On National Tap Dance Day, May the Critics Hail: “Tap Dance Is Dead Right for Everybody!”
By Constance Valis HillMay 20, 2016
ON OCTOBER 13, 1980, at the commencement of the historic festival “By Word of Foot I: Tap Masters Pass On their Tradition” at the Village Gate in New York City, Jane Goldberg, director of the Changing Times Tap Dance Company, welcomed the audience with these words:
We intend to prove this week, that contrary to widespread opinion, tap dancing is not just a novelty, it is not old fashioned or nostalgic, tap dancing is not dead, in fact we at Changing Times think that it is the liveliest of the lively arts.’ She quoted the great rhythm tap master Honi Coles as saying, “Tap dancing is dead. It's dead right for everybody!”
Thirty-six years after this historic gathering, the tap community still struggles to convince the general public that tap is “dead right for everybody.” In a recent appearance on the Late Night Show, tap dancer Savion Glover, choreographer of the newly-opened Broadway musical Shuffle Along — The Making of the Musical, was asked by host Seth Meyers, “Do you feel tap gets the respect it deserves as an art form? “We are, because of the history of tap dance, not yet at the pinnacle that we should be [...] but there’s still hope for the dance,” Glover answered.
When the chief dance critic of The New York Times dismisses tap dance as mere nostalgia; a dance critic for The New Yorker pronounces “tap could die [...] go down in the history books as a marvelous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions”; a critic for The New York Review of Books writes that “the sonic experience” in tap dance is “often more alluring than the optical one”; and a critic for Commentary Magazine writes about tap’s “decline of a great American art,” it is clear that tap dance continues to be under a state of siege by a Super PAC of elite New York writers bound to dismissing it as an artistic expression unworthy of serious attention.
Dancers in the tap community have long suffered the racist, sexist, and classist remarks of dance critics who rendered tap performance unworthy of the concert stage. But to a general public unaware of these longstanding biases, the tendency is to take at face value the views these writers expound; their authority goes unchallenged and the sonic voice of tap is virtually silenced.
On May 25, “National Tap Dance Day,” it would behoove the naysaying critics of tap to straighten up and fly right — to humbly reconsider the flawed narrative of tap dance they have proliferated for decades.
Tap dance, our first American vernacular dance form, and arguably the most-cutting edge on the national and international stage, has long suffered a paucity of critical, analytical, and historical documentation. While there have been star-centered biographies of such tap dancers as Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Savion Glover, 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’s Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1968), Jerry Ames's Book of Tap: Recovering America’s Long Lost Dance (1977), and my book, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010) are but three.
And why is this? Why has tap dance as an art form suffered a mere flickering of critical and scholarly attention?
One bluntly sobering answer is that tap dance — which evolved from the rhythmic and social exchange of transplanted Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in the 1500s, and which developed through jigging competitions on the plantation staged by white masters for their slaves, challenge dances in the walk-around finale of minstrel shows, and juried buck-and wing-contests on the vaudeville stage — has a long and contested legacy of racism and classism. Tap’s artistic tradition was never, and never will be, separated from its long history of hardship — from slavery to blackface, to what some see as the continued favoring of European traditions over the improvisatory African-American forms. Considered mostly a popular entertainment on the vaudeville and variety stage and in the movies, tap, until very recently, has been placed in the category of “low” art, unworthy of the concert stage, and of scholarly attention.
Moreover, the absence of women in early accounts of jigging competitions forces a consideration of gender in the evolution of tap which, for most of the 20th century, was dominated by men. As Gene Kelly stated in a 1958 CBS television special, “Dancing is a man’s game [...] and if he does it well, he does it better than a woman. I don’t want this to sound as if I’m against women dancing, we must have to remember that each sex is capable of doing things the other can’t.” The men’s claim to (tap) dancing as their exclusive province, which has been perpetuated by critics who foreground the masters — points to an “aristocracy of sex,” an authority of the male in tap dancing that has discriminated against and been critical of women, particularly women soloists.
Tap dance has been “invisible” in the scholarly canon because it continues to be characterized as a constantly dying art form. Tap enjoyed nearly four decades of popularity on the American stage, from the turn of the 20th century to its heyday in the Swing-era of the 1940s. Then it “died out” in the 1950s, a period that was commonly referred to as “tap dance’s decline,” or what Honi Coles called “the lull,” when tap waned in popularity as the sheer number of live performances diminished, tap dancers found themselves out of jobs, and venues for tap performances shifted from the live stage to the television screen. Tap was then “revived” in the 1970s during the so-called tap resurgence, or tap renaissance. By 1989, and with the award-winning Broadway musical Black and Blue, tap dance was again “resurrected,” and its masters — most all in their ‘60s and ‘70s — inspired a young generation of dance artists who would “vivify” the form with yet unrealized rhythmic inventions. That tap was finally regarded as a national treasure was confirmed by the passage of the US Joint Resolution, on November 7, 1989, declaring May 25 “National Tap Dance Day.”
