An Excuse to Make Noise: On Todd Decker’s “Astaire by Numbers” and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Dancing Down the Barricades”
By Brynn ShiovitzSeptember 22, 2023
Astaire by Numbers: Time & the Straight White Male Dancer by Todd Decker
Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era by Matthew Frye Jacobson
For the past 70 years, authors have been writing straight biographies of dance artists and film stars. From mental illness to addiction, often tightly wound up in artistic genius and stardom, the dance biography capitalizes on the dramatic world of art-making. Rarer are the biographies that situate an artist’s life against the broader historical stakes of their repertoire.
Since the early 2000s, a steady stream of scholarly biographies informed by critical race studies have emerged. Only very recently have scholar biographers begun approaching the scholarly biography through the lens of lesbian/gay/queer studies. Scholarly biographies that focus on the masculinity of straight white or Black male dancers are even sparser. That is, until this past year when musicologist Todd Decker published Astaire by Numbers: Time & the Straight White Male Dancer (Oxford, 2022) and historian Matthew Frye Jacobson released Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era (University of California, 2023) within just a few months of each other.
Though Astaire and Davis are both male dance auteurs, Decker’s and Jacobson’s biographies could not be more different in their subjects and their methodologies. Yet, when read side by side, their almost opposite narratives bolster each other’s claims, which at times get buried in detail and data. Decker’s biography of Fred Astaire takes a digital humanities approach to Astaire the screen dancer using quantitative data to analyze the performer’s entire body of studio-era film work as a white male with screen privilege. Conversely, Jacobson’s biography of Sammy Davis Jr. takes a historical approach using qualitative data—including close comparative analyses of clippings, literature, and film—to analyze a large sampling of Davis’s corpus of vaudeville, Broadway, film, network television, and Vegas performances, as well as his literary and activist contributions as a Black male working amid Jim Crow and beyond.
Reading these two accounts alongside one another points to a core argument for both authors around “the racialized politics of hiring in American film” and “the how” of representation. While Astaire lived in the illusion, and Davis often was disillusioned, their two chameleon-like approaches to screen dance say a lot about white versus Black representation.
Astaire by Numbers chronicles Fred Astaire’s “intentionally masculinized screen body” and the intensive labor Astaire put into crafting this image. Decker posits that Astaire “relied fundamentally on his being a man and white and on his presentation as a cis-gender heterosexual” as a guarantor of access—access to the film studio, the filming, and the editing process; he had complete control over his dancing image. While Astaire’s dancing has long been a biographical theme (usually framed in terms of panache, stardom, or style), Decker’s book is the first to focus on the dancer’s white cishet presentation. He is also the first to take on an acutely quantitative approach to dance, and specifically screen dance, by relying on the numbers—hence the book’s subtitle—to do much of the heavy lifting. Counting types of shots, angles, dance steps, partners, and many other minutiae, Decker hopes to put “a number on racial inequality” but also complicate Astaire’s seemingly natural appearance.
Despite the outward show of Astaire’s finished products (i.e., the films) and his avoidance of questions of intent or expression during interviews, the available archival evidence for the man behind the image tells a different story. “Not having to call what he did anything in particular was his privilege,” writes Decker. Complementing the work of Miriam J. Petty, who strongly argues that “Black performers […] create performances that are bounded by the strictures of American racism […] in ways that exceed these same boundaries,” Decker contends that Astaire easily works within these “strictures,” “afford[ing him] a capacious and unequal chance to create” and obsessively rehearse, cut, and refilm a body of work unmatched by any other screen dancer.
While Decker’s argument can, at times, get buried in all the data, his method remains admirable. For one thing, Decker’s number-crunching reveals the self-centered nature of Astaire’s labor. When exploring the routines where Astaire dances with a female chorus, Decker’s calculations show just how little rehearsal the women were given in comparison. The “Bojangles of Harlem” number from Swing Time (1936) “rehearsed 43 [percent] less than average,” which Decker asserts is responsible for the sloppiness of the chorines’ portion and supports Astaire’s general “that’s-good-enough attitude toward the rushes (when Astaire wasn’t on screen).” Decker also looks closely at Astaire’s female partnerships, making strong statistical arguments for the ways in which “his partners’ bodies interact within the gendered codes of Astaire’s style.” Analyzing Astaire’s 96 partner dances, Decker uses metrics such as physical touching and six types of relationships between partners’ bodies to address the simple fact that “each new woman he took as a partner resecured his heterosexuality, making his dancing demonstrably manly just by virtue of whom he danced with and how.” Except for Ginger Rogers, he mostly disposed of female partners after a single go:
Astaire benefited from Hollywood’s enduring bias toward men, which allows male stars to age and remain virile and desirable as partners. Under this unequal system, Astaire constantly required new, always younger female partners—the age gap between them and Astaire steadily increased across his career.
