Celebrate Tap Dance Day With 12 Famous Routines


In 1989, the 101st United States Congress declared May 25 "National Tap Dance Day." And the date is no coincidence—Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, widely considered one of the best tap dancers of all time, was born on this day in 1878. In honor of him, here are 12 tap dances that will make you want to pick up a pair and become a hoofer yourself.


It's only appropriate to start with Mr. Bojangles himself. Robinson was already well-known thanks to his vaudeville and Broadway performances, but he was introduced to a whole new audience when Fox executives decided to pair him with Shirley Temple. The duo became the first interracial dance partners to be shown on-screen. Bojangles was known for his impressive stair dance, so they recreated a version of it for the film The Little Colonel:


Fred Astaire once referred to this sequence by Fayard and Harold Nicholas, better known as the Nicholas Brothers (pictured above), as "the greatest dance number ever filmed." The brothers must have agreed—of the more than 30 films they made over the years, they considered Stormy Weather (1943) their favorite.


You may not know the name Eleanor Powell now, but there was a time when no one could equal her tap dancing prowess. Britannica notes that she wasn't often paired with male dancers in movies because "there were few in her league."

"When Fred Astaire danced with a lady, she would always follow him," Fayard Nicholas said. "But with Eleanor Powell, he was following her." He also noted that she was "Not one of the greatest women—one of the greatest, period."

In fact, Astaire may have been a little touchy about how good she was. In 1949, he told a reporter, "I love Eleanor Powell, but she dances like a man. She’s a remarkable dancer, but she has a very mannish style, and she’s a little big for me.”


Gregory Hines, once one of Savion Glover's tap teachers, called him "possibly the best tap dancer that ever lived," and after you watch this video and realize that the whole thing was improvised, you'll likely agree. Glover is probably best known for his 1996 Broadway show Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, which won him a Tony Award for best choreography. He returned to choreographing for Broadway this year with Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The show is nominated for 10 Tonys, including best choreography.


Walken started dancing around the age of 7, taking lessons from choreographer Danny Daniels, who would later win a Tony for The Tap Dance Kid. From his recent turn as Captain Hook in Peter Pan Live! to his appearance in Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice video in 2001, Walken's moves are on display in many projects. The selection below from Pennies From Heaven is both a tap dance and a striptease.


There is plenty of footage of Gene Kelly out there—Singing in the Rain (1952) is a classic, of course, and so is Anchors Aweigh (1945)but this video is particularly interesting because of Kelly's dance partner. For about three years in the 1950s, Sugar Ray Robinson hung up his boxing gloves and slipped on a pair of tap shoes, dancing on the Ed Sullivan Show and performing at the Apollo Theater. He was ready to get back to the ring by 1955, but retained some of his fancy footwork skills.


This famous scene from Mel Brooks's horror comedy almost didn't make the cut. The bit was Gene Wilder's idea, but Brooks wasn't sold. "I said this tears the picture. It's much too unreal. There's no way that Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster are going to be able to perform a musical number especially Irving Berlin's 'Putting on the Ritz,'" Brooks said. But Wilder fought for it, passionately, and was interrupted by Brooks mid-argument. "I wasn't sure if it was brilliant and right or terribly wrong. I knew if you fought hard enough, it was right," he said.


In this classic film, Bob Hope depicted vaudeville star Eddie Foy while James Cagney reprised his role as George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).


Before he was a member of the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr. was part of the Will Mastin Trio. Will Mastin was a family friend, and Sammy Davis Sr., was the third member.


During a 1990 show that paid tribute to Sammy's 60 years in showbiz, Davis joined Gregory Hines onstage long enough to show that he still knew his stuff.


There are plenty of technically impressive examples of Gregory Hines's dancing out there, but this clip of his routine with Steve Martin shows that he had great comedic timing in addition to great footwork.


Though Ginger Rogers is now probably the best-known tap dancer from the classic Hollywood era, Ann Miller was technically better. At least according to her agent, who claimed she could produce 500 taps per minute. Her gold tap shoes, "Joe and Moe," have been displayed at the Smithsonian.

Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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The Ambiguous Origins of the Hokey Pokey
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey,
And you turn it all around,
That's what it's all about..."

No other song seems to symbolize a good time for people and bring smiles to their faces to quite the same extent as "The Hokey Pokey." But where did this quirky song come from? It's complicated.


In 1942, Irish songwriter and publisher Jimmy Kennedy, best known for "The Teddy Bear's Picnic," created a dance, and an instructional song to go with it, called "The Hokey Cokey."

Written to entertain Canadian troops stationed in London, the song was similar to the "Hokey Pokey" we all know today.

Composer Al Tabor was also entertaining Canadian troops in wartime London, and in 1942 he wrote a participation dance song called "The Hokey Pokey." He claims the name came from the London ice cream vendors of his youth, called "Hokey Pokey Men." The accompanying dance was very similar to Kennedy's.


In 1946, totally unaware of the British "Hokey Cokey" and "Hokey Pokey," two Scranton, Pennsylvania musicians—Robert Degan and Joe Brier—recorded "The Hokey-Pokey Dance" to entertain summer vacationers at Poconos Mountains resorts. The song was a regional favorite at dances and resorts for the rest of the 1940s, but that still isn't the song we know today.

To confuse matters even more, British bandleader Gerry Hoey also claimed to have authored a similar tune, "The Hoey Oka," in 1940.


The general belief is that Charles Mack, Taft Baker, and Larry Laprise wrote the American version of the song "The Hokey Pokey" in 1949 to entertain skiers at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. The song was a hit at the resorts, so Laprise recorded it.

The recording flopped, but Degan and Brier found out about it and sued Laprise for ripping off their "Hokey-Pokey Dance." Despite the fact that his version came out after theirs, Laprise won the rights to anything having to do with "The Hokey Pokey."

In 1953, Ray Anthony's orchestra recorded it—a double A-side single with "The Bunny Hop"—and it made it to #13 on the charts. That's the version we know today.


The origins of the song, though, go back even further. Some argue that "The Hokey Pokey" (or "Cokey") is a corruption of "hocus pocus," the familiar term used by magicians.

"Hocus pocus" derives, in turn, from a Latin line in the Catholic Mass, "Hoc corpus meum" ("This is my body"), indicating the transformation of the communion "bread" into the body of Jesus Christ.

The dance that goes along with the song—in which the participants all dance in a ring, putting the relevant arm or foot in or out, and then shaking it around—goes back a fair way, too.

Similar dances and songs were recorded in Robert Chambers's Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826); other versions have been traced to 17th-century minstrels.


But the earliest accurate record, so far, of the song we all know and love is from an account, dated 1857, of two sisters from Canterbury, England, on a trip to Bridgewater, New Hampshire. During their visit, they taught the locals a song that went something like this:

"I put my right hand in,
I put my right hand out,
I give my hand a shake, shake, shake,
And I turn myself about."

Apparently, the performance of the song—called "Right Elbow In" and several verses long—was accompanied by "appropriate gestures" and was danced with a slow, rhythmic motion.

Whether or not an earlier reference will ever be found, it seems the origins of "The Hokey Pokey" do not lie in America, as currently claimed. The song was merely imported there. The song's great popularity definitely makes it a part of Americana, however.

Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.


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