With the 1971 revival of the 1925 musical No, No Nanette, directed by Busby Berkeley (who had been the musical director for the 1933 tap musical film Forty-second Street), and the casting of 62-year-old Ruby Keeler (who had starred in that film) as Nanette’s star, tap’s rise in popularity came on the wings of nostalgia. “What we love about the show, and what we have been missing so long is its playfulness,” wrote Walter Kerr in The New York Times. “It’s like a puppy without a purpose. It’s free, and off and skipping [...] No, No Nanette is irresponsible. Like all musicals it grew up with, it just wants to be happy and to make you happy too.” (The New York Times, 11 April 1971).
The 2015 Broadway revival of the 1966 musical Dames at Sea, choreographed by Randy Skinner as an homage to the tap-oriented movie musicals of the 1930s, similarly delivered huge doses of nostalgia, the musical called “a vintage valentine” that provided “lively diversions for those in search of yesteryear’s delights.” (Charles Isherwood, “Review: Dames at Sea Skips Onto Broadway,” The New York Times, 22 October 2015).
The recent Broadway opening of Shuffle Along — Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed, directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Savion Glover, offers one glimmer of anti-nostalgia. While critics swooned over the rhythms of tap that transformed “syncopated tap into a widely expressive force of giddy liberation and focused determination, of exaltation and anger,” (Ben Brantley, “Review: ‘Shuffle Along’ Returns to Broadway’s Embrace,” The New York Times, April 28, 2016), the musical, based on the black Broadway musical of 1921 that was known for ushering in the Jazz Age, was deemed by the Broadway Tony Awards panel as not in the competitive category of Revival, but New Musical.
Tap nostalgia, nevertheless, is alive and thriving. Check out the vintage clips The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay recently “discovered” and compiled as a truncated “history” of tap. The first is the 1894 Thomas Edison kinetoscope, “Pickaninny Dance,” from The Passing Show, featuring Joe Rastus, Denny Tolliver, and Walter Wilkins dancing a jig and breakdown. Macaulay does not name these dancers, but instead describes them as conjuring “a whole world of marvelously informal flair” (this a subtle insult, as it insinuates that the improvisatory structure of this tap challenge presupposes their technical virtuosity). Next is a sound recording of Fred Astaire singing and tapping to George Gershwin’s “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues,” from the Broadway musical Lady Be Good (1926); and then Marilyn Miller in the musical film Sunny (1930); the 1932 sound film of Johnny Nitt in Steppin’ Fast!, and the Vitaphone short Barber Shop Blues (1933), a comedy number that turns into a dance for the Four Step Brothers. That this selection of clips goes no farther than the 1930s substantiates the myth that tap dance “died” in the 1940s, after the death of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. (“Dance This Week: Tap History” 1/13/2016).
Joan Acocella’s condescension of tap dance has long been inscribed on the pages of The New Yorker. Reviewing Savion Glover’s Improvography at the Joyce Theater in December 2003, Acocella wrote glowingly of Glover’s solo performance in the first half of the show, but pronounced Glover’s ensemble choreography, in the second half for his new company Ti Dii, “a failure.” She opined that tap dance was “fundamentally a solo form, because at best it uses improvisation, and you can’t make group patterns if everyone is doing his own thing.” (The New Yorker, 12 January 2004). These remarks were taken by some in the tap community as patronizing, limiting, and dismissive of the tradition of tap choreography that had been established in the 1970s, especially by [white] women in tap. Tap dancer scholar Margaret Morrison took Acocella’s comments as being “part of a myth in tap dance that considers ensemble choreography a ‘new’ or ‘inauthentic’ expression of tap dance, while solo, male performance is real tap.”
Acocella’s rhetoric of late has escalated into a Trumpian braggadocio that relies on insult and put down, rather than a substantive evaluation of materials. Writing in The New Yorker about why tap dance is little studied in a serious way, and why it has mostly gone unrecorded, Acocella reasoned that tap is “a peculiar form, in that it is both movement and music,” which makes it “difficult for audiences to grasp.” What the eye hears, she posits, is too challenging for audiences.
Then, she reasons, “there is tap’s history — the fact that it was created by extremely poor people, Irish and West African” who came “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.” Acocella claims to 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. “Imagine what this meant,” she writes:
Commanded to dance, they did routines that, maybe just a month or two earlier, had been part of the observance of their religion [...] 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,” Acocella concludes, in her rationale of why tap has been largely unrecorded by historians because, after all, with “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?”(The New Yorker, “Up From the Hold,” 11/30/2015)
Acocella’s rationale for the abjection of tap dance bares a harrowing resemblance to Arlene Croce’s labeling of certain choreographies that inscribe social and political realities as “victim art.” Croce was the reigning dean of American dance critics from 1973 to 1998 when she wrote for The New Yorker. In her 1994 piece, “Discussing the Undiscussable,” she “non-reviewed” Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, which she confessed to never seeing, but nevertheless dismissed as being unworthy of critical attention. Jones, who is black, gay, and HIV–positive, had used as material video testimonials of people suffering from AIDS, mixing dancing with a visual score made from edited interviews with people who were facing life-threatening illnesses. By viewing the dying on videotape, Jones had crossed the line between reality and theater. “By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable,” wrote Croce. “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about.” (Arlene Croce, “Discussing the Undiscussable,” The New Yorker, December 26, 1994-January 2, 1995). When Acocella bemoans the fate of dance historians who have to suffer when they “feel the burden of grief and humiliation that was built into tap at its birth,” is she not also abjecting tap dance as victim art?
