Probably the first dance anyone ever did was a tap dance. Beating the feet on the ground was elementary communication; doing it in time was a pleasure. The tribal dances of sub-Saharan Africa amazed Europeans with their rhythmic exactness as long ago as the eleventh century. The dancing was monitored by the beating of drums, a practice that survives in modern-day performances in which dancer and drummer exchange signals and rhythms. In these purely percussive conversations the art has its most refined, most radical expression. I once watched Baby Laurence for nearly twenty minutes dance deeper and deeper into literally radical territory. Between the dancer and the drummer, the human root of jazz lay exposed.
There is no one tap dance style. Idiom feeds on idiosyncrasy. In live tap dance performances the sonic experience is more various and discursive and often more alluring than the optical one. This is the theme of Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears, the first authoritative book on the subject since Marshall and Jean Stearns published their classic study Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance in 1968. Seibert is far less concerned with the legitimacy of the art than the Stearnses, far more disposed to interrogate it. He doesn’t take up the story where they left off; he begins where they began, in Africa. It is a remarkable story no matter how often it is told, and it is an American story.
American tap dance had another point of origin besides Africa. In the British Isles, wooden clogs could make gratifying noises. According to the oral history quoted by Seibert, during the industrial revolution millworkers rattled their feet to the beat of machinery “and were pleased by the sound. During breaks, they held competitions on the cobblestones, folding in jigs and morris dances.” The African drum dance began to merge with the hornpipe, the Irish jig, and the Lancashire clog on the way to America.
The passage was through the lowest social strata; Irish POWs were deported by the British in the tens of thousands to the Caribbean or to Virginia, and on the slave ships, Seibert writes, “on those cursed vessels, on those wooden decks, English and Irish ways of dancing met African ones.” British slave owners outnumbered other nationalities in the colonies, and inevitably slaves and slave masters mingled, compared traditions, and shared steps. Though the question of who borrowed what from whom can still start arguments, it doesn’t interest Seibert as much as the way the borrowings were changed. But this, too, is impossible to trace with certainty when whites were imitating blacks who were imitating, or satirizing, whites. The…
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