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I just wanted to tap. But in the mid-Eighties and early Nineties, in the well-to-do suburbs of New Jersey, the price of flapping, winging, and shuffling off to Buffalo was the end-of-year recital, an orgy of hair spray, ruffles, armbands, and glitter that clocked in at more than four hours; I was onstage for four minutes. That’s show business for you. I tapped as a milkmaid. I tapped as a miniskirted cowboy. I tapped in a bowler hat festooned with flowers. Most memorably, I tapped in a hot-pink spandex onesie with shredded capri legs and patches of gingham sewn across the chest and thigh. What were we supposed to be? Sharecroppers? Now that I’ve read Brian Seibert’s 600-page doorstop, WHAT THE EYE HEARS: A HISTORY OF TAP DANCING (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), that poor-farmer getup has come to seem eerie — the torn legs and patches like sartorial ghosts that could not be exorcised, only expressed in unknowing pastiche.

Tap was born in American slavery, the child of Irish jigging and West African polyrhythmic dance, and migrated from the plantation through minstrelsy, vaudeville, and Hollywood all the way to the NEA-funded festival circuit, the Gregory Hines vehicle White Nights, and Savion Glover’s Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. Seibert, a dance critic for the New York Times, documents every stage and hoofer with passion, intelligence, and detail — perhaps too much detail. What makes tap special is that it’s dance you hear, at once motion and percussion. (And unless it’s live, beware what the ear sees. You may think those are the sounds of Gene Kelly tappin’ in the rain, but he had three female assistants dub his footwork off camera.) Unlike the history of ballet, which consists of choreographed works that can be passed down from company to company, tap’s history is a parade of star performers and signature styles. Like jazz, tap is an art of what Seibert calls “stolen steps” — moves that were imitated and improved in jam sessions, back-alley dance-offs, and competitions at Harlem’s Hoofers’ Club, and memorized, surreptitiously, from balcony seats. It survived not in formal notation but in the bodies of each new generation. The relationship to jazz is more than analogical — tappers toured with Duke Ellington, traded solos with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and released records. (Ella Fitzgerald’s debut at the Apollo was supposed to be a tap number, but, intimidated by the competition, she opted at the last minute to sing instead.)

Will Gaines performing at the Wag Club, London, 1984 © David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

Will Gaines performing at the Wag Club, London, 1984 © David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

A step was good if it was worth copying and making new — but who gets to do the copying has been hotly contested, and the reasons for the copying are not always easy to parse. Did the slaves who picked up European styles of jigging and clogging intend them only as parody? What was the balance of joy and hate? Though forced to dance for their masters’ pleasure and at auction, they also danced “breakdowns” by choice, traveling hours on Saturday evenings and holidays to attend parties where the best took turns on planks suspended between barrels (an Irish tradition), or on wagon-bed bottoms, or simply pounding the clay floors. The “Negro” style of dancing was imitated by whites at “country frolics,” and arrived on the minstrel stage around 1828, when Thomas Dartmouth Rice debuted the soon-to-be-infamous number “Jump Jim Crow.” Rice, who claimed to have learned the song from a crippled slave, paired lyrics — “Wheel about, turn about / Do jus’ so / An’ ebery time I turn about / I jump Jim Crow” — with slaps of the foot, shuffles, and pigeon wings. These were moves not unlike those performed in the urban markets of the North, where buskers jigged in exchange for money or eels. In urban ghettos, poor whites and blacks mixed in dance halls and saloons, where they challenged one another to contests that involved elements of jigs, hornpipes, and reels, testing who could “cut, shuffle, and attitudinize with the greatest facility,” as a local paper put it. From 1848 to 1850, Master Juba, the best black dancer from Manhattan’s Five Points, toured England and Scotland with a minstrel troupe called Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders, sending a press accustomed to whites in blackface into paroxysms of confusion.

