What is Tap Dance?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Tap dance is a style of dance which developed in the United States in the 19th century. Originally, tap dance appeared in black minstrel shows, but by the 1920s, it had become popular with both blacks and whites. Today, a number of schools of tap dance can be seen in action, and it is possible to take a range of tap classes at many dance studios and schools.

Tap dancers wear shoes with metal plates on the bottom.
Tap dancers wear shoes with metal plates on the bottom.

In tap dance, performers wear shoes which have been equipped with metal plates. As the dancer moves, the plates click against the dance floor, creating a characteristic tapping sound. Tappers can create a variety of percussive rhythms with their feet by tapping, sliding, and clicking the metal plates. Observers can enjoy both the movements of the dancer and the sound of the tapping, with tap dancers performing either alone or with musical accompaniment. Some composers have even created compositions for tap dancers and orchestras, using the tap dancers like drummers and other members of the percussion section.

The roots of tap dance are a bit obscure. Several cultures have dance traditions similar to tap dancing, such as clogging in the British Isles, which utilizes movements similar to those used by tappers. Some African cultures also have percussive dance traditions which were undoubtedly brought to the United States on slave ships, and flamenco, a style of Spanish dance, also features a version of tap dancing called zapateado. Whatever the origins of tap dancing, it has become a quintessentially American dance form.

Tappers usually utilize a lot of syncopation, creating unexpected and very lively rhythms in their works. They are also fond of improvisation, and they can perform alone or in groups. In classic tap, the dancer's whole body moves along with the feet, often in very showy, stylized movements. Broadway tap is a highly formalized version of this style of tap dance. “Hoofers,” on the other hand, prefer to focus just on the movements of their feet, keeping their upper bodies still. Softshoe is a variant on tap in which metal plates are not used, making for a much quieter series of dance moves.

People who are interested in trying some tap dance out for themselves can probably find tap classes or a private instructor locally. Tap shoes can be ordered through dance supply companies, with some dance studios having small shops which stock basic supplies. People who have experience in clogging and step dancing may find that they settle into tap very quickly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@anon125503: Why are you scared? I have been dancing for close to a decade and it is the best thing I have ever tried!


i want to dance but i am scared to.


I have been dancing for fifteen years. dancing is my life. when I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life, I cannot think of anything bad. I can only be happy and free. That is why I dance.


I have been tap dancing for eight years and I love it! I would never give it up. Dance is my reason to live. <3

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