Tap dance has its roots in the fusion of several ethnic percussive dances, primarily African tribal dances and Scottish, Irish, and English clog dances, hornpipes, and jigs. Tap dance is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. Famous as Master Juba, William Henry Lane became one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel troupe, and is widely considered to be one of the most famous forebears of tap dance.
As the minstrel shows began to decline in popularity, tap dance moved to the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage. Due to the two-colored rule, which forbade blacks from performing solo, the majority of Vaudeville tap acts were duets. This gave rise to the famous pair "Buck and Bubbles," which consisted of John "Bubbles" Sublett tap dancing and Ford "Buck" Washington on piano. The duo perfected the "Class Act", a routine in which the performers wore impeccable tuxedos, which has since become a common theme in tap dance. The move is seen by some as a rebuttal to the older minstrel show idea of the tap dancer as a "grinning-and-dancing clown."
Another notable figure to emerge during this period is Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who was a protégé of Alice Whitman of The Whitman Sisters around 1904 (then 'Willie Robinson'). Well versed in both Buck and Wing dancing and Irish Step dancing, Bill Robinson joined the Vaudeville circuit in 1902, in a duo with George W. Cooper. The act quickly became famous, headlining events across the country, and touring England as well. In 1908, however, the two had an altercation, and the partnership was ended. Gambling on his popularity, Robinson decided to form a solo act, which was extremely rare for a black man at that time.Despite this, he had tremendous success and soon became a world famous celebrity. He went on to have a leading role in many films, notably in the Shirley Temple franchise.
Shortly thereafter, the Nicholas Brothers came on the scene. Consisting of real life brothers Fayard and Harold, this team wowed audiences with their acrobatic feats incorporated into their classy style of dancing. A notable scene in the movie "Stormy Weather" features the pair dancing up a staircase and then descending the staircase in a series of leapfrogs over each other into a full split from which they rise with no hands.
During the 1930s tap dance mixed with Lindy Hop. "Flying swing outs" and "flying circles" are Lindy Hop moves with tap footwork. In the mid- to late 1950s, the style of entertainment changed. Jazz music and tap dance declined, while rock and roll and the new jazz dance emerged. What is now called jazz dance evolved out of tap dance, so both dances have many moves in common. But jazz evolved separately from tap dance to become a new form in its own right. Well-known dancers during the 1960s and 1970s included Arthur Duncan and Tommy Tune.
No Maps on My Taps, the Emmy award winning PBS documentary of 1979, helped begin the recent revival of tap dance. The outstanding success of the animated film, Happy Feet, has further reinforced the popular appeal. National Tap Dance Day in the United States, now celebrated May 25, was signed into law by President George Bush on November 7, 1989. (May 25 was chosen because it is the birthday of famous tapper Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.) Prominent modern tap dancers have included Sarah Reich, Brenda Bufalino, Melinda Sullivan, The Clark Brothers, Savion Glover, Gregory and Maurice Hines, LaVaughn Robinson, Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold, Michelle Dorrance, Jason Janas, Sam Weber, Marshall Davis Jr, Heather Cornell, Dule Hill, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Dianne "Lady Di" Walker Indie-pop band Tilly and the Wall also features a tap dancer, Jamie Pressnall, tapping as percussion.