"Tap Dancing: Reports of Our Death Have Been Grossly Exaggerated" by Margaret Morrison
SEPTEMBER 18, 2016
THE LAST FEW YEARS have been an astounding time for tap dance. Michelle Dorrance won the MacArthur Genius Grant in recognition of her extraordinary tap choreography, while powerhouse Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, along with Dorrance and other tap artists nabbed several New York Dance and Performance Awards (the Oscars of the NYC dance scene), and George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s Broadway envisioning of Shuffle Along garnered 10 Tony nominations. Rhythm tap artists appear regularly at Jazz at Lincoln Center and the form has infiltrated music videos, most notably Chloe Arnold’s viral take of Beyoncé’s “Formation”: 13 million views, and counting. Scholar Constance Valis Hill’s tap research database is now free to all on the Library of Congress website. It’s an encyclo-tap-edia of thousands of entries, available at the click of a finger. Tap dance, that most accessible of dance forms, has not been this easy to access in many decades. And the work is good. Elder stateswomen and young visionaries alike are dancing with stellar technique, breaking new creative ground, and reaching internet-age audiences. But if you read Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), you may get the impression that tap dance is dying.
Tap has a small body of formal scholarship compared to ballet, modern dance, or tap’s sister form of jazz music and the release of a new history was eagerly awaited by scholars and fans alike. Seibert, a dance writer and amateur tap dancer, has made a name for himself as a specialist in the field through his New Yorker pieces and dance reviews in The New York Times. What the Eye Hears is his first book and he proves himself a meticulous researcher, filling over 500 pages with colorful characters, events, and a kaleidoscope of tap artistry, gleaned from thousands of fragments, some glittering, some odious. The 400-year story of percussive dance starts with the first meetings of enslaved West Africans and immigrants from the British Isles on American soil, moves through the development of tap in the 19th century in minstrelsy and vaudeville, details 20th-century stars and unknowns alike in jazz-era nightclubs and Hollywood, examines postwar decline and late-century resurgence, ending in the 21st century, seemingly weeks before the book went to press. While the writing sparkles, the underlying structure, the way Seibert tells the story of tap is retrograde. The author problematically supports his anecdotes with his own sharp critique and popular culture narratives. As Seibert repeats racially charged epithets, or aesthetic condemnations based in white-dominant society, or sexist statements rooted in tired ideas of jazz authenticity, he routinely fails to put biased pronouncements from 1790 or 1890 or 1990 into their historical or cultural context. What the Eye Hears is not a history of tap at all. It is a retelling of what people have said about tap.
Tap has delighted fans for generations. Audiences fill seats of Broadway musicals and local concert halls. Devotees troll the internet for beloved old movie clips. Kids and adults cram the floors of dancing schools. Professionals do this also, while recognizing that as soon those shoes are laced up, a tap dancer steps directly into the United States’s racial history. Systems of oppression and restricted opportunity in the United States have influenced — even determined — every era of tap dance. Seibert instructs his reader to avoid essentialisms and consider the socially constructed idea of race, but he ignores endemic racism and uses his prodigious skills as a wordsmith to recreate supremacist structures. While Seibert does include many female tap dancers in his history, the book marginalizes women’s contributions — a standard tactic in jazz writing that traditionally has privileged male artistry. Ultimately, What the Eye Hears perpetuates the worn-out idea that tap dance is a dying form. Untrue, Mr. Seibert. As contemporary tap artists can tell you: Reports of our death have been grossly exaggerated.
Tap dance emerged out of minstrelsy and its entwinement with this history grows clear when you stop to think that “Jim Crow” was originally a stock minstrel character of the happy, dancing black man. Tap dance historians must contend with multiple complexities, what scholar Eric Lott in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993) calls “the terrible pleasures” of minstrelsy. From the 1840s, white men in blackface and black men in blackface developed a massively entertaining form based in virtuosic foot techniques and rhythmic innovations. Buck-and-wing and soft shoe — the 19th-century predecessors of 20th-century tap — evolved within a setting of ethnic humor, appropriation, and exploitation. The seemingly dimwitted Sambo with articulate feet danced on every minstrel stage, in every city, town, and country carnival, reinforcing the argument that blacks required the “civilizing influence” of enslavement and white rule.
