Opening and Entering the World of Tap Dancing A reviewer sees strengths and weaknesses in the latest history of tap.

What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing

Brian Seibert (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 612 pages with photos, notes, and index

Brian Seibert’s recent work falls within a tradition of written tap histories, including, but not limited to, Constance Valis-Hill’s Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2010), and Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (Da Capo Press, 1968). Controversy abounds over what Seibert excludes or limits in his historical account.

There exists a need for accurate and inclusive or expansive writing on tap dance that is keenly felt by dancers and scholars. Tap dance is an art form created by marginalized groups in the United States. It is a grassroots, populist form of dance, one which did not have the support of schools, technique development and recorded history such as ballet enjoyed in its inception in the royal courts of Europe. This is why the need for quality writing is so pressing.

Given the scarcity of in-depth writings on tap, and knowing that Seibert’s book has shortcomings, it behooves the audience to find a way to fully appreciate this work. A prospective reader should read this book in conjunction with other tap history texts, and view the film and video clips Seibert discusses. Taking the time to question Seibert’s underlying biases, and form individual opinions of the works he describes will go a long way towards helping the reader appreciate the complex but vibrant history of tap. What follows is a short reader’s guide to understanding what Siebert at times fails to appreciate within his book.


1. Tap is community

Seibert’s book begins and ends with description and personal perspective of hoofer Buster Brown’s Swing 46 tap jams in Manhattan. Documenting tap improvisation jams is valuable, but even here Seibert misses the main point of places like Swing 46. He scoffs at the idea of amateur tappers or the emphasis on inclusion, describing himself as annoyed at times by these concepts when participating in or witnessing tap jams. Tap is not without exclusivity, cliques, elitism, sexism, regionalism or racism. However, as an art form which is of the people, and which highly values individual expression and improvisation, tap dancers tend to welcome and support anyone who tries, regardless of the resulting performance, in places such as Swing 46. Compliments and encouragement flow freely. Seibert spends a good amount of time discussing the tap jams at Swing 46. He seems to know they are important, and goes so far as to say: “Through improvising, dancers both discover and create themselves, commonly in public.” He does not fully appreciate that making mistakes (which, in tap, can mean making horrible sounds or thoroughly muddling a step or a rhythm) is necessary in the process of regular improvisation.


2. Tap is NOT simple

Seibert enjoys distinguishing between two ends of a spectrum, often creating an either/or explanation for something in tap without any justification or reasoning behind presenting such a dichotomy. He states “In practice, dancers tend to lean toward one pole or the other, emphasizing sound over movement or the reverse.” He thus paints tap dancers as simplistic in their choreographic, improvisatory and teaching styles. In actuality, most advanced and professional tap dancers today fall somewhere in between, emphasizing sound over movement or movement over sound situationally, as appropriate for the job or performance at hand. The students, performers or improvisers that a tapper works with also influences or limits which aspect of tap dance is emphasized.

A prospective reader should read this book in conjunction with other tap history texts, and view the film and video clips Seibert discusses. Taking the time to question Seibert’s underlying biases, and form individual opinions of the works he describes will go a long way towards helping the reader appreciate the complex but vibrant history of tap.

Seibert goes on to posit that “in its most popular manifestations, tap has been all about personality.” This, too, is oversimplification. Tap as an art form is flexible enough that it supports the individual style and personality of any given artist, but it is just as much about talent and innovation. Furthermore, personalities, airs, affectations are put on by performers, often honed over time, so where Seibert sees “personality,” another person would see performers’ signature styles.


3. Tap does not need unconstructive criticism and bias

Seibert allows ego or subjective preference to really color his accounts of tap performances (either live or on film and video). This feeling of being able to disdain or criticize without supporting one’s dismissal of a dancer, style, or particular performance is something to be acknowledged and reined in by the dance critic or historian. There is a much needed discussion of whether there is value for tap dance (or any dance form) to have critics who are much too comfortable dissecting, deconstructing, or dismissing dance performances and careers, but who have little to contribute in terms of solution/constructive criticism. The writing of dance history  can be skewed by the same critical practices.

