Book Review: “What The Eye Hears” — Putting the Wrong Foot First
Brian Seibert’s history of tap dancing has unleashed something I can only describe as a tap world pissing contest.
What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 612 pages, $35
By Debra Cash
The pre-publication postcard was startling. The front heralded a new volume I was sure to want to read, a terrific title for a tap dance book illustrated with a black and white photo of tuxedo pant legs and shimmering shoes (Bojangles Robinson’s? Astaire’s?). Brian Seibert, a New York Times contributor whose work on tap I had come across in the literary Threepenny Review , had finished his long-rumored opus, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing.
But the back copy made me catch my breath. In bold font it read:
“The first comprehensive and authoritative history of tap dancing, one of the great art forms — along with jazz and musical comedy – created in America.”
Which was completely ridiculous.
Not the part about jazz and musical comedy.
The part about being first.
Since Seibert’s brick-sized volume was released in November, it has received numerous accolades, most recently being shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award. (In full disclosure, I’m a member of that organization but not part of any award panels.)
But it has also unleashed something I can only describe as a tap world pissing contest. This book’s release should have united the struggling global tap community with a rare opportunity to remind everyone that the reports of tap’s death, as Mark Twain said, had been greatly exaggerated. Instead, it has been a time of retreating to corners and taking sides.
The reason I gasped back in October was that there had been a distinguished history of tap dancing published as recently as 2010. Constance Valis Hill, a longtime tap dancer and scholar (she was a student of Cookie Cook and performed professionally), biographer of the Nicholas Brothers, and professor of dance at Hampshire College, subtitled her Tap Dancing America “a cultural history” and it is that; a history that while organized chronologically takes a thematic look at the tributaries that fed tap dancing as an art form. The Oxford University Press website proclaims that hers is “The first comprehensive history of tap dancing in its three-hundred-year evolution in America.” And both books, of course, cite and depend on the pioneering work of Marshall and Jean Stearns.
In the months since Seibert’s book was released, the situation has worsened. What could have been overlooked as old-fashioned marketing hyperbole has solidified into partisanship. Some of Seibert’s colleagues, particularly past and current New Yorker critics Arlene Croce (in The New York Review of Books) and Joan Acocella (in the magazine) have dissed Hill with statements describing Seibert’s work as “the first authoritative book on the subject since Marshall and Jean Stearns published their classic study Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance in 1968″ (Croce) and saying “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” (Acocella).
Tap dancer Jane Goldberg (whose portrait in Seibert’s book I’ll get to in a minute) weighed in with a claim of what she sees as Acocella’s conflict of interest:
In her extensive review of Brian Seibert’s book, What the Eye Hears (November 30, 2015), I would have appreciated a disclaimer from Joan Acocella right up front, that Seibert was not only her mentee for at least two years in the early 2000s, but also that Acocella took him to numerous concerts, honed him as a critic, and most importantly, as dance critic and book reviewer for The New Yorker, herself, Acocella wrote him a strong recommendation letter to help him get his job for The New Yorker‘s “Goings on About Town.” In her review, she indicates no personal relationship to Seibert.
It seems to be a conflict of interest, and in the tiny world of dance, not to mention tap, it’s important to know the bias. I mention this as a probable conflict of interest because I was his mentor too during those exact same years. Seibert was using my tap archives extensively for his research and to my horror we had talked about Acocella’s identity politics.
Just last week, Constance Valis Hill gave as good as she got, managing to both refer to Seibert’s work and render it invisible:
Tap dance, our first American vernacular dance form, and the most-cutting edge on the national and international stage, has suffered a paucity of critical, analytical, historical documentation […] there remains but a handful of histories exploring all aspects of the intricate musical exchange of Afro-Irish percussive step dances that produced the rhythmic complexities of jazz tap dancing: Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968), Jerry Ames’ Book of Tap: Recovering America’s Long Lost Dance (1977), and my book, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010), are but three […]
She went on to announce an important tap project she is leading for the Library of Congress as something that will, hopefully, “quell uninformed commentary by dance critics who now have the opportunity to acquaint themselves of tap’s long and brilliant history.”
As an art form, tap thrives on competition, but this one is anything but classy.
While Seibert and his “side” may be eager to erase the history of recent scholarship, he has not been tempted to erase the problematic ways discussions of tap have intersected with identity, gender, and American politics. Some of the best aspects of What the Eye Hears are found in his carefully parsed discussions of what he found in the earliest strata of tap’s history, the illustrated playbills and anecdotes about black and white minstrelsy before and after the Civil War held in collections such as the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Smithsonian.
With this material he is helpful when he notes that the same name might refer to different steps or the same step might go by different names. While tap over the course of its development is primarily defined through its black, and male, practitioners, he acknowledges its Anglo-Irish traditions and notes a time when Irish indentured servants had runaway notices of their own. And he understands that contemporary people will always be at a loss for truly knowing when, for instance, a “European” dance being performed by enslaved blacks was being appropriated for pleasure or for ironic affect.
Seibert tries — but never completely comes to a conclusion — about the vagaries of the strange American tradition of blackface. While whites corking up and portraying shiftless slaves might be unquestionably denigrating, what should we make of blacks corking up in a way that enabled them to both participate in stereotypes and transcend them? Ask Chris Rock and David Chapelle, or the choreographers Camille Brown and Donald Byrd: it’s a question that, for black entertainers and their audiences, hasn’t gone away.
