There are different brands of shoes which sometimes differ in the way they sound. "Soft-shoe" is a rhythm form of tap dancing that does not require special shoes, and though rhythm is generated by tapping of the feet, it also uses sliding of the feet (even sometimes using scattered sand on the stage to enhance the sound of sliding feet) more often than modern rhythm tap. It preceded what is currently considered to be modern tap, but has since declined in popularity.
Tap dance has its roots in the fusion of several ethnic percussive dances, including African tribal dances, English clog dancing and Irish jigs; the relative contribution of different traditions is a point of disagreement among historians and dance scholars. Tap dance is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. Famous as Master Juba, William Henry Lane became one of the few black performers to join an otherwise white minstrel troupe, and is widely considered to be one of the most famous forebears of tap dance.
As the minstrel shows began to decline in popularity, tap dance moved to the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage. Due to the two-colored rule, which forbade black people from performing solo, the majority of Vaudeville tap acts were duets. This gave rise to the famous pair "Buck and Bubbles", which consisted of John "Bubbles" Sublett tap dancing and Ford "Buck" Washington on piano. The duo perfected the "class act", a routine in which the performers wore impeccable tuxedos, which has since become a common theme in tap dance. The move is seen by some as a rebuttal to the older minstrel show idea of the tap dancer as a "grinning-and-dancing clown." John "Bubbles" Sublett is also known famously for popularizing rhythm tap which incorporates more percussive heel drops and lower-body movements.
Another notable figure to emerge during this period is Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who was a protégé of Alice Whitman of the Whitman Sisters around 1904 (then 'Willie Robinson'). Well-versed in both Buck and Wing dancing and Irish stepdancing, Bill Robinson joined the vaudeville circuit in 1902, in a duo with George W. Cooper. The act quickly became famous, headlining events across the country, and touring England as well. In 1908, however, the two had an altercation, and the partnership was ended. Gambling on his popularity, Robinson decided to form a solo act, which was extremely rare for a black man at that time. Despite this, he had tremendous success and soon became a world-famous celebrity. He went on to have a leading role in many films, notably in movies starring Shirley Temple.
Shortly thereafter, the Nicholas Brothers came on the scene. Consisting of real-life brothers Fayard and Harold, this team wowed audiences with their acrobatic feats incorporated into their classy style of dancing. They never looked less than suave and were always in total control of their dancing, even in childhood numbers such as Stormy Weather. A notable scene in the movie Stormy Weather features the pair dancing up a staircase and then descending the staircase in a series of leapfrogs over each other into a full split from which they rise without using their hands.