While a reader should appreciate the research Seibert does to reconstruct historical situations and careers, his personal preferences in tap create a distortion. The bias against women is peppered throughout the writing, though it is not clear that it is a conscious bias.

In discussing Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller’s tap dancing in “All I Want to Do, Do, Do is Dance” (a dance routine in the 1929 film Sally), he notes “Miller wears a skirt, but there’s still a disjuncture between the feminine styling of her upper body and the drags, swivels, and heavy breaks of her lower half. The fun she’s having is that of a girl playing at boys’ games with no intention of being mistaken for a man. Here technique may be beginner-intermediate and sometimes wobbly, yet her smile never dims.”

While a reader should appreciate the research Seibert does to reconstruct historical situations and careers, his personal preferences in tap create a distortion.

His reading of this routine is off the mark. Yes, she is dressed in a fluffy and flowered outfit befitting the fashions of 1929, but the dress is the only distinctly feminine aspect of her dance performance. It is very easy to imagine a male tapper doing this routine in a suit and looking masculine. The dance movements of her upper and lower body do not seem particularly gendered at all. Nor is the routine to be categorized as a beginner dance. Miller is clear and precise and, while the dance is not a fast tempo, her adept performance gives the viewer the impression that she is capable of more challenging dance. Her upper body movements at times are even eccentric, and eccentric tap was not a realm populated by many women.

Seibert continues this theme, as he omits from, or marginalizes in, his text many female tappers of the 70s-80s. These women were  (and often still are) highly influential. They did not, as Seibert implies, simply pass on the traditions or techniques of the older hoofers who were their mentors and teachers. These performers created their own techniques, bodies of work, and pedagogical structures for teaching, and often wrote books.

Sexism in the text permeates even Seibert’s often complimentary writings on younger female tappers. For instance, when describing the career of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, a formidable tapper and teacher, he talks about her as a married mother of three. He does not  describe any of the men in that chapter with regard to their marriage status or children.


4. Tap deserves accurate technical description.

Given the evolution of tap as a grassroots form of dance, with many people being self-educated or informally learning steps, clarity in describing tap dance is of utmost concern today. Missed opportunities for such clarity are found throughout the book. Seibert’s description of Marilyn Miller’s dancing is an example of this ambiguity: “At the end of that decade, when sound films came in, Hollywood hired Miller to reproduce those hallmark performances, and so, acknowledging the time lag and the change of medium, we can still catch a glimpse of what the fuss was about. Miller’s joy shines through, though not quite with movie-star projection. ‘Come on, let’s have some fun,’ she says before her tap number in Sunny (1930). Flat-footed, in pants, she starts at an easy tempo, knocking out stop-and-start rhythms before building to turns and leg-crossing ballet jumps.”

Dance writing suffers regularly from foggy descriptions of the actual dance witnessed. In the example above, it would be helpful for future dance readers if the author mentioned a few of the steps Miller performs (thirds, shuffle time steps, pendulum wings), in order to better explain “what the fuss was about.” He describes a rhythmic choice, but “leg-crossing ballet jumps” are actually a repeated echappe battu beginning and ending in a second position plié. This is not a call for dance historians to notate a full dance when relaying it to their readers, but some descriptive dance terminology would elevate the level of dance history documentation so the reader can better discern what the author intends or describes.

Seibert introduces one of  tapper Willie Bryant’s showstopper moves in the Whitman Sisters’ revues, describing the “nerve-control step” as a “protracted spasm.” Is the author implying that Bryant was doing a nerve tap in his act? If so, was Bryant rapidly hitting a particular part of the foot on the floor? Was it the toe, heel, ball of the foot, or the whole sole of the foot? Nerve taps involve a rapid firing and releasing of specific muscles in the leg, and which muscles are engaged changes depending upon which part of the foot is hitting the floor, and where the dancer is holding the leg in space, among other factors. To understand what Bryant was doing, therefore, it would be great to have a step described in specific terms.


