African Americans
and Tap
A CultureMap®
by Lisa Jo Sagolla
Published on 8/1/13

The history of tap dance throws a spotlight on the African American experience. Rooted in the dancing of enslaved Africans, tap developed on urban streets and flourished on stage and screen before it died in the 1950s and was resurrected by white women in the 1970s. Giving voice to African Americans and functioning both to empower and to stereotype, tap dance embodies the cultural rhythms of being black in America.

Master Juba  (c. 1825–c. 1852 | American dancer)
to  Hoofers Club

The most influential American dance virtuoso of the 19th century, William Henry “Master Juba” Lane combined sophisticated African rhythms and loose body movements with clogging and Irish jigging techniques, creating a hybrid style later termed tap dance. Master Juba was a freeborn black who starred with a top white minstrel troupe at a time when racially integrated performances generally were not permitted. He is thought to be the extraordinary “Negro” dancer Charles Dickens describes in American Notes (1842). Because of Master Juba and his followers, dancing was the most authentically African American element in minstrelsy, a musical-theater entertainment in which whites in blackface makeup enacted gross caricatures of blacks.

Quintessentially American, tap dance emerged through the integration of black and white sources yet evolved along segregated pathways. Master Juba’s lineage of tap-dance invention continued at the Hoofers Club, a small back room in a basement pool hall in Harlem. During the 1920s and ’30s gifted male dancers met there to learn, create and show off their new techniques, challenging one another’s skills and originality. Simultaneously, a theatrical strand of tap arose among Broadway and Hollywood performers, who blended tap with ballet, ballroom dance and Anglo American traditions.

Hoofers Club
to  Gregory Hines  (1946–2003 | American dancer and actor)

A synonym for tap dancing, hoofing also refers to a style emphasizing flat-footed percussive movements, so that the dancer becomes a rhythmic instrument. The gold standard for this improvisatory, highly individualized style was set by the male, predominantly African American dancers who competed with one another at the Hoofers Club, a tiny basement room in Harlem. The prime spot to hone one’s hoofing, the club flourished during jazz’s swing era, burnishing solo tappers who worked like musicians, improvising and trading rhythms.

Though the Hoofers Club fostered countless influential performers, mainstream audiences knew little about it until The Cotton Club (1984) and Tap (1989). Both films starred innovative African American dancer Gregory Hines and included tap challenge scenes that paid homage to the camaraderie and rivalry typical of the Hoofers Club. A driving force in the 1980s tap renaissance, Hines used his influence to honor the past and unite the tap community. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in 1987 the Rockettes welcomed an African American into their fold—a first in the renowned precision tap line’s 60-year history.

Hoofers Club
to  Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk  (Musical | 1995)

Boldly reclaiming tap dance as an African American art form, Broadway revue Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk traces tap’s history from its roots on African slave ships and Southern plantations to its evolution alongside jazz music and its fusion with street culture in the 20th century. Introducing a heavy-footed, urban hoofing style, the show’s cast of eight young black men (plus singer Ann Duquesnay) countered the image of the white-influenced theatrical tap dancing popularized in stage and screen musicals of the mid-20th century.

From its off-Broadway inception the show starred Savion Glover, hailed by many as a dance genius and the greatest tap artist of all time. In his showstopping solo, Glover paid tribute to his mentors and the legacy of the Hoofers Club, that legendary Harlem haunt where the top black tappers had polished their craft some 60 years earlier. The solo follows a dark-comedy number parodying the tap dancing of Hollywood, where tap had “lost its beat” and black artists were relegated to playing flashy, grinning or shuffling fools. Distinguishing between the two brands of tap, Noise/Funk contends that the Hoofers Club dancers and their ilk educated audiences, while Hollywood merely entertained them.

Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk  (Musical | 1995)
to  Shirley Temple  (b. 1928 | American actor)

Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk is a provocative examination of the African American experience as manifested in the colorful history of tap dance. And it made a household name of its leading dancer, tap phenom Savion Glover. In 1984, at age 11, Glover took over the title role in the Broadway musical The Tap Dance Kid and went on to wow the tap community with his invention of what he called “hitting,” an aggressive tap style that has been described as blunt, masculine, driven by fury and profoundly black.

Yet Noise/Funk’s most bitingly satiric scene, an indictment of Hollywood’s demeaning stereotyping of black tappers, features a child tap star of an earlier era: the curly-topped Shirley Temple. Hollywood’s number-one box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, Temple is portrayed by a rag doll that “dances” with a performer impersonating beloved black tapper Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The duet takes aim at the famous celluloid image, from The Little Colonel, of Temple and Robinson tap dancing, hand in hand, up a staircase. Though groundbreaking as the first interracial dance couple on-screen, the pairing is attacked in Noise/Funk for Robinson’s casting as a self-effacing domestic on a Southern plantation.

