There are more than 1,500 national days to celebrate according to the National Day Calendar, but May 25 is a day to honor and celebrate the uniquely American art form that is tap dance. The brainchild of Carol Vaughn, Nicola Daval and Linda Christensen and urged by the Tap America Project, the idea was first presented to Congress in February of 1989 in coordination with the release of the film TAP. Now celebrated on May 25 in honor of legendary tap pioneer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, National Tap Dance Day was signed into American law by President George H.W. Bush on November 9, 1989. The holiday is celebrated all over the United States, and as far as away as Japan, Australia, India and Iceland.
To celebrate (and with sincere apologies and deepest reverence to The Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Sammy Davis, Jr. and so many more who don’t get a shout-out on our shortlist) we share five iconic tap dance scenes from films that we love, spanning from the 1930s all the way to 2000.
Stair Dance – The Little Colonel
What better way to kick off this list than with Mr. Bojangles himself? Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson perform their iconic stair dance in the 1935 film The Little Colonel, making history as the first interracial couple to dance on film. When Robinson was signed by 20th Century FOX to star in the film with Temple, it was decided that he would teach her how to tap and perform his signature stair dance with her. Realizing he couldn’t teach the complex moves to a seven-year-old in only a few days, he taught her how to kick the riser of each step with her toe and modified his routine to mimic her movements.
Robinson has been credited as a teacher and mentor by many performers, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Ann Miller, who said “he changed the course of my life.”
“Too Darn Hot” – Ann Miller in Kiss Me Kate
Which brings us to Ann Miller herself, who really is “Too Darn Hot” in her performance in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me Kate. Decked out in pink sequins and dancing around in heels, Miller showed the world that women could tap dance and look great doing it, too.
Famed for her fast tapping speeds, studio publicists sent out press releases claiming she could tap 500 times per minute. While that may not be true, there’s no denying that Ann was a top female tap dancer of her time, with a big, bold presence and a dazzling and gutsy style.
“Good Morning” – Singin’ in the Rain
One of the most iconic dance scenes in cinema, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelley and Donald O’Connor deliver a near-perfect tap dance number for the 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain. The scene took 15 hours to film and left Debbie Reynolds with her feet bleeding, needing to be carried back to her dressing room when they were finished. Reynolds, who was only 19 when she was cast for the film, had no previous dance experience and had only three months to learn what Kelly and O’Connor had been doing for a lifetime. With only nine cuts in more than three minutes, it’s truly impressive what this trio pulled off.
P.S. For another of Gene Kelly’s many tap dance triumphs, check out his duet with cartoon mouse Jerry in the 1945 film Anchors Away.
Gregory Hines – White Nights
Tap had a resurgence in the 80s, and Gregory Hines was a big part of that. One of the most celebrated tap dancers of all time, Hines brought tap dancing into the future, changing the image of the tap dancer and creating dances that were unpolished and free flowing. He danced to modern music and shattered the traditional foursquare tempos. In the 1985 film White Nights, Hines plays an American defector to the Soviet Union opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is a Russian defector to the United States. As his biography in the Library of Congress explains, “the furious propulsions of Hines’ dancing in White Nights demonstrated how his improvised rhythm dancing had no musical, physical, or metaphorical boundaries – it was a profound dramatic expression and defiant act of freedom that allowed audiences to experience an overpowering surge of exhilaration.”
Watch Hines’ dance with Baryshnikov here.
“A Town Called Malice” – Billy Elliot
We wanted to include a more modern film with a great tap number, and Billy Elliot ticked all the boxes. Released in 2000, but set in 1984, Billy Elliot is the story of an 11-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer, despite his family’s objections and the negative stereotypes associated with being a male ballet dancer. The film shows Billy using dance to express himself and deal with his emotions, and in this scene, tap is the chosen dance medium to express his anger. Scraping his hands across bricks, kicking his feet off railings and tapping with his shirt over his head, the performance is interspersed with humor and raw emotion.