5. Tap needs layered analysis of its business structure and economic sustainability.

Seibert writes, “The company model seems less sustainable than it once was, less relevant perhaps. That trend can be tracked across other dance forms—evidence of larger shifts in the financing and presentation of the performing arts. But especially for young tap dancers, who have grown up on the festival circuit at a remove from the world of concert dance, the building and maintaining of a company may not appear worth the effort. Similarly, Brenda Bufalino’s goal of creating a tap repertory—of making tap an art with a history and future of works rather than of steps and dancers—remains mostly unfulfilled. Along with the Shim Sham and the B.S. Chorus, students may learn a Copasetics routine, yet there’s a great distance between that and, say, Swan Lake.”

In the same section, Seibert gives a passing nod to Austin’s Soul to Sole tap festival, noting: “It is run by Tapestry Dance Company, which was founded by Acia Gray and Deirdre Strand in 1989. Currently the nation’s lone year-round tap company with salaried members, Tapestry has developed a local presence and some excellent dancers, but although it has toured extensively (recently to China), it has yet to gain much national attention.”

Seibert’s excerpts above feel unfinished and unexplored. The author casually—and erroneously—asserts that Tapestry is not influential or well-known, and on the next page, muses on the relevance of tap companies and repertory work. He never looks at why Tapestry is successful and persistent, nor does he acknowledge the truth of their influence and popularity nationally and globally. Questions abound: If Tapestry is the only American tap dance company which is year-round and salaried, would not speaking with Gray and Strand, or reviewing Tapestry’s history and structure, be the logical next step in understanding what a successful company model is like for a contemporary tap dancer? Tap dancers from around the country and around the world flock to Austin, Texas to audition for Tapestry. Gray has written a comprehensive and thoughtful book on tap technique entitled The Souls of Your Feet—A Tap Dance Guide for Rhythm Explorers (which, incidentally, expertly describes how to execute wings). She is also the current Board President of the International Tap Association.

Seibert had multiple avenues for research on this subject, and has even glowingly reviewed Nicholas Young, a tap dancer who studied, performed and choreographed with Tapestry for years. The author wrote of Young in The New York Times review of Michelle Dorrance’s “SOUNDspace”: “But the height of virtuosity came in a late body-percussion solo by Nicholas Young. Snapping, clapping, stomping and clicking his tongue, Mr. Young played the church with his body, a one-man band juggling two or three rhythms at once, developing a sophisticated composition within Ms. Dorrance’s.” A 600-plus page history of tap dance which poses questions of company viability, especially with regard to contemporary tap artists, should include more than a one sentence mention of Tapestry dance company and the work of Acia Gray.


6. Tap needs more of the quality side of Seibert’s scholarship to keep tap alive in the public imagination.

The author is at his best when piecing together anecdotes about a particular dancer’s life experiences or performance/creation process. Countless examples of this are in his book, which is why the text is still worth reading and valuable to dance. Look to the passage about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s desire to protect his stair routine from imitation. Seibert even mentions how the star tried to patent his stair routine, but Robinson’s application was denied by the U.S. Patent Office. He writes of Robinson’s stair dance: “As generations of imitators would learn to their grief, the properties of the staircase that magnified Robinson’s mastery equally magnify the slightest imperfection. Robinson’s timing, his metronome sense, was legendary. Dancers tell a story in which he had his musicians cut out for three and a half minutes while he continued dancing. After the allotted time, the musicians came back in, cued by a metronome that Robinson couldn’t hear. He was exactly on beat.”

The author is at his best when piecing together anecdotes about a particular dancer’s life experiences or performance/creation process. Countless examples of this are in his book, which is why the text is still worth reading and valuable to dance.

When Seibert is on point about a hoofer’s performance or career (and even when he is not), his writing is a compelling and entertaining read for general readers and tap scholars alike. The author includes, in addition to Bill Robinson, accounts of numerous early minstrel performers, avant-garde or classical tapper Paul Draper, and even throws in a mention of choreographer Bronislava Nijinska’s tap encounters as a young girl.

Tap is the dance embodiment of the individual voice, and any history of tap should honor the multiplicity of voices in the art form. Just as in improvisation, tappers learn to embrace and support the imperfect, simultaneously witnessing and creating the transcendent performance, while always striving to improve. There is no purpose for a recorded history of tap to be any different, and thus, it is imperative to accept Seibert’s book in the tap community.