The History of Tap Dance Shoes

By Maureen Katemopoulos

In the mid-1600s in America, before tap dance shoes were invented, the bare soles of slaves walking rhythmically across the wood decks of river boats combined with the energetic steps of the Irish jig and the Lancashire clog. These movements that originated worlds apart, merged and evolved into the tap dance beat. That beat would take to the minstrel stage during the 1800s. Thomas D. Rice (1808 to 1860), who performed in the role of “Jim Crow,” took tap dancing onto center stage and to a formal place in history for tap by the turn of the century.

1910 to 1920

It was not until the period between 1900 and 1920 that tap dance emerged as a dance form in its own right. With it, tap dance shoes were born. In the earliest days of tap dance, pennies or hobnails were hammered into the toe and heels of shoes, to create the tap sound as performers danced. Before 1910, tap dancers wore shoes made with leather uppers and wooden soles, so that the wood tapped out the beat. After 1910, it became the fashion to apply metal taps to the bottoms of tap dance shoes.

Bill Robinson & Shirley Temple

By the time that Bill Robinson (1878 to 1949) became famous as “Bojangles,” tap dance shoes were part of the total package. Robinson wore tap shoes with wooden soles and heels. His dance partner in a memorable 1935 film called “The Little Colonel” was Shirley Temple, who popularized eyelet-style tap dance shoes, with large, laced-through bows. In the film, Robinson and Temple demonstrate the “stair step routine” invented by Robinson, which showcases them tapping up and down a staircase. Robinson and Temple would go on to show off their fancy tap footwork and shoes in three other films, “The Littlest Rebel” in 1935, and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and "Just Around The Corner" in 1938.

Astaire-Rogers

Tap dancing was featured often in movies made between 1935 and 1970, with the focus on glamorous costumes and shoes. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tapped their way through the 1936 classic, "Swing Time." Astaire's standard of perfection included black patent leather shoes. Quite apart from the formidable dance routines, Rogers had to contend with wearing high-heeled tap shoes. She made every dance routine look effortless, even though--on at least one occasion--her feet bled from the strain. Her white satin-covered shoes turned red.

Tap Shoe Evolution

The movies made tap dancing look magical and glamorous, and the demand for tap dance shoes grew accordingly, bringing about new design features over the years. Traditionally, leather soled flat tap shoes are considered best, especially for beginners, and not rubber soles because they tend to stick. Canvas and synthetic materials are also used in place of leather. Most taps have adjustable screws to create different sound effects, and they should be of equal width as the heels and toe of the shoes. Styles have evolved to include lace-up Oxfords, Mary Janes, the Jazz, the heeled tap, and the tap sneaker.

Tapping Into Fame

The legendary choreographer and director,Tommy Tune, began his award-winning career as part of the chorus on Broadway in the mid-1960s. At six-foot six inches, he was probably the tallest dancer to take the stage. He went on to tap dance in two notable movies, "Hello Dolly" in 1969 and "The Boyfriend" in 1971. Meanwhile, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the high-kicking Rockettes were also keeping alive the tap dance tradition, all at least 5-foot six inches tall, and stepping perfectly in time. For aspirants to Broadway and Radio City Music Hall, Broadway-style high-heeled tap dance shoes are sold with taps already installed as are sturdy yet flexible tap dance shoes designed to take the beginner all the way to Broadway and film fame.

Electronic Tap Shoes

The 1989 film “Tap” stars the dancer Gregory Hines. It illustrates the history of tap dancing. The film famously includes Hines performing an electronic tap dance sequence, wearing a special pair of electronic tap shoes. Al Desio, the inventor of the shoes, built electronic transmitters into the tap shoes. The transmitters were connected to synthesizers so that when Hines tapped, he was able to create different sounds. The film was directed by Nick Castle Jr., the son of the legendary Hollywood choreographer, Nick Castle (1910 to 1968) who worked with Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and many other dance stars.

National Tap Dance Day

In 1989, a joint United States Senate/House Resolution declared that May 25 be celebrated as National Tap Dance Day. The significance of May 25 is that it was the birthday of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson and his tap dance shoes are honored in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia with a life-sized statue.

About the Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.