Minstrel performers brought to the stage a 19th-century rhythmic blend that originated in two dancing cultures that met at the United States’s black-white color line. From the 1600s through the 1800s, the juba, ring shout, and other secular and religious step dancing of enslaved Africans and free blacks interacted with the jig, reel, and clog dancing of indentured servants and immigrants from the British Isles. Constance Valis Hill, in Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2009), offers the term “Afro-Irish fusion” to describe the hybridization of West African body movements and rhythms with Anglo-Irish footwork techniques, noting that the idea of fusion neither equalizes the contributions of Irish and African Americans, nor privileges one over the other. Seibert ignores Hill’s and Lott’s scholarship and broadly dismisses the current body of research in pre-20th-century dance and minstrelsy. He offers his own interpretations, many of which fall flat. “Blackface minstrelsy was and was not about black people,” he writes, demonstrating a lack of awareness of the way minstrelsy’s degrading depictions of blacks pervaded every level of US culture and informed a nation at war with itself over how to define blackness and whiteness. Seibert collapses the multiply-signifying performances of the black dancing body, or the white embodiment of Africanist dance forms, into one-dimensional meanings, warning that minstrelsy is not “simple racial denigration,” while overlooking that de-nigr-ation (blackening) in the United States is anything but simple.
African-American, feminist scholar bell hooks writes that black men are victimized by stereotypes “that were first articulated in the nineteenth century but hold sway over the minds and imaginations of citizens of this nation in the present day” (We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, 2004). She could be referring to African-American tap dance stars when she notes, “the price of visibility in the contemporary world of white supremacy is that black male identity be defined in relation to the stereotype whether by embodying it or seeking to be other than it.” The tap dancing “class acts” of the early 20th century used cool elegance, sharp clothing, and virtuosic footwork to counter the image of what hooks summarizes as the supposed “untamed, uncivilized, unthinking, and unfeeling” black brute. Today, the public identifies this sophistication with Fred Astaire, who was just one in a long line of black and white class acts, and one of the few who had control of the camera that recorded his artistry. Throughout What the Eye Hears, Seibert fails to attend to the power structures at work or the motives of those who held the pen or camera. In 1935, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson hit international fame as the affable, dancing “Uncle,” a role it must be noted that Robinson did not play on Broadway or vaudeville. The myth of the childlike but competent Uncle Tom, the faithful retainer of the “Old South,” assured whites in the 1860s and 1930s of “simpler” times when blacks “knew their place.” Seibert rejects the idea that Hollywood needed this race casting to ensure the sale of movies to the Southern market, and wonders how anyone could feel “threatened by a snowy-haired black caretaker.” Seibert misses the point that Robinson negotiated his fame within an industry that promoted him precisely because he could embody their vision of a non-threatening black man.
Gregory Hines, unlike his forebears, promoted tap dance by being a sexy charmer. Seibert makes much of this, but again seems not to recognize the racialized constructions of masculinity involved. Hines’s movie Tap (1989) opens with him dancing in a prison cell, anticipating the arguments made by Michelle Alexander about mass incarceration in what she calls the era of The New Jim Crow (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010). Seibert unwittingly perpetuates ideas of the criminal black body by framing the 1950s bebop tap artistry of Baby Laurence and Teddy Hale with repeated comments about their jail time.
Seibert traces the formative years of tap dance, from minstrelsy to ragtime, with a wealth of details on the blacks and whites, women and men, who jigged, clogged, ragged, and tapped the Mobile Buck. The music of these dancing feet, though, is strangely silent. There is little reference to the rhythmic revolution danced by these hoofing and soft-shoeing bodies, who very likely initiated the swing groove that contributed to the birth of jazz. Instead, what the eye hears in these chapters is predominantly the n-word, repeated dozens of times in as many pages, or “coon,” used 10 times in a single page. Seibert explains the words “carried a different charge” depending on who was using them yet seems blithely unaware of the impact of his own use, often without quotation marks or a frame of reference. As black lesbian social critic Audre Lorde wrote, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (published in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984); but in Seibert’s attempts to illustrate the racial milieu, he eagerly unearths the master’s tools — racial epithets — and rebuilds the house of white supremacy with a new, 21st-century platform for racist language.
Seibert also quotes snarky or negative reporting about tap, sometimes racially charged, sometimes misogynist, like a musical coda or the two-bar break that concludes every traditional tap dance phrase. The negative reviews and racialized commentary on Leticia Jay’s Tap Happenings illustrate his use of historic evidence. Jay’s 1960s productions pulled older tap men out of retirement and laid the groundwork for the Tap Renaissance of the following decades. The section opens with a New York Times review of the great dancer Chuck Green alongside Leticia Jay, but using his own voice he seems to agree with reviews that “unfavorably contrasted Green’s ease with her self-indulgent straining.” Insulting a pioneering woman who danced with his beloved male hoofers, he describes Jay, with her hair in an Afro, as “a minstrel Black Panther.” John Bubbles, who had revolutionized tap rhythms and technique in the 1920s by abandoning buck-and-wing phrasing and footwork, also loses out in this scene. In 1967, the headliner opted out of the scruffy Tap Happenings and appeared instead with show biz royalty — Judy Garland — at the Palace Theatre, the site of his former triumphs. Seibert provides a backhanded jab again via The New York Times, who described Bubbles as “a veteran trouper from the uncomplicated, naive, pre-Stokely Carmichael era.” In the next sentence, Seibert wheels Bubbles off the tap dance stage on a gurney, noting that after his “quaint” shows at the Palace, the father of rhythm tap suffered a stroke and never danced again.