Historical references to happy, dancing Negros make one cringe, but Seibert is not alone when he notes that for some, dancing was a form of resistance, a way slaves could reclaim their bodies for themselves. His writing is lovely when he points out that
Setting a high value on the community-strengthening powers of rhythmic synchronization came with the slaves’ African heritage; associating dance with freedom became part of their American one.
Nevertheless, while tap’s synthesis may have grown out of both white and black cultural forms, for most of its existence its embodiment was restricted to separate and not remotely equal tracks: separate performances and theatrical circuits, separate train cars, separate pay scales, separate movies. Seibert even unearths a bizarre Jim Crow anecdote where black-sometimes-passing-for-white Leonard Reed directed a black revue in the south and was made to stand on a platform by a local sheriff because it was against the law for whites and blacks to share a stage. Fame was no insulation: when I interviewed Fayard Nicholas in 2003, he shared a story of how he and his brother Harold, among the biggest stars of their day, were denied entrance to the film studio commissary.
At the turn of the 20th century, Seibert says, vaudeville might just have been the most integrated profession in America. He doesn’t deliberately draw contrasts between Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Fred Astaire, but the depth of his attention make these two men the signposts for different styles as well as different abilities to control their careers even as they became household names.
I like the way Seibert thinks about the conditions that allow one career to flourish while another, equally talented artist, might not be positioned perfectly for his (or occasionally, her) time. Tap’s rise and fall plays out against the history of train transportation, of the passing of silent films to sound synchronization, of rolling camera dollies and multiple takes, and of the shift from evenings spent in public nightclubs to those parked in front of private televisions. As a person who has danced, he’s always interested in technical details, noting, for instance, that John Bubbles blended his steps “into longer phrases that enjambed over bar lines, grouping them together into rhythmic units less contained than Bill Robinson’s.” He never makes up his mind about whether tap is all about appropriation — stealing steps and enlarging a personal vocabulary — or if that’s a bad thing. When Honi Coles does it, it reflects ambition and the nature of the form; when Astaire does it, it’s opportunism.
If Seibert’s book had ended in the 40s, or even with the decline of tap in the 50s, any arguments between partisans would have been purely differences among academic insiders. He’s dismissive about the ballet-inflected tap of Paul Draper — a style that I’ve seen reconstructed. But it could be argued that even back in the day that direction wasn’t to everyone’s taste. He sometimes shows a nasty streak talking about film stars, but Jimmy Cagney, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rodgers’ reputations aren’t going to be harmed by anything Brian Seibert can dole out.
It’s when he gets into the tap revival of the 1970s and beyond — almost 400 pages into this volume — that Seibert begins to write in a way that has the sour taste of settling scores. I knew and know — and wrote about — many of the people he is writing about here, and so have my own perspective. To me, his language becomes increasingly patronizing, his king-making more canonical. He talks about Brenda Bufalino and her briefly realized dream of a tap dance orchestra, with appreciation, but almost entirely when she is working side by side with Honi Coles and not when she moved into her own direction as a performer. He is scathing about Jane Goldberg, making her a neurotic chauffeur and bottle washer instead of the comedienne and marketing visionary she was and has been. The white women who worked so hard to create an audience for the art form and bring renewed honor — and paying festival gigs! — to elderly black tap statesmen are dismissed as useful perhaps, but not significant artistic contributors in their own right. (The caption to the video of one of Goldberg’s projects on Seibert’s website — “she made the whole thing happen” — doesn’t make it right.)
When he asserts “the most common critical charge was that the ensemble work came at the sacrifice of individuality,” Seibert shows his cards. (As does Croce in her book review when she writes “Tap is traditionally a soloist’s art, with duos to stiffen the challenge of competition and to give one dancer a rest while the other performs.” So much for all those vaudeville duets, trios and quartets.) The individual who comes to save the day in Seibert’s book is, not surprisingly, Savion Glover, the prodigy beloved by the Copacetics generation and anointed by the lost-too-soon and open-to-everyone mensch movie star Gregory Hines. Glover gets almost as much space in this book as Robinson, Astaire, and Jimmy Slyde: his programs are carefully parsed and often beautifully described.
Seibert doesn’t shy away from the controversies and does mention that Glover seemed to convey — for decades — that his style of dancing was the only authentic, legitimate way, inspiring an entire cohort of dancers to tap with stooped stances and water bottles in their hands. A few other dancers who have made different choices — including white, female dancer Michelle Dorrance, whose work expands ensemble choreography in important ways — get a nod in this book, but they dance in Glover’s shadow.
Pinning down ephemeral dance through dance scholarship is a hard road. All history-writing is a process of choices that reflect a concoction of variables: the existence and access to primary sources, the personality of the writer, current beliefs about what to foreground and what to put aside. Both Seibert and Valis Hill’s tap dance histories are part of a 21st century discussion that has cracked open the archives. On Seibert’s website, he has posted a top twenty tap video clips, beginning with the 1894 Edison “Pickaninny Dance,” which is the oldest tap recorded. Valis Hill’s 3,000 item archive is now online with a long introductory essay and 180 biographies of tap dancers, under the auspices of the Library of Congress.
Do yourself a favor and peruse these resources between now and National Tap Dance Day, May 25. It’s the best possible way to celebrate Bill Robinson’s birthday without taps on your shoes.
Debra Cash is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance and a founding Senior Critic of The Arts Fuse.
c 2016 Debra Cash