hroughout much of the 20th century, tap dancing was the quintessential style of American theatrical dance. Edwin Denby, America’s foremost ballet critic, wrote in 1943 that “tap dancing is what we think of as a natural way of dancing in this country.” But while it continues to be seen on Broadway, it is no longer predominant in theatrical choreography and is now all but invisible (and inaudible) in movies and on TV. The diminished cultural status of tap was underlined by the 2015 Broadway revival of Dames at Sea, a 1966 homage to the tap-oriented movie musicals of the 1930s. Unlike the original off-Broadway production, which ran for 575 performances, this one received lukewarm reviews and closed after two months.
What was tap dancing like in its cultural heyday? Until now, there has been only one book of any substance about the history of tap, Marshall and Jean Stearns’s Jazz Dance (1968). But Jazz Dance has finally been supplemented and to a considerable extent superseded by Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, a primary-source study that is very well written and—for the most part—accessible to the lay reader.1
Seibert, a New York–based dance critic and amateur tapper, does not shy away from using technical language to parse the routines of which he writes. But his engagingly conversational style helps make the rough places plain, and readers can view on YouTube the film and TV appearances by many of the dancers whom he discusses, making it easier to see what he is talking about. Moreover, one need not know anything about dance in order to appreciate his vivid descriptions of tap dancers, such as this trenchant analysis of the differences between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire:
Kelly had the lower center of gravity, the muscular torque in form-revealing costumes, the manly sex appeal, and the strength to do Douglas Fairbanks stunts, but, as a tap dancer, he was the lightweight…. His rhythms were utterly predictable, with an Irish lilt and a triplet feel. In the age of swing, he seldom swung.
Above all, Seibert understands that tap is an intimate and inseparable fusion of movement and music. Indeed, his title is adapted from a remark about tap dancing made by one of its noted practitioners, Paul Draper: “What the eye sees is sharpened by what the ear hears, and the ear hears more clearly that which sight enhances.” In that fusion lies the enduring beauty of the best tap dancing.
Tap is a multicultural amalgam of folk dance styles that are percussive: The sound of a dancer’s feet hitting the floor is not only intended to be audible but is central to the total effect of his dancing. (In classical ballet, foot sounds are not normally supposed to be heard by the audience.) They include African tribal dance, Irish “step dancing” and English jigs, hornpipes and clog dancing, the last of which was performed in the wooden-soled “clogs” worn by farmers and mill workers in the 19th century. At some point in the early decades of the 20th century, clogs were adapted for theatrical use by replacing the wood with metal taps, which make a sharp, penetrating click when they strike a stage floor.
These styles were commingled when their practitioners emigrated or were brought as slaves to America, in much the same way that Appalachian folk song and the blues came together to form country music. The new dance style that resulted was disseminated by minstrel-show troupes. Ragtime and jazz were simultaneously shaped by these troupes, and their dancers (most of them black, though whites quickly became part of the creative process, as was the case with jazz) developed a more syncopated style, also called “step dancing,” that was the immediate forerunner of tap.
Minstrelsy fed directly into vaudeville, and while the latter was a primarily white enterprise, some black tap dancers became vaudeville stars. The most important of them was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878–1949), a light-footed, brilliantly precise performer who tapped up and down a staircase in his signature routine. His wooden-soled style was described by Robert Benchley in 1930 as “indescribably liquid, like a brook flowing over pebbles.” Starting in 1934, Robinson co-starred with Shirley Temple in a series of films that brought him to the notice of white moviegoers. As a result, he was the first great tapper to leave behind enough film footage to make it possible for today’s dance lovers to understand why he was so admired.
The American film industry took note of tap dancing with the coming of synchronized sound in 1928. “The beat of dancing feet” was prominently featured in such early Hollywood musicals as Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), although Berkeley was more interested in mass visual effects than dance per se and made no contributions to the art of tap.
