A short introduction to Tap

For all its razzle-dazzle associations - the top hat and tails, the chorus girls of 42nd Street - tap dance is, at heart, a street dance rather than a stage art. Like jazz, tap is a true American art form, born in the African-American community from a melting pot of African and European influences. The dual factors of immigration and slavery in early 19th century America threw together Irish step dance, Lancashire clog dance and West African clapping dances to ultimately produce what we now know as tap. 

William Henry 'Juba' Lane is hailed as the first tap dancer. Born in 1825, Lane learned his craft from 'Uncle' Jim Lowe, a man who performed Irish jigs and reels in the insalubrious saloons of lower Manhattan. A master of virtuoso footwork and speciality steps, Lane went on to dance in minstrel shows and become the first black dancer to tour with an all-white minstrel group. He even made it as far as London where he set up his own dancing school but died prematurely at the age of 27. Back in the States, minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and by the turn of the 20th century many elements of popular dances - the buck and wing, shuffle and slide, the soft shoe, and social dances like the cake walk - had been incorporated into the newly christened 'tap'. 

Tap's development mirrored another emergent art form; jazz, and the two became entangled in the early 20th century, flourishing in Prohibition-era speakeasies such as the famed Cotton Club in Harlem where the light-footed Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson made his name. On street corners, in bars and at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, dancers competed to top each other's moves, 'stealing steps' and trading fours like improvising jazz musicians. John W Bubbles was one of the best, breaking away from standard phrasing and adding heavy heel stamps and complex syncopations to create the strongly percussive style known as rhythm tap, in contrast to the showier more theatrical dance style that developed as tap took Broadway by storm in the '20s and '30s. 

With the advent of the movies tap soon transferred to Hollywood. Bojangles appeared in films Dixiana (1930) and The Little Colonel (1935), the latter alongside tiny tapper Shirley Temple, but generally black performers were relegated to the sidelines while white leading men became stars of the silver screen. Fred Astaire (who had been coached by Bubbles) performed slick choreographed routines and brought tap an elegant ballroom sensibility in partnership with Ginger Rogers in films like Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). The affable, athletic Gene Kelly danced his way through '40s Hollywood, peaking with An American in Paris (1951) and probably the best-known tap routine ever in Singin' In The Rain (1952). But following that zenith, the decline of the Hollywood musical took tap with it, superseded by more balletic or jazz styles. 

Out of favour for over a decade, tap's slow revival began in the mid-60s with some nostalgic interest in the old-school hoofers, but it wasn't until 1980 that the next chapter commenced. Two documentaries No Maps on My Taps (1980) and Tapdancin' (1980) reassessed the lives of veteran tap dancers and in 1981 a musical homage to Duke Ellington, Sophisticated Ladies, opened on Broadway featuring Gregory Hines, a dancer set to revitalise the form. Hines went on to appear in films including Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984), which recreated the Harlem of the '30s. In the UK, American tappers Will Gaines, Honi Coles and Chuck Green were invited to demonstrate the evolution of their art form to fascinated fans but tap fever never reached the same heights here as in the States, where in 1989 a vote of Congress anointed 25th May National Tap Dance Day. 

While Gregory Hines was scattering beats over stage and screen, in 1984 one of his students, the ten-year-old Savion Glover, was making his own Broadway debut in The Tap Dance Kid. Already an audacious talent, Glover was set to make waves in the tap world and beyond. He went on to appear in Black and Blue (1989) made his film debut in Tap (1989) alongside Hines and Sammy Davis Jr, and starred with Hines once more on stage in Jelly's Last Jam (1992). But it wasn't long before Glover was to step out from his mentor's shadow and set the tone for a new generation of tappers. Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk was a Broadway smash in 1996, winning a Tony award for Glover's choreography, and it heralded a new era for tap. Telling the story of tap from its origins in slavery to the present day, Glover honoured the art's history and then brought it bang up to date, flushing out any notions of this dance form as a piece of nostalgia. 

Like the hoofers of Harlem, Glover's inspiration was the music around him, the rhythm of city streets and clubs - in the '90s, that was the heavy bass of hip hop. By taking tap back to its street dance roots he gave it new life, new style and new attitude. With astute musicality, jaw-dropping technique and an endless capacity for improvisation, Glover found new colour, new rhythm and perhaps most importantly, a new audience for tap. Stripped of showy arm and leg movements and any fixed stage-grins, Glover was the antithesis of the black-tie tapper, casually dressed in baggy clothes with beard and flying dreadlocks. In the US, Glover's fame now goes well beyond the dance world. He became known to American audiences as a regular guest on children's show Sesame Street, starred in Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled, appeared in pop videos with P Diddy and was namechecked in songs by rapper Nas and hip hop group the Re-Up Gang. Most recently he performed the dance routines for Mumble the penguin in hit animation Happy Feet

On stage, Glover's thirst for musical experimentation sees him as likely to perform with a classical string quartet as a jazz band, DJ or MC. The speed, clarity, invention and power of his percussive feet is effortlessly astounding as he portrays emotions from joy to rage with only the beating of his heels and toes. He crafts lucid melodies amid the hammering of impossibly complex combinations, and he never loses the funk. 

Glover may be the most virtuosic dancer there is, but he is more than just a incredible technician; he is a master of his art. Gregory Hines called him the greatest dancer to lace up a pair of tap shoes, and nobody's going to argue with that. 

by Lyndsey Winship