Seibert’s narration swoops into the middle of tap scenes and eyes fascinating tap dance tidbits. Then, much like a seagull, he flaps sand in our eyes and poops on the way out. Eloquently. All over tap dance history. While his formula of setting up dance targets and lobbing negative critiques is certainly an accepted practice in his day job as a New York Times dance reviewer, a historian has a higher responsibility. By positioning commentators of the past as accurate informants, their racism, misogyny, and other biases get the last word, again and again, unaccompanied by any hint of their worldview. (Imagine a history of Obama’s presidency, written a hundred years from now, using only the information from Fox News). Seibert neglects to provide footnotes for large sections of writing and fails to place his research in conversation with what scholars of the last 25 years have said about tap dance — or for that matter, about minstrelsy, jazz cultural studies, popular dance, theater, American pop culture, African-American studies, critical race theory, or feminism. He neither acknowledges nor honestly refutes Hill’s Tap Dancing America, the first 21st-century comprehensive history of tap, and dismisses dance historian and biographer Jacqui Malone as a “ghost writer.” Seibert can be commended for fresh narratives based on the original interview notes made by Marshall and Jean Stearns for their seminal work Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968). But he casts Jean Stearns as her husband’s stenographer, not as a jazz authority and co-author in her own right.
My recommendation to readers interested in tap dance is to skip the first third and last third of the tome. When Brian Seibert is good, he’s very, very good. And when he’s bad, he’s horrid. Read the charming “Opening Act,” the author’s spot-on account of holding his own at Buster Brown’s Crazy Tap Jam while Savion Glover and his acolytes tear up the floor. Then jump over three centuries of early history and start with the delightful section on Jazz Age New York City. Poignant and exciting, finally the musicality of the tap dancing jumps off the page. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Seibert revels in the glamour of jazz virtuosity with a cornucopia of big stars and lesser-knowns, including black and white women tap soloists and chorus dancers who hoofed in nightclubs and early TV, and obscure tap choreographers who toiled behind the scenes of hit shows and movie musicals.
These sections succeed for the exact reason the beginning and end sections fail: Seibert allows dancers and jazz musicians to report on tap artistry. He meticulously mines the wealth of interviews and oral histories archived by the Smithsonian and the Institute of Jazz Studies, weaving a multitude of voices into a compelling and nuanced narrative about the improvisational bebop artistry of Hale and Laurence. A midcentury chapter is aptly titled “Before the Fall,” because the work makes clear that only a handful of artists belong in Seibert’s concept of paradise. When he cites established white writers like John Martin, dean of The New York Times dance criticism, the critiques are positioned in service to their favorite dancers, including the enormously popular Paul Draper, who tap danced in concert halls to classical music before his career was cut short by the McCarthy blacklist. Seibert superbly delineates Astaire’s unstaunched Hollywood creativity and provides a fascinating discussion of Astaire and Bubbles at the intersection of tap’s segregated worlds, raising “perennial questions of imitation and theft.” Even the author’s outright dislike of Gene Kelly, who “didn’t advance the art of tap on film so much as preside over its eclipse,” cannot dampen the love-fest.
The remainder of Seibert’s history is underpinned by ideas from old authenticity wars that have raged throughout writings on popular dance and music since the beginnings of African-American cultural forms — traditional narratives that have dismissed tap and jazz as low art, lacking rigor or history. Proponents of bebop managed to wrest jazz from minstrelsy by elevating the music as an aural form, rather than visual, complex instead of commercial. Scholar Jayna Brown, in Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (2008), points out that official histories maneuver jazz into the “art” category by distancing it from the bodies of black women. Jazz authenticity has long been promoted as manly and straight, with white authors defining manliness in racialized terms. Seibert aligns his story with jazz’s master narrative and employs the alchemy established by the Stearnses of positioning the golden legacy of midcentury jazz tap artistry above the dross of all the female bodies and effeminate (read gay) Broadway tap that followed.
