Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Riley. Riley Wonders, “How Did Tap Dancing Start?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Riley!

What do you get when you combine fun music, fast feet, and a good sense of rhythm? The clickety-clack and tappity-tap of tap dancing, that’s what!

Tap dancing mixes two beautiful arts—dancing and making music—into one act. How can you tell if someone is tap dancing? Just listen for the tapping sounds created by metal plates on the bottom of a dancer’s shoes. 

When they’re tapped against a solid surface, such as a wooden floor, the plates create a unique sound. As tap dancers move across the floor, they make music while they dance!

Many companies make special tap shoes that have tap plates attached to the bottom of the shoes with screws. Since each shoe has a tap plate near the toe and one on the heel, they are sometimes called “two shoes and four taps.” The screws that attach the taps to the shoes can be tightened or loosened. This changes the sounds they make.

Sometimes, people make their own tap shoes. They tape quarters or (with the help of an adult) screw metal plates to the bottom of a pair of shoes. It’s also possible to tap dance in shoes that have a hard, solid sole. However, the sounds such shoes make is not the same as true tap shoes.

Where did tap dancing come from? We can trace its roots to Africa and the English Isles. When people were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America to be enslaved, they brought their music and dancing traditions with them. 

When enslavers denied them drums and other percussion instruments, enslaved people got creative. They made music with their feet through percussive dancing. Over time, this practice blended with Irish clogging. The product was the tap dancing we know today. 

Tap dancers often improvise. That means they make up their moves and beats as they go along. They also rely heavily on syncopation. That means they use an irregular rhythm to place stresses or accents where they usually wouldn’t occur.

Would you believe you can even tap dance without music? Just like singing without music, tap dancing can be “a cappella.” Instead of dancing to music, tap dancers instead make their own rhythms using a variety of special steps.

Tap dancing was quite popular in America in the early 1900s. It was common in Vaudeville shows and on Broadway. It was also a large part of the Harlem Renaissance.  Many tap dancers even appeared in movies and eventually television.

You may recognize the names of some famous tap dancers. Have you ever heard of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? How about Josephine Baker or Rita Hayworth? These were all well-known tap dancers. A few more big names in tap dancing are Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers.

With the birth of rock-and-roll, tap dance dropped in popularity. A new form of dance—jazz dance—eventually grew out of tap dance. Although they were similar in the past, tap dance and jazz dance are considered separate forms of dance today.

Traditional tap dance is once again starting to become popular. Modern tap dancers include Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. In fact, Savion Glover recently helped to bring tap dancing back into the mainstream. He choreographed and danced for the movie Happy Feet, which told the story of a tap dancing penguin.

Do you know how to tap dance? Or would you be interested in learning? Tap dancing is an art form that many people enjoy. They say there’s nothing like making and dancing to your own music at the same time!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3

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