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Written by: Paul Corr

"...Tap has a long history of "stealing steps" and "challenges." In reading any tap history performers will speak of dancing on street corners or outside clubs trying to outdo other dancers. These street games of "one-upmanship" were called "challenges." Challenges survive today in tap jam sessions and the techinique of "trading fours" in a performance with several dancers. "Trading fours" refers to each dancer giving his or her best for four measures before passing to the other dancer with a non-verbal "top this!"

The other phrase "stealing steps" refers to dancers trying to figure out what another dancer is doing, how he or she is getting that sound. The step is rarely taken literally by the viewing dancer. The motto is "Thou shalt not do another's step, exactly." A step is usually shaped and changed and incorporated into that dancer's personal style.

A reference to tap giant John Bubbles and "stealing steps" occurs in Marshall and Jean Stearns' Jazz Dance:

Bubbles, however, had little trouble adopting other dancers' steps. He had a reputation of being cagy, and his technique for extracting a step from a competitor became notorious.

Watching another dancer practicing at the Hoofers Club, Bubbles bides his time until he sees something he can use. "Oh-oh," he says, shaking his head in alarm, "you lost the beat back there--now try that step again." The dancer starts only to be stopped, again and again, until Bubbles, having learned it announces, "You know, that reminds me of a step I used to do," and proceeds to demonstrate two or three variations on the original step. The other dancer usually feels flattered."

Tap dancing's early history includes "challenges" and "stealing steps." Tapper and documentarian Jane Goldberg recently wrote in the ITA newsletter that tap "came out of the lower classes, developed in competitive 'battles' on street corners by Irish immigrants and African American slaves."


In Haskin's "Black Dance In America" the first name mentioned is "Uncle" Jim Lowe a black man that did jigs and reels in saloons and who was listed as an influence on the first great rhythm dancer William Henry Lane, also known as "Juba." Lane was born in 1825 and was well known by the 1840s. His dancing included African steps, like the shuffle and slide, added to the jig steps. He was the first to add syncopation and improvisation to his dancing. Haskins writes of an "emphasis on rhythm and percussion rather than melody."

In my Random House Collegiate dictionary 'juba' is defined as: "a lively dance accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping, developed by plantation slaves of the U.S." Turning the page I find the word 'Juba' defined as "a river in E. Africa, flowing South from South Ethiopia through the Somali Republic to the Indian Ocean. 1000 miles long." I wouldn't doubt there is a connection between these two words. In other sources it has been stated that when Africans were enslaved and taken to America they were forbidden to practice their religion and drumming, an integral part of their rituals, was expressly prohibited. It doesn't take great insight to realize secretly practiced or "Christianized" rituals that originally had drumming accompaniment would have hand clapping and rhythmic dancing on floorboards substituting for the drumming.

William Henry "Juba" Lane toured through New York and New England as well as traveling to London. He had a memorable series of challenges in Boston and New York with noted champion Irish step dancer Jack Diamond which had no clear victor. This didn't keep Lane from declaring himself "King." He also is known to have toured with white dancers dancing as a solo act (something that wasn't easily accomplished by black dancers in the early years of tap's explosive growth in the 1920s.) "Juba" Lane died in 1852 at the age of 27.

King Rastus Brown

Another name that appears frequently in discussions of early tap dance is King Rastus Brown. I studied tap briefly with Robert Burden a protege of LaVaughn Robinson. Robert created and choreographed a presentation of the story of Cinderella called "Cyndi `Ella" using tap dance and a narrator to tell the story. In this telling King Rastus Brown appears as an apparition that gives Cyndi magical tap shoes after a "tap challenge." It was explained later by Robert that early tap was initiated by King Rastus Brown (and then changed stylistically by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John Bubbles.) Brown is also mentioned by one of the Four Step Brothers in Rusty Frank's book. Brown whom he called "Mr Tap" had influenced him to become a tap dancer and "tell the story" during one of Brown's solo tours through Ohio in the early 20s. King Rastus Brown was already an older man by this time. (Rastus Brown has an entire chapter in Jean and Marshall Stearn's book "Jazz Dance," another required book for tappers.)


The Irish and Scottish immigrants had a cultural historyJames McIntyre around the turn of the century. It was a flat footed step dance where the foot of the free leg would rise and arc to the side while the elbows moved outward in "wing" pattern. The shoes had wooden soles and heels to amplify the rhythmic sounds of the dance.

In the early part of this century several disparate activities contributed to the further development of tap. Toots Davis and Eddie Rector did tap in the review "Darktown Follies" in 1913. The Volstead Act was passed in 1919 which began the Prohibition Era and the Jazz Age. Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcohol thereby assisting the growth of organized crime who created and owned "speakeasies," clubs were alcohol was served and entertainment was provided. These venues hired many black entertainers as singers, dancers and 'exotics' to entertain their white clientele. The Cotton Club being a noted example. Black choreographer Clarence Robinson is listed as bringing tap dancing to the Cotton Club in 1934 by the Haskins book. (Ed:I have doubts the club would have waited so long. Maybe the reference is to "choreographed" tap routines.)

Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle created a Broadway show in 1921 called "Shuffle Along." According to Haskins "The dancing was jazz dancing, including just about every current dance step, and heavy on tap, which 'Shuffle Along' helped to legitimize." The Charleston was introduced in a black show called "Liza" but truly took off after the "Charleston" song written for the musical "Runnin' Wild" featured tap dancers Pete Nugent and Derby Wilson in 1923. Another show "Dinah" (1924) introduced the "Black Bottom" a dance that featured slapping the backside while hopping forward and back. Many early tappers needed this dance as well as the 'buck and wing' in their repertoire.


The early buck dancers used shoes with wooden soles and heels. According to a letter from Maxine Reddell in a recent (Nov/Dec '94) issue of the International Tap Association (ITA) newsletter there were also 'split clog' tap shoes used. It says: "These shoes were used as early as 1920 and since then. Capezio has a patent on them." They were used by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller. The letter states: "Split clogs are hardwood beechwood soles in three sections with beveled edges and honeycomb hollow wood heels. When split clogs are used there are no aftertones but a solid tone, thereby enhancing one's tapping technique." (These are still available and can be heard on the cassette of "My One and Only" danced by Tommy Tune.) Metal taps developed later and aluminum became the standard. There were also jingle taps used earlier which were metal taps with a washer loose under the tap for more sounds.


Following this early period tap really expanded and grew. It was included in club revues, traveling shows, Broadway and Hollywood films. Tap was performed by duos, solo acts and choreographed group routines. I'll leave you to read other authors to chronicle its explosive development."

from - Tap Origins: A Brief History by Paul Corr for more info, please visit the TAPDANCE HOMEPAG, located at



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