The women of the Tap Renaissance — the resurgence of tap artistry of the 1970s to the present — picked up where the bebop artistry of their mentors left off. A new breed of female choreographers and soloists collaborated with live musicians (a rarity on the modern dance concert stage) and created new polyrhythmic compositions for tap dancing bodies and jazz music. Twenty-first century solo improvisers and ensemble choreographers alike are still working the artistic ground broken by these women, but Seibert is uninterested. The surging thrill of the Jazz Era is gone and Seibert turns mean with flaccid descriptions of women who could be considered his tap mothers and grandmothers: Brenda Bufalino (Bufalino was my teacher and I performed in her company, the American Tap Dance Orchestra), Jane Goldberg, Lynn Dally, Dianne Walker, Anita Feldman, Linda Sohl-Donnell, Heather Cornell, and others. He notes that “Bufalino struggled against preconceptions of female performers over forty,” while recreating the exact same environment of dismissive distain. Once again, the eye does not hear Bufalino’s unique musical concept of orchestral tap. Instead, Seibert claims that she gets in the way of her art with an ungainly body style and “perfunctory” floor patterns. Another lauded woman soloist is noted only for her weight. The “brightly vanilla,” “chipper” ensemble of a younger female choreographer “came together haphazardly” and receives a patronizing compliment that her shows were best at maintaining “the spirit of the old guys.” One tap composer is known for her “gimmick” and “art school exercises,” another for works that are not “of the highest originality, invention or poetry.” Another artist “never improved as a performer,” and her leadership and choreography on the concert stage is described as a “tap subculture,” as if decades of tap innovation amount to crashers at someone else’s party.
Seibert insists that “the place of women in tap persisted as a question” throughout the 1980s and ’90s, obscuring the fact that prominent arts presenters, the older generation of tap dancers, audiences, and even many critics applauded their concert work. Instead, Seibert again positions reviews out of context and offers a fresh platform for racist aesthetic condemnations like Arlene Croce’s 1980s critique of women tap dancers and their “low-primate stuff.” While Seibert discusses the artistry of a few younger African-American women in his later chapters, particularly Ayodele Casel and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, he excludes key black tap dancing women of the last 30 years — Mercedes Ellington, Germaine Goodson, Karen Callaway Williams — and marginalizes choreographers like Deborah Mitchell and Germaine Ingram, who are mentioned only as the protégés of older hoofers.
Seibert’s repeated racisms and dismissal of women’s work, interspersed with some very fine writing, kind of mimic all those B-musicals that are unwatchable now except for a few minutes of good tap dancing. But his erudite biases do the greatest disservice by misleading the reader toward his erroneous — however meticulously researched and lovingly detailed — funeral knell: tap is dead, tap is dead, tap is dead. The stench of tap’s purportedly decomposing corpse hangs over every chapter as the grim reapers of heroin, heart disease, and HUAC scythe down all the really good male talent, leaving a bunch of middle-aged tap mothers who embarrass Seibert and disappear from his story by late century, despite the fact that all of these black and white women continue to perform, choreograph, produce, teach, and lead to this day.
Seibert’s last pages whine about the younger generation of 21st-century artists — “why can’t they use their bodies with fuller and more articulate expressiveness […] why can’t they be more poetically suggestive and structurally sophisticated?” — as if hammering nails into what he sees as tap’s coffin. Every major reviewer of What the Eye Hears has jumped on the idea of tap as a dying art form, writing gleeful eulogies. True, tap dance does not have the large audiences that ballet, jazz music, or hip-hop-inspired dance styles enjoy. It also doesn’t have the financial support available to these forms. The 21st-century arts economy has dealt brutal blows of paltry arts funding and skyrocketing real estate, making it almost impossible for young professionals and established companies to afford housing, rehearsal space, or concert production. This means little to Seibert, who paints a world where tap dancers passively accept their lot, when in fact, the form has responded to artistic, social, and economic challenges with breathtaking creativity.
The question remains: For whom is Seibert writing? Not really for the casual reader, at 500 pages, nor for the tap dance fan, who can tire of the densely detailed early history before the fun stuff starts. Not for the professional tap dancer: Seibert manages to disparage or misrepresent the majority of current mentors and innovators. I cannot recommend the book for high school or college students unless instructors spend valuable class time providing context for an overuse of hate speech that serves little purpose in elucidating the history. Fellow researchers and graduate students are left in the dark with Seibert’s refusal to thoroughly cite sources or place his ideas in conversation with current scholarship. What the Eye Hears reads like the book Seibert may have wished for when he was a gawky Los Angeles kid following his sister to tap class. The smart teen who falls in love with tap, wants to find out every little detail, and doesn’t feel the need to examine his own participation in the United States’s power structures.
So, au contraire, Mr. Seibert. Tap is not dying. Far from it. If tap dancers know anything, it is how to roll with bad economic times and changing tastes. We keep putting on our shoes and making music with our feet. Tap dance certainly won’t be stopped by some bad press.
Margaret Morrison, MFA, is a rhythm tap soloist, choreographer, dance scholar, and playwright whose performance and research projects explore race, gender, and sexuality in tap dance history. You can see her work at www.MargaretMorrison.com.
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