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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.”

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