Shirley Temple  (b. 1928 | American actor)
to  Nick Castle  (1910–1968 | American choreographer)

Cuteness personified, the sunny tap-dancing tot Shirley Temple exuded an irresistible effervescence that lifted the spirits of Depression-era filmgoers as she became one of the biggest American movie stars of the 1930s. Several of Temple’s most memorable films, including The Little Princess, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Little Miss Broadway, were choreographed by eminent Hollywood movie-musical choreographer Nick Castle (born Nicola Casaccio).

Credited with contributing choreography to more than 80 films, Castle worked with colossal stars like Fred Astaire (for whom he helped create the Royal Wedding number in which Astaire dances on the ceiling) as well as African American hoofers. In adapting their dancing for the screen, Castle often upped the entertainment quotient with inventive acrobatics. The Nicholas Brothers, the electrifying African American flash act duo, credit Castle with increasing the risk level of their daring tricks. According to Harold Nicholas, when he and his brother first came to Hollywood they were doing jazz splits only from the floor; it was Castle who recommended they try leaping into them from raised platforms. Their most difficult stunt—running up a wall, then backflipping into a split—was also suggested by Castle, who had seen it done by vaudeville’s Mosconi Brothers.

Nick Castle  (1910–1968 | American choreographer)
to  Gregory Hines  (1946–2003 | American dancer and actor)

The first film to showcase tap dancing performed to hard-driving funk, Tap (1989) catalyzed a resurgence of the percussive dance form and inspired a young generation of experimental dancers who merged tap with rock and hip-hop. Despite the new style pioneered by its star Gregory Hines, the unparalleled tapper of his generation, Tap was primarily an affectionate tribute to the cadre of men, largely African Americans, who excelled at rhythm tap half a century earlier. In the film, Hines is a young dancer chosen by old hoofers to carry forward their tradition, a story line that parallels the offscreen role Hines played as promoter of tap’s rebirth.

Hines saw Tap as a celebration of his artistic “fathers.” Writer-director Nick Castle Jr. envisioned the film in honor of his real-life father—the prolific, mid-20th-century movie-musical choreographer Nick Castle. A transformative tapper, the elder Castle generated ideas for many iconic dances, including Gene Kelly’s solo in Summer Stock (1950), in which tap steps evolve from a creaking floorboard. That number gave Castle’s son the idea for Tap’s opening, a tap dance inspired by the sound of dripping water.

Gregory Hines  (1946–2003 | American dancer and actor)
to  Coles & Atkins  (American dance duo | 1940–1959)

With his star turns in Broadway musicals and feature films, African American tap-dance sensation Gregory Hines rejuvenated the black hoofing tradition in American mainstream culture in the 1980s. The rhythm (or jazz) tap style, which peaked in the 1940s, had all but disappeared by the 1950s. During the civil rights era, many young African Americans turned their backs on tap, disassociating themselves from the racial stereotype of a tap-dancing Uncle Tom.

In the 1970s a group composed mainly of white women, including Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg, laid the groundwork for tap’s big comeback. They sought the mentorship of old black hoofers, from whom they soaked up everything the men had to teach. Soon they formed their own companies and introduced an artistic style of rhythm tap to the concert-dance stage. Most influential was Bufalino, protégée of Charles “Honi” Coles, half of the tap duo Coles & Atkins. (Coles & Atkins had been the leading “class-act” of the 1940s.) While Bufalino brought an innovative feminine touch to rhythm tap, Coles returned to Broadway for the first time in almost three decades, winning a Tony Award for his performance in the 1983 musical My One and Only.

Coles & Atkins  (American dance duo | 1940–1959)
to  Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk  (Musical | 1995)

The high-speed tapping of Charles “Honi” Coles and the balletic grace of Charles “Cholly” Atkins merged in Coles & Atkins, a dance team renowned for its polish, precision and avoidance of acrobatics. But by 1959 performance outlets for tap had disappeared: Vaudeville was long dead, bebop and rock had replaced swing, Broadway had embraced ballet, Hollywood musicals had declined, and theaters had stopped featuring live shows before screenings. The pair split. While Coles later proved instrumental in tap’s resurgence, Atkins went to Motown Records. As its staff choreographer, he invented the slick, gestural “vocal choreography” that became the signature of such Motown groups as the Supremes and the Temptations.

In 2001 Atkins described Coles as “like Savion Glover is now. His dancing was just so complex and so technical, it was hard for the average person sitting in the audience to really understand what he was doing.” It was also impossible for other dancers to imitate Coles—as is the case with Glover. Melding his peerless talent with hip-hop sensibilities in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, Glover inspired African Americans to reconnect with tap, which they had rejected as a form of caricature since the 1960s.