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.
1. BILL "BOJANGLES" ROBINSON IN THE LITTLE COLONEL(1935)
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:
2. THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS IN STORMY WEATHER (1943)
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.
3. FRED ASTAIRE AND ELEANOR POWELL IN BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 (1940)
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.”
4. SAVION GLOVER PERFORMING LIVE
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.
5. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN IN PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
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.
6. GENE KELLY WITH SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
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.
7. THE TAP DANCE FROM YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
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.
8. BOB HOPE AND JAMES CAGNEY IN THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS (1955)
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).
9. SAMMY DAVIS JR
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.
10. SAMMY DAVIS JR. AND GREGORY HINES
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.
11. GREGORY HINES ON STEVE MARTIN'S BEST SHOW EVER (1981)
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.
12. ANN MILLER IN KISS ME KATE(1953)
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.