A notable scene in the movie Stormy Weather features the pair dancing up a staircase and then descending the staircase in a series of leapfrogs over each other into a full split from which they rise without using their hands.
During the 1930s tap dance mixed with Lindy hop. "Flying swing-outs" and "flying circles" are Lindy hop moves with tap footwork. In the mid- to late 1950s, the style of entertainment changed. Jazz music and tap dance declined, while rock and roll and the new jazz dance emerged. What is now called jazz dance evolved from tap dance, so both styles have many moves in common. Jazz has since evolved separately from tap dance to become a new form in its own right. Well-known dancers during the 1960s and 1970s included Arthur Duncan and Tommy Tune.
No Maps on My Taps, the Emmy award-winning PBS documentary of 1979, helped begin the recent revival of tap dance. The outstanding success of the animated film, Happy Feet, has further reinforced the popular appeal. National Tap Dance Day in the United States, now celebrated May 25, was signed into law by President George Bush on November 7, 1989. (May 25 was chosen because it is the birthday of famous tapper Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.) Prominent modern tap dancers have included Sarah Reich, Brenda Bufalino, Melinda Sullivan, The Clark Brothers, Savion Glover, Gregory and Maurice Hines, LaVaughn Robinson, Jason Samuels Smith, Roxanne Butterfly, Chloe Arnold, Michelle Dorrance, Dulé Hill and Dianne "Lady Di" Walker. Indie-pop band Tilly and the Wall also features a tap dancer, Jamie Pressnall, tapping as percussion.
Tap dancers make frequent use of syncopation. Choreography typically starts on the eighth or first beatcount. Another aspect of tap dancing is improvisation. Tap dancing can either be done with music following the beats provided, or without musical accompaniment; the latter is known as "a cappella tap dancing".
Hoofers are tap dancers who dance primarily "closer to the floor", using mostly footwork and not showing very much arm or body movement. Steve Condos developed an innovative rhythmic tap style that influenced the work of later tap dancers such as Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Condos passed his knowledge on to his protege Marshall L. Davis Jr. The majority of early hoofers, such as Sammy Davis Jr., Glover, Hines, and LaVaughn Robinson were African American men. Savion Glover helped bring tap dance into mainstream media by choreographing Happy Feet, a film about a tap dancing penguin. Another well-known tap film is 1989's Tap, starring Gregory Hines and many old-time hoofers.
Early tappers like Fred Astaire provided a more ballroom look to tap dancing, while Gene Kelly introduced ballet elements and style into tap. This style of tap led to what is today known as Broadway style, which is popular in American culture. It often involves high heeled tap shoes and show music, and is usually the type of tap first taught to beginners. Examples of this style are found in Broadway musicals such as Anything Goes and 42nd Street.
Common tap steps include the shuffle, shuffle ball change, double shuffle, leap shuffle, hop shuffle, flap, flap ball change, running flaps, flap heel, cramproll, buffalo, Maxi Ford, Maxi Ford with a pullback, pullbacks, wings, Cincinnati, the shim sham shimmy (also called the Lindy), Irish, waltz clog, the paddle roll, the paradiddle, stomp, brushes, scuffs, spanks, riffs, and single and double toe punches, hot steps, heel clicks, time steps, over-the-tops, military time step, New Yorkers, Shiggy Bops, drawbacks, and chugs. In advanced tap dancing, basic steps are often combined together to create new steps. Many steps also have single, double, and triple versions, including pullbacks, timesteps, and drawbacks. In tap, various types of turns can be done, including step heel turns, Maxi Ford turns, cramproll turns, and drag turns. Timesteps are widely used in tap and can vary in different areas. These consist of a rhythm that is changed to make new timesteps by adding or removing steps.
Tap dancing can also be done using an a cappella method, in which no musical accompaniment is provided and dancers creating their own "music" through the sounds of their taps.
In group tap dances, the steps are typically kept simple and easy to control. The group of dancers must work together to create the sound, keeping their steps at the correct speed to match each other.