Astaire’s relationship to Blackness is largely missing from Decker’s story, which is both a reflection of Astaire’s own avoidance of being juxtaposed against Black dancers on-screen and a limitation of this work. (It is no secret that Astaire learned his rhythm tap style directly from John W. Bubbles.) The one exception to Astaire’s steadfast rule and Decker’s analysis is highlighted in the section “MGM ‘Shoeshine Boy,’” which offers screen dance studies much-needed contextualization of the only Black dancer Astaire was ever seen dancing with on-screen. While performer Leroy Daniels—a Black bootblack with a stand in the Downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row—did not appear in the credits of The Band Wagon (1953), at least he now has almost 10 pages of Decker’s book devoted to his “Shoeshine Boy” performance with Astaire.
Considering this limitation, it is especially urgent to place Decker’s biography of Astaire in conversation with Jacobson’s biography of Sammy Davis Jr., a pairing which likely has Astaire rolling over in his grave and Davis cackling with delight. If Astaire is remembered for putting his body at the center of the frame and building a world around him, essentially “making the space through which [his body] moves,” Davis might best be remembered for conforming to the people and spaces with whom and which he surrounded himself. Planting his life on this “assimilationist philosophy,” writes Jacobson, “defined his persona on both sides of the color line.”
It is this assimilationist philosophy and the ambivalence that it produced that Jacobson takes up as his primary thesis in Dancing Down the Barricades. Though Davis was not content with Jim Crow, Jacobson paints his early career as promoting a certain acceptance of the United States’ racial inequalities. Davis began performing in blackface with the Will Mastin Trio around age three, and as Jacobson recounts, “the cork was doing double duty. […] [H]is father and 'uncle’ Will Mastin used the burnt cork (and a fake cigar) to disguise the boy’s age, passing him off as ‘a forty-four-year-old midget.’” But Davis was shielded from the racism the Trio experienced on the road, and it was not until he entered the war that his perspective began to shift. His repeated and traumatic encounters with white soldiers while stationed at Fort Warren in Wyoming were a rude awakening.
Ultimately, Davis’s talents had him reassigned to a Special Services unit. Jacobson traces Davis’s coming-of-age as a performer in a USO environment, one still very much steeped in a minstrel tradition but also responsible for shaping his “philosophy that talent could overcome racism, that his brief hour on stage could undo the hatred that ran through the ranks.” The remainder of the book looks at all aspects of Davis’s career from this angle, aptly put by Jacobson as “psychic hungers” and “impatience with Jim Crow’s limits.” Davis spent the rest of his life “caretaking his white audience” and making great strides for Black representation in all aspects of entertainment.
What stands out while reading these books together is how Astaire’s artistic choices have generally gone unquestioned by the American public, whereas every creative decision made by Davis has been scrutinized by Black and white Americans alike. This fact alone strengthens each author’s argument, Decker’s surrounding Astaire’s white cishet male privilege and Jacobson’s regarding available choices for Black entertainers. Other than Astaire’s frequent attempts to bolster his own masculinity—and yes, many would argue that he did a lot for the image of the straight white male dancer—white cishet men are not held responsible for the larger stakes of their representation. Davis, on the other hand, has been held personally liable for his “effects” on Blackness, Black masculinity, whiteness, and the whole post–Civil Rights movement.
Jacobson digs into these inequalities, highlighting the double standard to which Davis was held.
“The ‘White Girl’ Bit” offers a mind-blowing account of the opposition he faced for dating white women and ultimately marrying Swedish actress May Britt. Included in these reports of hate is a retelling of his being disinvited from the Kennedy inauguration due to the Kennedy team’s fears that having his presence “would set JFK off ‘on the wrong foot’ with Southern Democrats.” Davis was frequently criticized for trying to be white, but, as Jacobson shows, Davis was also charged with being too Black.
Jacobson’s analyses of several all-Black-cast films in which Davis appeared offer detailed histories of these films, including Anna Lucasta (1958) and Porgy and Bess (1959), and point to the criticisms Davis faced even when playing Black roles alongside other Black performers. For his performance of Danny Johnson in Anna Lucasta, Davis was lambasted for his “over the top,” “grotesque and ludicrous” performance of Blackness. But as Davis told Alex Haley, “If you’re privileged to be a personality, there’s the responsibility of what new image of the Negro do you project when you’re reacting all them mass audiences in movie theatres and on national television.” What kept Davis performing despite the hate mail, death threats, and disappointments was his recognition that such righteousness was merely a reflection of his privilege.
