Monday, December 14, 2015

Tap Dancing - As American As Apple Pie, Baseball and Jazz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones are three of my favorite drummers - all were excellent tap dancers during the early years of the careers in music. There were probably a number of other fine tap dancers among the drummers who came out of the Swing Era, too.

The discerning ear could often pick up aspects of the basic drum rudiments in the tap dancing of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.

If you are interested in the origins and history of tap dancing and, like me, always wondered why one of America’s great creative inventions fell into obscurity, I think you’ll find Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing [ Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 612 pages; $35] to be a great read. Here’s the November 21, 2015 review of the book which appeared in the November 21, 2015 edition of The Economist.

“It is not the world’s most sophisticated art form, but tap dancing is a big part of American history. Closely associated with jazz music, tappers use the sounds of their shoes hitting the floor as a form of percussion. According to one dancer, tap was “one of [America’s] two really indigenous forms”, with jazz the other. As late as the 1950s that statement certainly held true. Tappers like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers are icons of America’s economic and military strength of the 1940s and 1950s. But tap also has a dark side: for many people, it has clear racist overtones.

This complex history needs unpicking. However, studies of tap dancing are few and far between. It is a tall order to write about any sort of dance from before the 20th century; the historian must rely on drawings and eyewitnesses, rather than videos. Tap and its ancestors are particularly difficult to research. They have typically been the preserve of the poor and downtrodden, about whom there are fewer historical sources than for rich folk. A history of tap dancing is thus what E.P. Thompson, a Marxist historian, called a “history from below” at its most extreme.

Enter Brian Seibert, a dance critic for the New York Times, who offers a sweeping tour of tap in What the Eye Hears. He looks at how tap grew out of dances brought over by Irish immigrants and African slaves. An early form originated in Lancashire, England, where plenty of Irish people lived. During the industrial revolution, factory workers wore clogs to protect themselves from the cold. Inspired by the beat of pistons and pipes, “they rattled their feet to keep warm,” Mr Seibert writes — and liked the sound.

Tap also drew inspiration from slavery. Africans, transported across the Atlantic alongside Irish people who had been press-ganged into naval service, swapped moves and rhythms on deck. Plantation-owners in America’s south organised “jigging contests” to improve morale, recalled James Smith, a slave in the 1860s. One of Smith’s companions could “make his feet go like trip hammers and sound like [a] snare drum”. His jigging “sure sounds like an ancestor” of tap, suggests Mr Seibert.

As tap dancing became more popular, it held an ambiguous relationship with American racial politics. On the one hand, tap dancing (and an associated act, minstrelsy) could reinforce the subjugation of black people, especially when whites used burned cork to darken their faces and then impersonated them. Discrimination ensured that white performers (like Astaire, Kelly and Rogers) took the lion’s share of the fame, even though, in the words of Miles Davis, a jazz musician, “they weren’t nothing compared to how [black] guys could dance.”

On the other hand, black performers, excluded from most well-paying jobs, could make decent money by tap dancing. And when they stood up straight onstage, points out Mr Seibert, they were not only assuming the correct posture for a dance but challenging the notion that they should look servile in the presence of white people.

Such interpretations are helped along by Mr Seibert’s excellent writing. He liberally employs the lingo of whatever period is under discussion. He describes one actor in the post-Depression era as specialising in playing “hayseeds” (a derogatory word for a yokel); later he uses the word “co-ed” (an outmoded term for a female university student); and he could raise modern eyebrows by talking of “coloured folk” and “Negroes” in eras when those terms were standard. This may be risky, but Mr Seibert’s writing is so engaging, transporting the reader back in time, that the linguistic tricks seem justified.

However, the book is not without its flaws. It has no theoretical backbone, though at times Marxism bubbles through. Indeed, for large chunks of the book Mr Seibert seems to have no argument whatsoever. With more than 600 pages at his disposal, he has plenty of space for rich historical descriptions. But after the umpteenth biography of a now-forgotten tap dancer, the reader may feel a little tired.

The latter part of the book discusses an interesting conundrum. You might have thought that tap dancing, a generally cheery art form with more style than substance, would have been perfectly suited to the television age. In 1948 less than 1% of American households had a TV; by 1957, two-thirds did. But at almost exactly the same time, tap went into terminal decline. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (pictured), perhaps the greatest “hoofer” ever, died in 1949, and by 1955 journalists were asking: “What happened to the great tap dancers?”
Mr Seibert’s book helps solve this puzzle. Unlike the music of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, tap cannot be blasted into people’s homes and across stadiums. Instead, like jazz, to be any good it requires an intimacy and an edginess that is hard to sustain in an era of mass consumerism. You need characters like Robinson, who danced with a bullet from a cop’s gun lodged in his arm; the filthy nightclubs where they tapped to fund their next heroin fix; and where the regulars loudly mocked dancers whose technique was a little off (“you’re hurting the floor”). Mr Seibert’s study has its limitations, but you would need a heart of stone for his enthusiasm not to rub off on you.”

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