The term “tap” came into wide use in the Twenties, around the time that metal plates began to be produced for the mass market; performers, though, had long fixed nails to their soles for sound. As tap came to be featured in Broadway revues, local vaudeville shows, and club acts, different styles developed: white “eccentrics” did comedy routines; “flash” dance groups specialized in flips, splits, and acrobatic stunts; and well-heeled “class acts” stepped in sweet synchronicity. White performers surrounded themselves with “picks”: young black boys who tapped and smiled. Chorus girls high-kicked in time, although women in tap never received the same opportunities or recognition as men. Gifted groups like the Nicholas Brothers made it to Hollywood and into movies produced for black audiences. But with the exception of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who starred alongside Shirley Temple, black performers were dropped into white films, not integrated into the plot.

Duke Ellington playing piano, with Charles “Honi” Coles and Billy Strayhorn looking on, at the Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, c. 1942–1943 © Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

Duke Ellington playing piano, with Charles “Honi” Coles and Billy Strayhorn looking on, at the Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, c. 1942–1943 © Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

Robinson was the only black tapper of his day to become a real star. He was celebrated for his subtlety — he would tap up and down a portable staircase (and pull a gun on anyone he saw doing the same) with effortless grace and control — and denounced as a pandering showman, an Uncle Tom. There’s an avant-garde tradition in tap, too: Paul Draper tapped to Bach on Broadway; Baby Laurence and Groundhog danced for dope on the sidewalk outside Minton’s Playhouse, a bebop haven in Harlem.

After pervading every aspect of American entertainment in the Thirties and Forties, tap fell into a decades-long hibernation. It was brought out of the underground in the Seventies and Eighties by white women — including Brenda Bufalino, Jane Goldberg, and Camden Richmond — who exhumed, learned from, and looked after old-timers like Eddie Brown and Honi Coles. (One of Bufalino’s students coined the moniker “Supermoms of Tap” to describe the dynamic.) The careers of Cholly Atkins, Steve Condos, and Bunny Briggs also benefited from the revival. These men enjoyed being back in the spotlight, and did whatever they damn well pleased: they would solo for fifteen minutes or forty-five, improvise or sit one out. “When you get old,” Buster Brown said, “you can get away with anything.”

One reason tap declined in the Fifties was the rise of the Broadway musical, which dovetailed with a new kind of realistic theater dance, in which every gesture was rooted in the personality of the character. No choreographer was more important to this evolution than Agnes de Mille, but that’s something you’d never know from her finely written memoir, DANCE TO THE PIPER (New York Review Books, $17.95), which was originally published in 1951. It’s a dry and self-deprecating bildungsroman that was, by her account, scratched out on napkins and envelopes while she was “doing a barre” or tending to an infant.

The story begins when de Mille is a child. Her father, a playwright, moves the family from Manhattan to Hollywood, where his brother, Cecil, was breaking into the moving-picture business. She sees Anna Pavlova perform and falls in love with ballet, but is not permitted to attend lessons more than twice a week. Dance was no career for a proper lady; haphazard training, however, is no way to learn a craft. De Mille falls behind as soon as she begins, and eventually pushes her dreams aside to attend UCLA, where she studies English and choreographs a few numbers for campus rallies.

The day after she graduates, her parents announce that they are divorcing. De Mille moves back to New York with her mother, the most vivid character in Dance to the Piper — controlling, suffocating, discouraging, and endlessly self-sacrificing. The daughter of Henry George, a Progressive Era economist, she sews Agnes’s costumes, sells tickets to her performances, and converts the dancers she meets to her father’s Single Tax plan. De Mille’s luck turns when she finally moves out of her mother’s apartment.

The reigning ideal of the woman artist had been set down by Isadora Duncan, who, de Mille writes, “broke all the traditional moralities and lived like a bacchante.” De Mille’s body, temperament, and upbringing all pointed another way:

I had been brought up to believe you must love the man you kissed, pay your bills, keep your word, be as modest as possible and work faithfully. If inspiration hit you along the way, so much the better, but it was not to be counted on. . . . I would very much have liked to be heroic but it struck me that if I went against my instincts I would really be whoring.