Davis, whose position as a performer was contingent and hard-won, never took fame for granted, even when strings were attached. It is Astaire’s unquestioned privilege that allowed him to be unwavering in his approach to dance for camera and manipulate the world around him to better suit his image. For Astaire, “the camera [was] a recording mirror” for his privileged persona, and even the moments we never see on film reflect his access. Decker’s account of an important duet between Astaire and Hermes Pan in the 1940 film Second Chorus exemplifies an important postproduction moment. “Me and the Ghost Upstairs,” which was ultimately cut from Second Chorus, captures a rare moment of Astaire playing the girl, following as Pan leads as the male dancer. Decker is convinced that the Production Code is responsible for the cutting of such a duet, but, given the argument Decker continues to make throughout the book regarding Astaire’s stalwart attitude toward preserving his own masculinity, I would not be surprised if Astaire cut the routine long before Joseph Breen caught wind of it. Astaire did everything in his power to avoid ambivalence.
For Davis, the camera held up a mirror to his fight. His place was always threatened and required Davis’s chameleon-like approach to artistry and politics. Davis’s time with the Rat Pack demonstrates this: “Davis’s name in lights as a headliner on the [Las Vegas] Strip was a highly significant marker of racial progress, as was his conspicuous presence in the otherwise all-white Rat Pack, alongside Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop,” writes Jacobson. “They broke silence on race, but fell back on stereotypes and crass humor as their default.”
While most biographies of Davis tend to binarize his career, Jacobson’s book leads with Davis’s ambivalence. And even if Jacobson’s argument becomes equally murky at points, it demonstrates that the path to success for a Black man will never be without struggle. Moreover, the timing of Davis’s birth put him at the center of many different worlds: “He was a child of the Great Migration, though he was schooled in a set of sensibilities and performance practices that we might more readily associate with the nineteenth century.”
Davis was an all-around entertainer, but tap dance was one of his trademarks. Because of his timing, however, he experienced the form as both his ticket and his burden. He entered showbiz through vaudeville, where tap dance was a respectable art, if not a prerequisite. Yet, following its golden age (largely punctuated by the studio era and performers like Fred Astaire), tap dance’s popularity declined. The Civil Rights Movement was one of several factors that contributed, and Black tap dancers often received a lot of flak from the Black community for participating in a form with ties to the minstrel stage.
Fred Astaire was also a song and dance man, albeit mostly remembered for his tap dancing. He too grew up in vaudeville and used the form as his entrée into show business. However, because of his timing (he was 26 years Davis’s senior) and his whiteness, he never experienced the burden of tap dance. In reading Astaire’s and Davis’s biographies side by side, this disparity surfaces in the ways Decker and Jacobson frame their arguments around tap dance, and specifically tap dance and masculinity.
Jacobson writing about Davis’s relationship to the form frames tap dance as “an expression of freedom and self-possession in a setting where both were denied—a joyous use of the body itself as an instrument of liberation under circumstances of oppression, fugitivity, and Jim Crow humiliation.” Important to this history is the masculinism of tap dance, which Jacobson writes about in terms of a “competitive bravado.” Drawing on the work of Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Jacqui Malone, and Constance Valis Hill, Jacobson traces a history of this ethos of competition or “jazz ethics” as tied up in the dynamic relationship between the individual and the group. Tap dance, like other Africanist forms, is as much about self-expression as it is about holding space for the community.
Decker, on the other hand, omits a history of tap dance, relying heavily on his previous book Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (2011) to affirm simply that Astaire drew from Black musical sensibilities. Decker neglects the community component of tap dance and solely discusses it as a vehicle of individual artistry, using Astaire’s singular dynamics to help strengthen his argument surrounding Astaire’s masculinity. He writes, “[T]ap dance provided Astaire an excuse to make noise, to use his dancing to disrupt or dominate the scene in an assertive, even threatening manner.” Decker continuously tries to make the argument that “Astaire projected a noisy and strong masculinity […] work[ing] across his corpus to suggest a kind of forceful male energy.” Decker grounds this assertion in specific performances and metrics, but what he misses is the nuanced history of the form and its role within a larger diasporic framework and legacy.
Ultimately, these differences in approach again highlight the important distinctions in experience faced by Black tap dancers versus white ones, as well as the narratives that circulate and get written down about them. With little to no mention of Astaire’s teachers or wives and with detailed accounts of how, except for Eleanor Powell’s taps, the sounds of his female partners were usually dubbed and their screen images highly curated, Decker’s biography reflects a kind of solo success, marked by facade. Davis’s career, on the other hand, is completely defined by his community—his teachers, his wives, and his showbiz partners are a part of his story.
What Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jr. shared, however, was an unwavering commitment to their art, a tenacious work ethic, and remarkable artistry. Todd Decker and Matthew Frye Jacobson offer refreshing perspectives on familiar figures, and their two biographies capture Davis’s and Astaire’s grit, while making larger-stakes arguments for the politics of representation in midcentury screen dance.
Brynn Shiovitz is a writer, scholar, educator, and dancer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Behind the Screen: Tap Dance, Race, and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age (Oxford, 2023).
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