WHAT THE EYE HEARS by Brian Seibert


A History of Tap Dancing
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New York Times dance critic Seibert debuts with an exhaustive account of tap, from its roots in African dance to its multicultural apotheosis.

In early chapters, the author delves into the transfer of rhythm from drums, forbidden as possible instruments of rebellious slave communications, to slapping feet, making the point that sound and rhythm were the essence of this African-American art form. Casual readers may weary in the long introductory section about minstrelsy, but it’s here that Seibert cogently lays out his central themes of assimilation and appropriation, asking as he surveys pioneers like Master Juba how much they catered to white folks, how much instructed them. As tap moved onto Broadway and into the movies, the vexed question for artists was how much pandering was required to gain commercial acceptance. The author appreciates the contributions made by Irish traditions and white innovators like Fred Astaire, who brought black tap with his distinctive adaptations to a mainstream audience. But he reminds us of the many brilliant tappers like the Nicholas Brothers and John Bubbles, sidelined into specialty numbers while commendable but less-extraordinary talents like Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller became stars. The African-American tradition, kept alive at places like the Hoofers’ Club in Harlem and through the devoted efforts of white women like Brenda Bufalino, finally got its due in the tap revival of the 1990s, when youthful veteran Gregory Hines made the old ways new again. In 1995, Savion Glover took tap in a whole new direction with the angry, rap-inflected Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. The text comes close to turning into a parade of names, but Seibert’s point of view and analytic skills are evident throughout. He acknowledges Glover’s genius, for example, while taking to task his purist posturing and celebrating tap as a typically multicultural American art form, born from black culture but amended and extended by all who loved it.

Awfully long for all but the most committed tap fanatics, but an intelligent, thoughtful assessment worth dipping into by anyone interested in American culture.

Pub Date: Nov. 17th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-86547-953-1
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2015