Tapping Through the Triangle Since 2002!

Tap History

Footnotes' mission is to promote, preserve, and perform tap dance, including some of the best-known historical pieces from the early 1900's. Read about these pieces and their extraordinary choreographers below.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (c.1878 -1949) was the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Dancing upright and swinging, his light and exacting footwork brought tap “up on its toes” from an earlier flat-footed shuffling style. He performed on the Vaudeville circuit from 1902-1927, initially as part of a duet, bound by the "two-colored" rule which restricted black performers from appearing solo. Robinson continually broke racial barriers, first by performing without blackface makeup that was customarily used, and later when he launched his solo career and became one of the few black performers to headline at New York's prestigious Palace Theatre. Broadway fame came soon after with the all-black revue, Blackbirds of 1928, in which he sang and danced Doin' the New Low Down. Success was instantaneous. He was hailed as the greatest of all dancers by at least seven New York newspapers and was named "Mayor of Harlem" in 1933. Robinson turned to Hollywood films in the thirties, a venue previously restricted to black performers, starring in many roles, including alongside Shirley Temple. Robinson profoundly influenced the younger tap dancers at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where he also could be found gambling and shooting pool. Throughout his lifetime, he was a member of many clubs and his participation in benefits is legendary; it is estimated that he gave away well over one million dollars in loans and charities. When Robinson died in 1949, newspapers claimed that almost one hundred thousand people came to witness the passing of the funeral procession. The founding of the Copasetics Club insured that his excellence would not be forgotten. (Constance Valis Hill, adtf.org)

Charles ‘Honi’ Coles and Charles “Cholly” Atkins met in a show business hotel in Harlem in 1939, and spent much of the next two decades dancing together. During the 1930s, Honi Coles was known as having the fastest feet in the business. His main interest was rhythm tap, the lyrical, percussive tap form that began developing rapidly in the 1920s. Cholly Atkins cut his teeth performing in nightclubs throughout the country with the duet The Rhythm Pals. In 1939 he moved to New York City and met Honi Coles, but the pair did not dance professionally as a team until after World War II, when they formed their act Coles & Atkins. It was unusually long for a tap act, at 12 minutes, and combined singing, comedy, and of course, excellent tap dancing. Their most outstanding number was their Soft Shoe, a style that had been performed for nearly a century. What set their version apart was the seemingly perilous slowness of it. Each step was executed in graceful symmetry that was absolutely breathtaking. Never before had such precision and style been brought to this tempo of Soft Shoe. The “slow Soft Shoe” became a favorite in their repertoire. (Rusty Frank, adtf.org)

James “Buster” Brown, (1913-2002), a native of Baltimore, Maryland, was a tap dance legend and the last surving member of the Copasetics Club, an elite group of master dancers formed to honor the legacy of the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. His career spanned seven decades, from touring the Vaudeville circuits to guest appearances in the Broadway hit, Black and Blue. Other career highlights include performances at the Apollo Theater; as a soloist with the Cab Calloway Orchestra; in Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert; in the film, The Cotton Club (dance sequence with Gregory Hines); and on many TV shows, including the PBS special, The Gershwin Gala. He is known for his trademark tap routines including April In Paris, Laura, Fascinating Rhythm, and Just You Just Me. An active teacher and choreographer, he is the recipient of fellowships for the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 1997-2002 he hosted a weekly Sunday tap jam session at Swing 46, a Manhattan jazz club on West 46th Street, that quickly became a focal point of attention for the world's tap community because of Dr. Buster Brown's genial presence and enthusiastic support for anyone who wanted to express themselves through the dance. (Max Pollack, drbusterbrown.com)

Leon Collin (1922-1985) was a tap virtuoso who inspired a new blend of jazz and classical music, placing an innovative focus on melody rather than rhythm alone. He was born in Chicago, Illinois and learned to tap dance on the street corners and in pool halls, where young dancers gathered to copy and challenge each other. Beginning in his teenage years, Collins performed with various jazz bands including Count Basie's orchestra and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. As work opportunities dried out when rock and roll became popular and big bands became less in demand, he learned to play the guitar and attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, before giving up dance entirely to restore cars for 14 years until tap dance began to experience a revival. In 1976, he performed in a tap revival show in Boston, which led him to a teaching role teaching underneath the revered Stanley Brown. When Brown died in 1978, Collins took over his studio, where his patience and kind, supportive demeanor became legendary. He was soon teaching for the Radcliffe Dance Program and the Harvard Summer Dance Center; and his newly-renamed Leon Collins Dance Studio, in Brookline, MA, became home to dozens of students, young and old, who wanted to learn the art. Among them were such important tap artists as Dianne Walker, Pamela Raff, and C.B. Hetherington (later Clara Brosnaham Wirth) who became his protégés, and after his death, continued to manage his school. By the end of his career he had created nearly a dozen routines, extended a cappella dances that covered virtually the entire range of his own tap vocabulary, including Routine 1, The Waltz, Tapapella, and Routine 53. (Library of Congress Performing Arts Database - Leon Collins)

The “BS” Chorus became popular in the 1920s and 1930s on the Vaudeville circuit, when a need arose for a few simple routines that all tappers could know and perform at any time—especially so local dancers at each tour stop could join in. Unlike the Shim-Sham Shimmy, another treasured piece of tap history, this routine required more advanced technique and was extremely challenging if done correctly. When it became popular in the 1920s and ’30s, inexperienced dancers would try to fake their way through it—hence, “BS.” Although the exact origin of this combination of steps is not known, Margaret Morrison, a tap historian, performer, and co-director of tap teaching training at the American Tap Dance Foundation in NYC, believes the first two steps of the BS Chorus date back to the 1800s. They were part of a style known as buck-and-wing, a predecessor of tap dance, which wasn’t formally known as tap until the 1920s. The sequence was later popularized and presented often by The Copasetics, an ensemble of well-known hoofers formed in 1949. “When they did it, it was so fast you couldn’t even see it,” says master tap artist, teacher, and choreographer Brenda Bufalino. “When we do it now, we do it at a reasonable tempo. They didn’t take it seriously, but we do, because that’s one of the few routines we’ve got in terms of tap background.” (Ryan P. Casey, Dance Spirit Magazine)

In 1927, two song and dance men, Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, took four popular steps of the 1920's, strung them together with a break and created the now legendary "Shim Sham Shimmy." At the time, Reed & Bryant were touring in the South with The Whitman Sisters show, and the dance was originally called "Gofus." The dance was designed to be so easy that members of the audience could be taught one step a night (getting them to come back to see the show three more times to learn the rest of it!). The dance travelled quickly up north and was renamed in the 1930s when it was performed in New York's Shim Sham Club and the chorus girls added the shimmying of the shoulders on the opening step. The second chorus, "The Freeze," is the same as the first, but dancers freeze in place of the break step. Leonard Reed lived to be 97 years old, and, to his utter delight, he saw his dance become the official "National Anthem of Tap." (Rusty Frank, Dance Spirit Magazine)