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“What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” – The New Yorker

“What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” – The New Yorker


Up from the Hold


The story of tap.


At tap’s high tide, the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, tap was everywhere: in movies, in the theatre, and above all in clubs. Illustration by Simone Massoni

Tap, which is the dance form of jazz music, has been around more or less since the late nineteenth century, but, unlike jazz, which has been the subject of many deep-browed books, it has a small, mediocre literature. There have been some valuable works—biographies and memoirs, collections of interviews, even a few histories—but never a volume that did the real heavy lifting: critical, analytical, historical, comprehensive.
It’s not hard to see why. Dance itself, because it mostly went unrecorded, was little studied in a serious way, and there was no reason that tap should have been an exception. Indeed, there are many reasons that it should have been the worst served. First, it is a peculiar form, in that it is both movement and music. Most other kinds of dance can be described as being performed to the music, but tap, like other foot-stamping forms—flamenco, Irish step dancing, most Indian classical dance—also makes its own music. Even if there’s a pianist onstage, or a whole orchestra, the most important sound at any tap concert is the one being made by the dancer’s feet. And that sensory doubleness, sight combined with sound, makes for a psychological-aesthetic doubleness. We get an abstract art, music, wedded to a narrative art, the story that is inescapably there whenever a human body places itself before us.
Then, there is tap’s history, the fact that it was created by extremely poor people, Irish and West African, in a place that they came to not because they wanted to be there—that is, here—but because in their own lands either they were starving or they had been captured and converted into salable property. I know of no account of the origins of tap that does not include the story that, during the voyage from Africa, slaves were periodically brought up from the ship’s hold and forced to dance on the deck. They were worth money now, and the physical exercise helped keep them from dying. Imagine what this meant. Commanded to dance, they did routines that, maybe just a month or two earlier, had been part of the observance of their religion, or the celebration of a feast day, or an expression of their relationship to their grandparents. Now the purpose of the dance was simply to put them through their paces, as if they were dogs or horses. They must have wanted, in some measure, to impress their captors, in order to be better treated. They must also have been ashamed of that wish, and wondered why they didn’t throw themselves overboard. Anyone who hears this story will feel the burden of grief and humiliation that was built into tap at its birth.
Honi Coles, the distinguished “class act” tapper, once said that when Bill (Bojangles) Robinson was making movies in the nineteen-thirties with Shirley Temple—films in which, some people later claimed, this great star was pushed into Uncle Tomism—he was the happiest man in the world. “Part of it was the generosity that black entertainers showed to whites,” Coles said. “We were so happy somebody wanted what we did, we were ready just to give it away.”
Today’s black choreographers are not so ready. In New York, Donald Byrd, a prominent African-American choreographer, recently presented a piece, “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” that links nineteenth-century minstrelsy—which was a breeding ground of tap and also the ancestor of some of black America’s most brilliant comedy (Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle)—with the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
This tangle of emotions—who wants to take it on? And who wants to anger as many people as any book on tap will do, no matter what it says? (Some people still don’t want to hear that Irish step dancing contributed to tap, which it unquestionably did.) But forget the politics. What about the technical matters—the question of when a dancer will drop his heel, and how much he’s working from the side of the foot rather than from the middle? That’s not to speak of the range of musical choices. Really, in order to write a book on this subject, a person would almost have to be not just a dance critic but a tap dancer.
That book has now been published—“What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The author, Brian Seibert, is a dance critic for the Times. (He also contributes to Goings On About Town, in The New Yorker.) He is a tap dancer; he never went pro, but he has studied for most of his life. The book took him more than ten years to write.
One problem that he had to contend with was the unvarnished racism of much of the historical material. Because he is white, he might have spent the whole book shaking a compensatory fist or—more likely—walking on eggshells. He doesn’t. Now and then, he utters a cry of indignation. There are also certain injustices—no greater, I would say, than other injustices—that seem to be recorded, however quietly, on every page. (Again and again, Seibert notes the instances in which routines created by black dancers were credited to other people. He can’t get over it. He himself is an artist—he writes beautiful prose and is a crackerjack storyteller—and he can’t stand to see artists go unacknowledged.) But, in general, he states the facts dispassionately: the Vegas casinos where the tappers who performed there couldn’t get a room or eat, the critics complaining if a dancer seemed to them to show an insufficiently “Negro” spirit, the artists’ complicity, performing as the Three Little Dots or Two Real Coons. Seibert doesn’t tell us to get mad about these things. He lets us get mad by ourselves.
It’s hard to know which of Seibert’s dance portraits to spotlight, because there are so many wonderful ones. Should it be John Bubbles (1902-86), who Seibert and a lot of other commentators think was one of the greatest tap dancers on record? (George Gershwin chose him to create the role of Sportin’ Life, in “Porgy and Bess.”) It is an unlooked-for gift that “What the Eye Hears” was published in the age of YouTube, which offers thrilling footage of many of the early-twentieth-century performers, including Bubbles. (See the video labelled “Buck and Bubbles . . .Varsity Show.”) As Seibert points out, we don’t have to take his word for it. Or should one focus on Jimmy Slyde (1927-2008), the bebop master whom Seibert saw while he was still in his prime, and whom he clearly adored? Whoever the dancer, the book’s emphasis is on technical achievement and musical invention—that is, on art. Many people, including dance critics, have often thought of tap as something that people with a certain skill just got up there and did, in order to have, and give us, a good time. Seibert digs down into the particulars. Slyde, he says, used his shoulders the way other people use their eyebrows. Bubbles used the thump of the foot to “emphasize offbeat accents and to ground his more complex syncopations afforded by the tempo.”
Seibert also brings in the matter of personality—charisma and charm, which are crucial matters in tap—and he has some fun with people who were short on it. (Of Eleanor Powell: “Like many performers of her time, Powell habitually affected a pose of ecstatic pleasure, head back and mouth open. In some close-ups, she looks ready to eat the camera.”) He does not give a lot of biographical information, and, alas, he runs shy of scandal, but some improprieties sneak in, by way of explaining artistic matters. Baby Laurence (1921-74), whom the old tappers viewed as a master, was not recorded on film during his superb middle years, because his heroin addiction was such that he could never get it together to be in a show. His best performances, Seibert says, were given on the sidewalk, “cutting” (doing a challenge dance) with his colleague Groundhog, in front of Minton’s Playhouse, the famous club in Harlem. “The dealers liked to watch them,” their friend Miles Davis said. “They gave them shit for free if they got down.”
Seibert does not disrespect Baby Laurence for this. Indeed, he sees something good in just about every dancer he writes about. I am talking here not about charity, merely judiciousness. He has a few adjustments to make to great reputations, for example, that of Fred Astaire, who is so often described as perfect. He doesn’t love Gene Kelly—“In the age of swing, he seldom swung”—though he calls Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number imperishable (“that wet face, stretching into rain as if to bask in sun”). At the same time, he considers Donald O’Connor “the age’s most underrated dancer.” One performer showed this little grace; another took a step just a certain way. If Seibert betrays any identifiable bias, it’s toward women. That’s O.K. by me. Many male tappers, black and white, have taken female tappers less than seriously.