Vaudeville was on the way out when sound film was introduced, and tap dancers thereafter mainly worked in clubs. But tap continued to be popular on Broadway as well as in Hollywood, and it caught the eye and ear of choreographers trained in other disciplines. One of them, George Balanchine, incorporated tap into the original stage versions of On Your Toes (1936), in which he choreographed “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” for Ray Bolger, who later played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and Babes in Arms (1937), which featured Fayard Nicholas (1914–2006) and his brother Harold (1921–2000), a pair of black tap prodigies.
Black tap dancers, unlike their white counterparts, were not allowed to play leading roles (other than in all-black shows). But a handful of them did appear in featured solo spots in big-budget movies, foremost among them Robinson and, later, the Nicholas Brothers, whose best-remembered film performance, “The Jumpin’ Jive” in Stormy Weather (1943, accompanied by Cab Calloway’s band), is a riotous explosion of joy whose acrobatic climax, in which the two dancers perform a series of seemingly impossible splits on a staircase, is at once comic and thrilling.
Even though it was a popular art form, critics began taking tap seriously early on. John Martin, America’s first full-time dance critic, wrote about it from the beginning of his tenure at the New York Times in 1927. But it was not until the advent of Fred Astaire (1899–1987), the most admired and creative of all tap dancers, that it became more than merely an opportunity for individual technical display.
Gene Kelly was primarily interested in dance not for its own sake but as an extension of acting, whereas Astaire, though he had other highly developed talents that were essential to his performing identity, was at bottom a pure dancer.
Above all, Astaire insisted that his dances be related to the emotional arcs of the films in which he starred. “Every dance ought to spring somehow out of the character or the situation,” he explained. “Otherwise, it is simply a vaudeville act.” And while some of them were comic, others were unabashedly romantic. This necessitated a wider dance vocabulary, since the percussive language of tap did not lend itself to romanticism. To this end, he incorporated ballroom dancing and certain aspects of ballet (radically transformed, but present and visible) into his style, most notably in the pop-culture pas de deux that he danced with Ginger Rogers and his other screen partners.
After Astaire—and undoubtedly because of his example—the role of tap in cinematic dance began to change. Gene Kelly (1912–96), who made his first film in 1942, was initially known for his tap work, but like Astaire, he was also a fine singer and actor who deliberately sought to diversify the dance vocabulary of his films. In any case, Kelly was primarily interested in dance not for its own sake but as an extension of acting, whereas Astaire, though he had other highly developed talents that were essential to his performing identity, was at bottom a pure dancer. Eleanor Powell (1912–82), a superlative star tapper who, unlike Astaire and Kelly, lacked those additional talents, declined sharply in popularity after 1942 and retired from the screen three years later. And though Astaire continued to tap in his films, his broader dance interests were increasingly salient by the ’50s. Indeed, the leggy, ballet-trained Cyd Charisse, with whom he partnered in The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings (1957), did not tap at all.
Equally indicative of the shifting postwar role of tap was the career of Jack Cole (1911–74), who started working in clubs and on Broadway in the early ’30s and became a Hollywood dance director in 1944. Cole was immensely influential in developing the modernized movement vocabulary of what is now known as “jazz dancing,” and he left his mark on such later choreographers as Bob Fosse and Michael Kidd. But, as Seibert explains, he derived his eclectic style from “East Asian, Caribbean, Harlem swing, everything but tap.”
Meanwhile, the Broadway musical had undergone a root-and-branch transformation at the hands of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Their “integrated” musicals left little room for show-stopping tap soloists whose presence on stage could not be justified by the plot. Agnes de Mille, who choreographed their first two shows, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), was a ballet dancer who rarely used tap. Neither did Jerome Robbins, Broadway’s most influential choreographer-director, though he greatly admired Astaire, to whom he paid tribute in his 1983 ballet I’m Old Fashioned (Astaire Variations).