Arlene Croce has returned of late to critical writing and has weighed in on tap dance. In a recent writing for The New York Review of Books, she wrote that “in live tap dance performances the sonic experience is [...] often more alluring than the optical one.” Perhaps Ms. Croce forgets how she marveled over the full-bodied tap dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in her 1972 bestseller, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, a book that was clearly trapped in the tap nostalgia of the 1930s.
Joan Acocella has managed from on high at The New Yorker to influence her compatriots. In a recent commentary, she sounded the death knoll for tap dance, writing,
It could die [...] The classic dance forms of India [...] 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 marvelous thing that grew and died under certain historical conditions, mostly in the twentieth century. (The New Yorker, “Up From the Hold,” 11/30/2015).
Writing for Commentary Magazine, Terry Teachout lip-synchs Acocella, in his essay, “Tap, Look, and Listen: The Decline of a Great American Art”: “Why has so delightful and exhilarating a dance style as tap been so resistant to revival?”
Part of the problem is that tap is probably best suited to the individual dancer or very small performing units. Large-chorus unison tapping is both visually and audibly spectacular — few dance techniques can clinch the climax of a stage show more effectively — but narrow in emotional scope. And as musicals moved away from the ramshackle plots of the ’20s and ’30s to emphasize story-based character development, tap lost its theatrical raison d’être. From then on, it could exist only as a solo art.(January 19, 2016):
Teachout cites The New York Times dance critic Brian Siebert, a self-proclaimed tap dancer who, in his recent history of tap dance, bemoans the language of tap as being expressively restrictive:
Sometimes I am disappointed or exasperated or bored by tap dancers. Why can’t they use their bodies with fuller and more articulate expressiveness and coordination, as in other forms of dance? Why can’t they be more poetically suggestive and structurally sophisticated, as in other forms of choreography?
Acocella, Croce, Teachout, and Siebert need to confer with tap dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance, who received the 2015 MacArther “genius” award for combining the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance — layering rhythms in tap while choreographing ensemble works that engage the entire body, with dancers swooping, bending, leaping, and twisting in a dramatic expression that is at once musical and visual.
Tapographies such as Jason Samuel’s Smith’s Charlie’s Angels, set to a suite of historical recordings by bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and performed (originally) by Chloe Arnold, Ayodele Casel, and Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards; Michelle Dorrance’s The Blues Project with Toshi Reagon and her Big Lovely band; Joseph Webb’s The Dancing Buddhas; Jared Grimes and Lil Buck in Winton Marsalis “animal ballet” Spaces; and the collaboration of tap dancers Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards Michelle Dorrance and East Indian Kathak mastresses Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta in Speak, are also as sonically and corporeally masterful.
While Acocella is cynical and dismissive of the legacy of tap, she does point to one reason why tap dance has received little scholarly attention: “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.”
My new donation of to the Library of Congress may help to solve that dilemma: Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media, documents factually, and with minimal editorial flourish, 20th-century tap performance. The 3,000-record database is searchable by title, date, venue, dancer, choreographer, director, producer, and performance medium, and venue. In addition to the 2920 records of tap performance, there is a 20,000-word essay, “Tap Dance in America: A Short History,” and 180 biographies of 20th-century tap dancers, from the eldest of dancers, Bill Robinson (1878-1949) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987) to contemporary young bloods who have become international touring artists, performed on Broadway, won Emmy and Tony awards, and received prestigious dance awards. While the Chronology is not in any way complete, it is the most exhaustive and detailed collection of tap documentation on record, donated for the express purpose of promoting and sustaining knowledge, research, and scholarship in tap dance.
“Tap Dance in America: A Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media,” sets the record straight and dismisses critical commentary that has rendered tap dance history virtually invisible. It will, hopefully, quell uninformed commentary by dance critics who now have the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with tap’s long and brilliant performance history.
Constance Valis Hill is a dance historian and choreographer, and a Five College Professor of Dance (Hampshire College). She is the author of Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2010), which won the de la Torre Bueno Prize for the best book in the of dance studies; and Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (Oxford University Press, 2000), winner of a 2001 ASCAP Deems-Taylor award. She has composed a chronology of tap dance for the Library of Congress in “Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media by Constance Valis Hill,” a 3,000 performance record database with 180 biographies of twentieth-century tap dancers.
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