The American tradition of tap has its historical roots firmly intertwined with the development of blues and jazz music in the 20th century. Sure, you can tap without music, but neither exists without RHYTHM. The simple action of tapping your foot to a favourite song is an almost subconscious response to a 'beat'. The pulse of life, this urge to express ourselves through dance and music is one of our most basic instincts which will surface even in the face of adversity.

Since the heyday of the glossy Hollywood musical, tap has been associated with screen greats such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers. It is ironic that such a joyous dance form can trace its roots back to the music and repressed dance movements of African slaves, who had been transported to America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Prohibited from cultural and religious expression, their previously exuberant dance movements had to be modified into low shuffles, sweeps and stomps. Drums were replaced with foot tapping and clapping.

During the mid-1800's many Irish immigrants arrived in America, fleeing from starvation, bringing with them their own dance rhythms and steps. The next 60 years or so would see a fusion of cultures; the development of blues and jazz music alongside percussive dance.

One of the earliest known 'rhythm' dancers was William Henry Lane, also known as 'Juba'. By the 1840s his unique rhythmical style of dance was hugely popular, and he was one of the very few black performers who performed solo alongside white dancers, touring saloons and minstrel shows in New York, New England and London. His style of dance was an intricate fusion of African steps, jigs, shuffles and slides, finger snapping and clapping.
In the early part of the 20th century tap was appearing in musicals written by black artists, such as the 'Darktown Follies' in 1913. The advent of the Prohibition Era in 1919 saw a growth in 'speakeasy' clubs, where illegal alcohol was available alongside live entertainment.

By the 1920s tap had become established as a distinct dance form and enthralled audiences in venues such as Harlem's Cotton Club, where black artists performed for exclusively white audiences. The famous Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson was an innovative and notable performer who introduced a much lighter style of tap, moving away from the earlier, flat-footed 'buck' dancers. Eventually, competition between the clubs for clients meant that the entertainment on offer became increasingly more exciting and innovative - tap became more acrobatic and athletic.

 

In an age where television was unknown, going to the cinema was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Cinema audiences were hungry for light hearted, 'feel good' romantic escapism with lavish sets, glorious costumes, memorable songs and spectacular dance routines. In the 1930s, tap musicals, such as those choreographed by Busby Berkeley, featured hundreds of young women dancing en masse in spectacular formation. Close ups reveal that the skill of the individual dancers may have been somewhat lacking, but the overall effect captivated audiences.

'Bojangles' Robinson made a screen name for himself appearing alongside child star, Shirley Temple. Racial segregation rules prohibited a black man from appearing on screen dancing with a white female, unless, as in this case, she was a child and he was playing the role of a servant. These prejudices prevented black performers from taking leading roles or even appearing alongside white artists as equals. The first film musical with an all black cast was 'Stormy Weather' (1943), starring Billl 'Bojangles' Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne and Fats Waller.

The name Fred Astaire is the one most frequently associated with the era of the lavish Hollywood musical. His consummate skill as a tap dancer is beyond question; a combination of immense talent and extreme hard work (his perfectionism is legendary). An element of luck ensured that he was born at the right time, met the right people, and the rest is history. The epitome of elegance, style and charm, Fred Astaire worked alongside choreographer Hermes Pan to produce some of the screen's finest tap routines. Astaire's beat clarity, dance quality and musicianship is legendary.

In the 1950's, Gene Kelly's more 'macho' image reflected the fashions of the time and his background in sport. Instead of Astaire's top hat and tails, smoking jackets and suits, Kelly's muscular physique is much more visible through slim fitting t-shirts and trousers. By the time Gene Kelly appeared on screen, the heyday of the Hollywood musical had only about another ten years to run; however, his distinguished movie career saw him star in some of the all time greats such as 'An American in Paris' and 'Singin' in the Rain'. Kelly's true passion for dance as an art form later prompted him to move into television, and his choreography included ballet and jazz.