Network television continued to provide a modest amount of support for tap dancers with its variety shows, many of whose hosts had come out of vaudeville. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater and The Ed Sullivan Show, for example, featured tap throughout their runs. But the creative center of the genre started moving toward dancers who performed to the accompaniment of small-group jazz, starting with Baby Laurence (1921–74), a miraculously fleet soloist who worked in clubs with Charlie Parker and in 1959 recorded tap solos accompanied by an all-star jazz combo (as Astaire had done before him in 1952).
These music-oriented dancers, unwilling or unable to work in theatrical contexts, lacked mass appeal. Significantly, Laurence was “discovered” by Whitney Balliett, the jazz critic of the New Yorker, who claimed that “what Laurence is, essentially, is a great drummer.” But even the best tappers—and Laurence was one of them—did not have access to the timbral variety that can effortlessly be summoned up by even a second-rate jazz drummer. Merely to hear a tap dancer at work, even Laurence, is not quite to miss the point, but one must see tappers to fully appreciate their myriad subtleties.
Once rock-and-roll pushed golden-age popular song out of the limelight, tap dance came to be viewed by the baby boomers as the apotheosis of squareness. The collapse of the Hollywood studio system simultaneously choked off the production of old-fashioned big-budget film musicals, in the process truncating the screen careers of such noted Hollywood choreographers as Gower Champion and Charles Walters. Then, starting in the mid-’60s, a new generation of theatrical dancers embraced tap, most successfully in Dames at Sea, the 1971 Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette (which featured Ruby Keeler, the star of 42nd Street), and such all-black revues as Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), and Black and Blue (1989).
It may be that tap is merely dormant, waiting for the advent of a dancer-choreographer of genius who, unlike Glover, is primarily interested in the show as a whole rather than his own boundless virtuosity.
It is revealing that Stephen Sondheim, the most forward-looking figure in postwar musical comedy, used tap in Company (1970) and Follies (1971) only for the purpose of making ironic commentary on the past. And even though tap continues to be seen in mainstream Broadway musicals, its expressive function has altered accordingly. In Seibert’s words:When period-appropriate, [musical] revivals included tap. There were crafty, capable choreographers—Kathleen Marshall, Casey Nicholaw, Jerry Mitchell, Warren Carlyle, and the savviest, Susan Stroman—but their conception of tap was mainly restricted to evocations of Broadway’s faded glory.
As for the revivalists, none of the companies that they launched had more than modest success or produced any new work of lasting interest. For all their earnest efforts, tap dance today is as marginal to popular culture in America as it was in 1960.
hy 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, and once Hollywood musicals and the TV variety show vanished, it had no sufficiently remunerative places to flourish.
Beyond all this, Seibert claims, the language of tap is expressively restrictive—though underdeveloped may be a better word:
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 structually sophisticated, as in other forms of choreography?
These are not nit-picking questions, and they go a long way toward explaining why Astaire took great care never to limit himself to tap. We remember him not just for the electrifying “Say It with Firecrackers” number in Holiday Inn (1942) but for the poetic lyricism of his ballroom-based love duets, as well as for his elegant, musician-like singing and charming acting. Glover and Hines, by contrast, were dancers first and foremost, and were no more able to establish themselves as “acting” dancers than they could create effective theatrical contexts for their dancing.
None of this, however, means that there will never be another Fred Astaire (though it is unlikely that the next Astaire, whoever he or she may be, will flourish in Hollywood). The “crisis” of tap dancing is at least as reflective of the crisis of the Broadway musical as it is of the restrictiveness of the form itself. It may be that tap is merely dormant, waiting for the advent of a dancer-choreographer of genius who, unlike Glover, is primarily interested in the show as a whole rather than his own boundless virtuosity.
But even if tap continues to remain marginal to American popular culture, we will still have the studio-system film musicals in which its possibilities were documented for all time. To see Astaire, Bill Robinson, or the Nicholas Brothers performing on screen is to know that tap dancing at its best is not merely a skill but a true art.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 612 pp.