tap dance: The Heyday of Tap

The early 20th century saw an increase in the popularity of tap dance, with tapping chorus lines in theatrical shows and, later, motion pictures. Elements of ballet, jazz, and military drills and the use of such props as canes and stairs were incorporated into tap routines. The jazz tap musical show Shuffle Along (1921), with a Broadway show with an all-black cast, popularized the form in the jazz age and reached white and black audiences, but its success was anomalous and limited in the era of segregation and separate black and white vaudeville circuits and nightclubs.

Popular tap dancers of the time included Peg Leg Bates, who danced with a prosthetic leg and a tap shoe on the other foot; John Bubbles, who featured offbeat accents in his rhythm tap; Bill Bo Jangles Robinson, who made many movies in the 1930s and 40s, several of them with the young Shirley Temple; the duo of Coles & Atkins (Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins), with routines that included soft shoe and swing dance as well as tap; and the Nicholas Brothers, who featured feats of acrobatics in their shows. Ruby Keeler, along with Eleanor Powell one of the few female tap stars of the time, enjoyed popularity in the Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s. Sammy Davis, Jr., who performed with his vaudevilian parents beginning in the 1920s, Fred Astaire, with his elegance and sophistication, and Gene Kelly, who had a dynamic muscular athleticism, changed the appearance of tap in their many movies of the 1940s and 50s and later enjoyed popularity on television.

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

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