tap dance: The Beginnings of Tap Dance

Tap, an American dance genre, evolved from the 17th to 19th cent. through the intermingling of elements of West African percussive dance, brought to the New World by slaves, and a variety of step and clog dance styles that originated in the British Isles. Some historians see evidence of this cultural mingling in the dances of African slaves and Irish indentured servants living on Southern plantations, while others trace it to 19th-century northern cities, where various ethnic groups lived side by side in crowded conditions. Dance competitions or challenges, a popular form of entertainment that originated in the mid-19th cent., were a way to display one's talent as well as to learn new steps and innovations from other performers. The minstrel show, a form of entertainment performed primarily by whites in blackface that dates from the early 1800s, featured an early form of tap, often performed in wooden shoes or hobnailed boots, as well as soft shoe. Minstrel shows were later supplanted by vaudeville, which incorporated tap dancers and many other forms of entertainment and was most popular from the 1880s to the early 1930s.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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