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One job Seibert gave himself was to trace a clear historical arc, and he does that. Through the meeting of Irish and West African people trying to enjoy themselves on a Saturday night—often together, in the same dance halls—the thing we call tap dance emerged, with its special technique and, as it grew alongside jazz, its special rhythmic qualities. At its high tide, the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, tap was everywhere: in movies, in musicals, in vaudeville, and above all in clubs. Then something happened. People in the field speak of an actual moment when the change occurred: the death of Bill Robinson. On the day of Robinson’s funeral, in 1949, the schools in Harlem closed at noon. Three thousand people crowded into the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and thousands more stood outside. Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy. After that, as the speed tapper Buster Brown (1913-2002) put it, “Bang. No more jobs.”
Of course, the economic drain was not because of Robinson. He was seventy-two; he had a right to die. But many factors converged. In Broadway shows, the fashion changed from tap acts to “dream ballets.” (Seibert says that Agnes de Mille, the leading popularizer of the dream ballet, was sometimes spoken of in the community as “the Woman Who Killed Tap.”) As for television, jobs were few, and usually ill-paid. Seibert writes that Honi Coles’s partner, Cholly Atkins, “remembered that the top fee for an act like Coles and Atkins was a hundred-fifty dollars an episode—which, after the agent’s cut, bought some groceries.” But Broadway and television were small matters compared with the closing of the night clubs. People didn’t go to clubs anymore—they stayed home and watched TV. Popular music changed, too, from tap-friendly jazz to rock and roll. Atkins took a job choreographing routines for Motown groups. He taught the Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas, how to move. Other men got work as janitors or hotel clerks, or they drank.
Then, in the seventies, a number of white female tappers—the most important were Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg—decided that tap had to be saved. They pulled these discouraged men out of their living rooms and organized festivals where tap could once again be performed and taught. Seibert can be very funny about how the women ran around getting the old tappers their meds and drove them to their appointments, and how, at the teaching sessions, the woman often got the job of explaining how a step should be done, at which point the great man, from his chair, might correct her, in front of the class.
Those women should be honored, but what tap needed, in addition to classes and festivals, was a big star. Soon he came: Gregory Hines (1946-2003), the son of a jazz drummer and, with his brother Maurice, part of a child tap act. For a time, Hines wanted to be a rock guitarist, and a hippie, but finally he was willing to be a tap dancer, and, with his affability and his virility and his tank tops, everyone fell in love with him. He starred in big-time musicals—“Eubie!” (1979), “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981), “Jelly’s Last Jam” (1992), getting Tony Award nominations for all three—and in movies, including “The Cotton Club” (1984), “White Nights” (1985), and “Tap” (1989). In “White Nights,” he did an extended competition dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov, choreographed by Twyla Tharp. It was “difficult to choose which one to watch, which shade of cool to savor,” Seibert writes. “For Hines to hold his own against the man justly considered the greatest dancer in the world—that said something about Hines. For a tap dancer, and a black one, to be framed as an equal to ballet’s prince—that said something about tap, and where Hines might take it.” But Hines died young, at fifty-seven, of liver cancer.
The mantle passed to Hines’s foremost protégé, Savion Glover, and one of the most interesting things in “What the Eye Hears” is to watch Seibert try to sort out his feelings about Glover’s influence on today’s tap. Glover, now forty-one, is certainly the most accomplished tap technician living—probably the most accomplished who ever lived. (Hines never reached Glover’s level.) Seibert credits him for that, but then wonders whether such extreme concentration on technique is good for the field, or even for the art. Glover has drilled deeper and deeper into sound, but tap is other things besides sound. It is charm and suavity and wit. Indeed, it is silence as well as sound. (Bill Robinson used long, long pauses.) Glover tends to see himself and a few others, legatees of certain approved elders, as “the Last HooFeRz standing,” with the right to dictate how tap should be done.