Agnes de Mille watches James Mitchell and Gemze de Lappe rehearse for the television broadcast of de Mille’s Gold Rush, 1965 © CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Agnes de Mille watches James Mitchell and Gemze de Lappe rehearse for the television broadcast of de Mille’s Gold Rush, 1965 © CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Bigger than the typical ballerina, and more of a comedienne than she cared to be, de Mille presented her choreography of everyday stories about boys and girls as an invention of necessity. Its expressive, theatrical qualities were also influenced by her early exposure to Uncle Cecil’s movie spectacles. Though she would eventually become one of the most famous choreographers in America — she earned more than a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, in 1950 alone — in earlier years it was hard to persuade anyone to take a gamble on her. She struggled desperately to impress agents, managers, and company directors. She was defrauded by shady bookers and nearly bankrupted her mother. She could not be choosy about where she rehearsed, at one point sinking so low as to share space with — tap dancers.

The school I had chosen to practice at was depressing. The hours alternated with tap-dancing and the rooms resounded to the clatter of steel-bottomed shoes, while the dressing rooms were given over to tiny children getting themselves into satin pants and diamond-studded brassieres under the admonishings of their hard-eyed mothers.

Satin pants, diamond-studded brassieres — the history of the dance costume, and the trauma it has wreaked on our collective consciousness, surely deserve their own book. (I would be happy to contribute my own photographs to the cause.)

De Mille never treats success as her due. (“My brief and frenzied flurries with commercial troupes of mixed prostitutes and chorus dancers had not helped me build a technique of composing and rehearsing nor raised my confidence to speak of” is one typical remark.) And when she does achieve something, she generously credits everyone she has ever met for making it possible, as women will do. De Mille ultimately choreographed fifteen musicals — including Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon — and twenty-one ballets, of which three — Rodeo, Three Virgins and a Devil, and Fall River Legend — are still in repertory. But Dance to the Piper ends, disappointingly, with her riding off into the sunset as she marries a man, Walter Prude, whose portrait in her memoir is painted far less brilliantly than those of Martha Graham and the members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

In 2008, two years before she died at the age of ninety-eight, the artist Louise Bourgeois sat for a number of portraits with her friend the photographer Alex Van Gelder. The result, MUMBLING BEAUTY LOUISE BOURGEOIS (Thames & Hudson, $50), is alternately monstrous and endearing. She gamely dons a mask, holds a knife, paints, peers through a magnifying glass, reclines in bed, and is reflected in a funhouse mirror that pulls her like putty, stretching beyond repair her already gnomic features. A pigeon alights on her head. Her black orthopedic shoes swing off the ground. Her mouth gapes, the sharp yellow teeth — one is missing — like the open gates of hell.

Van Gelder photographed Bourgeois for a 2011 exhibition called Armed Forces, in which her gnarled hands float against a black backdrop like severed abstractions. His sensibility finds aesthetic satisfaction where others might find grotesquerie; last year in London he exhibited a series called Meat Portraits, photographs of found and arranged animal entrails and raw meat from a slaughterhouse in Benin. Those drooping and distended sacs and organs bear a nontrivial visual relation to Bourgeois’s own tumescent and tumorous sculptures, which would not be out of place in a horror movie. He writes in Mumbling Beauty that Bourgeois was “a consummate performer in front of the camera,” and I have no reason to doubt that she found the distortions and disturbances of the camera to be good and mischievous fun.

Photograph of Louise Bourgeois © Alex Van Gelder. Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Photograph of Louise Bourgeois © Alex Van Gelder. Courtesy Thames & Hudson

In Dance to the Piper, de Mille describes the paradox of the ballerina’s body, which “has been disciplined to look unlike a human body” but “must remain a body and can never be anything else”:

It therefore represents the body as we wish it were, not one of our bodies well-used, but a dream body liberated from trouble. It is the epitome of all the elements we consider most attractive — lightness, fleetness, strength, ease and, above all, fulfillment.

Few of us will ever know what it is like to inhabit a dream body liberated from trouble. But all of us who receive the mixed blessing of long life will know the trouble of Bourgeois’s nightmare body, a body well used: bones bent with age, skin loose with wear, limbs too stiff or weak to shuffle, let alone dance.

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October 2019

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