“What the Eye Hears,” Brian Seibert’s delightful book about tap dancing, traces “a history of stolen steps” and captures the exuberance of an art form that’s part African dance, part Irish jig, part Appalachian clogging and all fun.
‘What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing’
by Brian Seibert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 574 pp., $30
Oh, but this book is fun. Brian Seibert’s meticulously researched, breezily written history of tap dance, “What the Eye Hears,” shuffles and slides and Shim Shams across the page irresistibly; when you close its pages, you still hear tapping feet.
Tap, the don’t-get-no-respect upstart of the dance world, suits this sort of approach: deeply personal, slyly witty, irrepressible.
Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times, recalls in the book’s introduction that he studied tap as a child, but that the skills taught were “like a signal that had lost strength by straying too far from its source.” In his twenties, he stumbled upon legendary tap dancer Buster Brown, who in his late 80s still led a weekly tap jam on Sundays at a club on West 46th Street. Brown, who got his start in vaudeville and later toured the world with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, was so immersed in tap that, his friends said, his feet still moved even as he nodded off to sleep, “undoubtedly dreaming up some new step.”
Fascinated, Seibert became a regular at the Sunday jams, but the long conversations he’d hoped for with Brown never happened: Brown, long ill, died in 2002. This book is, it seems, a chance for all of us to have that conversation; it is, Seibert writes, “a story of several braided traditions, of dancers famous and forgotten, and of the times in which they lived.”
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In its early chapters, Seibert knits together those varied traditions from which American tap sprung: African dance, Irish jigging, competitive dancing on slave plantations, Appalachian clogging, minstrelsy. Before tap dancing even had a name, it had an early great practitioner: a black dancer in 1840s New York known as Master Juba, who a visiting Charles Dickens described as “dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs — all sorts of legs and no legs — what is this to him?”
As we enter the 20th century, the book becomes less a chronological history than a series of intertwined stories of key figures in American tap — from vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway — chiming together like a riff of tap tones, with extensive but playful analysis. For Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, that master of precision and balance, Seibert devotes nearly a page to a meticulous blow-by-blow of his famous stair dance (“… it’s music and it’s magic”), and later notes that Robinson’s brilliance came from his ease and simplicity: “Where other hoofers looked as if they were risking cardiac arrest, Bojangles never lost the crease in his pants.”
For the ever-smooth Fred Astaire, Seibert reminds us to look closer, to see the dancer’s uncanny way of making us believe he’s dancing for the first time: “His imperfections are what allow you to believe him as a man making it up, someone you can root for.” And we get a vivid picture of the “tap improvography” of Gregory Hines, who led a revival of interest in tap in the 1980s: “He’s talking to the people with his feet, pleasing himself and letting them share in his pleasure.”
“What the Eye Hears” is a dense 500-plus pages, but it zips along as quickly as a Nicholas Brothers stair-split (and, if you don’t know what that is, prepare to be astonished). The history of tap is, Seibert tells us, “a history of stolen steps,” and he quotes Astaire explaining that dancers borrow steps from each other “like a library book: if it’s good you forget to bring it back.” You may not be bringing this one back anytime soon.