This goes directly against Seibert’s primary emphasis, which is inclusiveness, a welcoming attitude, a love of things mixing up together. He must be the world’s most enthusiastic multiculturalist. Syncopation, he says, was a creed that Irving Berlin, “as a Jewish immigrant whose family had fled Russian pogroms, . . . had learned from a Negro ragtime pianist in New York’s Chinatown at a dive called Nigger Mike’s. (Mike was also a Russian Jew.)” It’s not just cultures that Seibert likes to see mix. Leonard Reed, a light-skinned tapper, and later an important producer—he claimed to have invented the Shim Sham, a simple heel-toe combination that became a sort of anthem of tap—was born in a tepee in Oklahoma. Seibert writes, “His mother was Choctaw Cherokee, and her great-grandfather was black. As for his father, Reed said that he was ‘white and Irish or something.’ ” That, to Seibert, is the way tap is, and should be.
If this attitude is one of the book’s beauties, it is also the source of what I think is its one serious fault, which is that it includes too much. (It is more than five hundred pages long.) The small tap groups of the seventies and eighties are not compelling enough to merit the space that Seibert gives them. The same goes for his coverage of tap outside the United States. The tap dancers of Estonia: I wish them well, but until they do something of note I don’t need to read about them. Nevertheless, since there is so little prior literature, you can understand Seibert’s wish to be thorough. Also—a common problem with heavily researched books—he found out things he couldn’t bear not to use. (Tap hasn’t caught on in Africa! Hitler loved Fred Astaire!)
But, if some modern tappers are not fascinating to read about, others are—for example, the virtuoso Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, now thirty-seven years old. In the late nineteen-nineties, Savion Glover, unaccustomed at that point to choreographing for women, put her in his show “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” though he had her dressed as a boy. Another person of interest is Michelle Dorrance, thirty-six years old, whose mother was a ballet dancer and whose father is the coach of the University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer team. Dorrance is ambitious. She’s had her own company for four years, and she creates ensemble choreography, not a specialty of tap soloists. Seibert feels that she has also extended the art psychologically. Tap has long been said to have a narrow subjective field: wit, joy, slyness. Dorrance’s choreography, Seibert writes, widens the territory, laying bare “emotions hidden in the mechanics of tap technique, revealing how swiveling ankles reveal tender parts.” This year, she won a MacArthur Fellowship. If tap is to survive, these people need to be written about.
Tap is in a strange place: very often, when it is used, it is not just an artistic medium, a language, but also—automatically, almost—a subject. It refers to itself, as a focus of nostalgia or historical meditation or something else. This has been true of almost all tap movies since the eighties, and of the most popular tap musicals, such as “42nd Street” (1980) and “Bring in ’da Noise.” Another example is coming to Broadway in April: “Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which is a reprise of a fabled all-black revue. Created by the same men who made “Bring in ’da Noise,” Glover and George C. Wolfe, it will, like that production, tell us about tap as well as show it. This is a road that tap cannot go down forever. It makes the art too inverted, too limited, and it offers too few jobs. For tap to move forward, there has to be some replacement for the clubs of the old days, and I don’t know where that will come from. I guess the form could be kept alive by grants and private patronage, like ballet and modern dance, but it is not as popular as ballet, or even modern dance.
It could die. Other genres that were once central to Western art have dropped off the shelf—epic poetry, commedia dell’arte, verse drama, the masque—and, if this list were expanded to include Asia, it would be much longer. Japan’s venerable puppetry traditions—Bunraku, Awaji—exist only because they are funded by the government. The classic dance forms of India, from what I am told by some of their more conservative practitioners, have almost no audience outside the festivals. The same could happen to tap. In that case, it will go down in the history books as a marvellous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions, mostly in the twentieth century. And Seibert’s book will serve as a noble testimonial. ♦

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Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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