No one really knows when the term tap dancing was first used. It may have been as early as 1900, but it wasn’t seen in print until about 1928. But, where does tap dancing originate? The early slave trade in America resulted in a rhythmic collision of cultures.
Slave-holders, already fearful of revolting slaves, began to panic when it was discovered that African Americans could communicate with each other, over long distances and in code, through the use of drums. All over the South, slave-holders moved to severely restrict African Americans’ use of drums and other native instruments in religious ceremonies. But, African Americans held on to their traditional rhythms — by transferring them to their feet. The skill of tapping out complex rhythmic passages was widely developed, and a vital physical code of expression was born.
By the mid-nineteenth century, African Americans combined their fancy footwork with Irish and British clogging, and that combination was soon called “Buck and Wing” style, and now is what we know of as modern “tap dancing.” This “Buck and Wing” style is known to have been performed in the early nineteenth century by minstrels and vaudeville performers. This style featured a flat footed heavily accented syncopation. The performers of this style were African American men, known as “bucks.” The “wing” refers to their arms flapping about as they are dancing and the wild kicks they are performing.
There have been many famous tap dancers throughout the years, the four that are most associated with the origins of this style are William Henry Lane, George H. Primrose, King Rastus Brown, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. All four of these men started out as cloggers and went on to help develop many different styles of tap dancing. Primrose developed another fairly popular style called “soft shoe” which is like tap dancing without the metal taps attached to the shoe. The most identifiable characteristics of soft-shoe are the smooth, graceful, floating movements and the delicate quality of the tapping.