The Beginner’s Guide to Tap Dance

Continuing our Beginner’s Guide to Dance series we’re providing an overview of Tap Dancing for new students and parents to introduce you to a bit of the history of tap dance, the different tap dance styles and some common vocabulary terms. This series is designed to help students and parents choose which dance style will best suit the student’s personality and start tap dance classes with confidence. 

The Tap Dance Style

As a style of dance, Tap dance is created by using the sounds of tap shoes striking the floor as a form of percussion. The sound is made by the shoes that have a metal “tap” on both the heel and toe. Tap dancing is a lively and energetic form of dance. From small theater productions to Hollywood movies and Broadway shows, tap dance has captured the hearts of millions of Americans.

Tap Dance Master 

Michelle Dorrance

Michelle Dorrance is an internationally renowned tap dancer, choreographer, teacher, and director.  Ms. Dorrance is known for her creative ensemble choreography, rhythm tap style and ambitious collaborative projects with fellow tap dance choreographers and musicians


History of Tap Dance

Tap dance originated in the United States during the early 19th century and today it is a popular style of dance all over the world. Tap dance evolved from the African dance form. When slave owners took away the traditional percussion instruments of their home and people, the slaves created percussion through dance to preserve their cultural heritage.

This new style of dance was further influenced by clog dancing from the British Isles and the jigs and reels of Ireland and Scotland, creating a unique form of movement and rhythm.

Tap Dance Fun Fact?

Early tap shoes had wooden soles, sometimes with pennies attached to the heel and toe

After the Civil War tap dance gained popularity as a part of traveling minstrel shows. By the 20th century, Tap dance had become a significant feature of popular Vaudeville shows and a major part of the creativity and artistry of the Harlem Renaissance. Tap dancers began collaborating with jazz musicians, incorporating improvisation and complex syncopated rhythms into their movement.

Tap flourished in the U.S. from 1900 to 1955. Although Tap’s popularity declined in the second half of the century, it was reinvigorated in the 1980s through Broadway shows like 42nd Street and The Tap Dance Kid, and even the 1989 surprise hit movie, Happy Feet, a film about a tap-dancing penguin.

Different Styles of Tap Dance

There are four different styles of tap dance currently being performed today:

Classical Tap: Classical Tap was popularized through the 20th-century movies and also goes by the name of flash or swing tap. Classical Tap is a combination of jazz dance, ballet, and acrobatics.

Rhythm (Jazz) Tap: Rhythm Tap dancing focuses on the percussive sounds of the taps and an emphasis is usually placed on the heel sounds and scraping noises of the taps. Rhythm Tap is usually performed acapella – without musical accompaniment – so the audience can concentrate on the sound of the taps rather than the music.

Broadway (Musical) Tap: Broadway Tap incorporates traditional tap dancing with jazz and tap to create an exciting performance for the audience and is seen throughout musical-theater. Broadway tap often focuses on formations, choreography and generally less complex rhythms. Rather than focusing on the musicality of the tap dancing, it focuses on the dance itself. Other styles of dance such as jazz and ballet are often incorporated into the dance to make it even more appealing to the audience.

Freestyle Tap: Freestyle Tap is exactly what it sounds like and allows the dancer the freedom to create and show their individuality. The dancer taps to the beat of their own drum and uses the music to express themselves through dancing. There are no set rules or guidelines in Freestyle Tap, anything goes.

Tap Dance Master 

Fred Astaire

It is true that no other name is as synonymous with tap dancing as Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire made countless American films, many with his sidekick Ginger Rogers, and in so doing revolutionized the tap world’s presence in movies.


Tap Dance Steps and Terms for Beginners


We’ve have highlighted some key Tap steps and common terms first-time Tap dance students will need to know. 

Ball Change: Two quick changes of weight from one ball of the foot to the other.

Brush: Striking of the ball of the foot or the toe tap against the floor. This is usually done in a direction. A backward brush is called a spank.

Buffalo: Step consisting of a step, shuffle, and a small jump (with shuffling foot going behind)

Cramp Roll: Step using toe and heel drops in a specific pattern.

Dig: Digging of the heel into the floor without weight transfer.

Flap: Brush and step with transfer of weight.

Heel/Heel Drop: Forceful dropping of the heel on the floor, with the weight placed on the ball of the same foot.

Maxie Ford: Step named for a famous dancer. Consists of a step, shuffle, jump, toe tip behind.

Riff: Movement combining a brush and a scuff on the same foot.

Shim-Sham: Stomp, spank, step. Alternating feet.

Shuffle: Brush followed by a spank.

Tap Dance Master 

Gregory Hines

Gregory Hines was a multi-talented artist as a dancer, actor, choreographer, and singer. Gregory Hines is considered one of the most celebrated tap dancers of all time. 


Tap Dance Classes at Progressive Dance Studio

At Progressive Dance Studio (PDS), our Tap dance program offers 8 different Tap classes that starts with Pre-Jazz & Tap for kids ages 6-7 and continues through Tap 1-3 ages 7-11, Sr. Tap Company for ages 8-12 and up, and Adult Tap. The Tap classes that PDS currently offers include:

Pre-Jazz & Tap Ages 6 – 7
Tap 1 Ages 7 – 9
Tap 2 Ages 8 – 11
Tap 2/3 Ages 8 – 11
Tap 3 Ages 8 – 11
Jr. Tap Company Ages 9 – 11
Sr. Tap Company Ages 12 and up
Adult Tap All Ages

Tap Dancewear: The Tap dancer’s body lines need to be visible so dancers should be dressed in fitted dancewear for Tap dance class. At Progressive Dance Studio, the dress code for our Tap dance classes include a leotard, tights, and booty shorts.

Tap Shoes: There are a variety of styles of shoe: the Oxford is very common in jazz dance and the Mary Jane is common for younger girls in tap classes, either of which is a good choice. At Progressive Dance Studio, as part of our dress code for tap dance class, we require tap shoes.

For information about other dance styles see our post The Beginner’s Guide to Dance.

If you have questions or would like to take a tour of Progressive Dance Studio located in Englewood, NJ call our front desk at (201) 894-1333 we’re happy to help!

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