Tap Dancing: An Afro-Irish Fusion


United States

Identity & Belonging Media & Culture

Tap dance is a uniquely American dance form established through the fusion of West African and Irish traditional dances. It is the product of cultural exchange between enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants dating back to the 1600s.

At this time, thousands of Irish were exiled to the colonial English islands in the Caribbean during the Thirteen Year War, along with Africans who were brought over as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (see also: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Largest forced migration in history,1790-1808). Enslaved Africans and indentured Irish found themselves working side-by-side on English-owned tobacco plantations.

The Irish and Africans brought traditions of music, dance, and storytelling to the Americas, paving the way for cultural exchange and transformation. Enslaved Africans adapted religious dance rituals to life on the plantation. In the 1740s, when new slave laws banned the use of drums (for fear they would lead to an uprising), Africans transferred rhythms to their hands and feet. The Irish combined their step and clogging styles with African dances, and the two collided in a form called “jigging.” These dances also developed a competitive element, contributing to both rivalries and camaraderie. The evolution of tap continued throughout the 1800s and 1900s and migrated to the Northeast.

Following the 1845 potato famine in Ireland and the subsequent wave of Irish migration (see also: The Second Wave: Irish and German immigration,1848-1870), Irish and African-Americans found themselves working side-by-side once again on railroads and canals. The influence of Latin American rhythms and hip-hop in the twentieth century further contributed to the development, complexity, and transcultural-nature of the popular American dance form.