Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. By Constance Valis Hill.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0195390827, $39.95. 464 pages.
Review by Douglas C. Macleod, State University of New York, Albany
On May 9th, 2010, actress and singer Lena Horne died at the age of ninety-two. In an ironic twist, it was on that same day that I was reading about Ms. Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Constance Valis Hill’s comprehensive encyclopedia of tap dance entitled Tap Dancing America: a Cultural History. In her work, Hill talks about a then-twenty-six-year-old Horne performing in Stormy Weather, a 1943 musical that contains what some may consider one of the greatest tap sequences of all time: “Jumpin’ Jive.” Here is a segment of Hill’s description of that scene:
Dressed in tailcoats, they [the Nicholas Brothers] jump table to table, then over the railing and onto the stage floor. Stepping and sliding across the floor, they follow [Cab] Calloway to center stage and begin their tap dance (their A section). Spins, cramp rolls, turns, and crossover steps are woven into an intricate pattern of sound and movement, as the brothers spin out backsliding rhythms that slip them smoothly from place to place on the stage. In the second A section, they repeat and vary their step patterns in alternating solos and duets. Then, with a back-slide split that springs up into a jump-split, they land on the platform where a row of musicians are seated. (136)
As one can clearly ascertain from the passage above, Hill is not only an accomplished tap dance historian (and performer), but an extremely descriptive and passionate writer; she is able to paint a colorful and dynamic picture for her reader, which is an arduous task when writing about a visual and aural art-form.
In fact, that is what makes Tap Dancing America: a Cultural History such a compelling read. Obviously, her knowledge of the subject is substantial; but, with the material she is covering, she could have easily slipped into just providing her reader with a list of names, dates, movies, and scenes. Instead, Hill shows the reader the dance sequences she writes about using specificities and fine detail. This helps prove Hill’s claim that tap dance is a people-filled, tangible form of entertainment that is “intercultural and interracial” and is all “inclusive to men and women, soloists and choristers, sister acts and two-man teams, producers and choreographers” and to “proselytizers and preservationists” (xiii).
Hill also successfully proves her claim by taking the reader back in time, to the early days of tap. Starting with the mid-1600’s to 1900, she delves deeply into the roots of modern-day American tap dance, which stem from a fusion of Irish American jig and sean-no dancing and Afro-American jig and gioube dancing, as well as turn of the century buck-and-wing dancing, which in and of itself stemmed from Appalachian clog dancing (22). She takes her time to provide to her reader a rich and layered history of tap, a history filled with many different racial and cultural dance styles. She then takes her reader on a decade-by-decade journey, writing on filmed and un-filmed dance sequences, and memorable and less-than-famous tap dancers like: Jack Donohue, Bert and Baby Alice, and George Primrose (1910s); James Barton, Buddy Bradley, and Fredi Washington (1920s); Buck and Bubbles, Edith “Baby” Edwards, Louise Madison, Fred Astaire, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1930s); Betty Grable, Ann Miller, The Brothers Condos, Ray Bolger, and Gene Kelly (1940s); Little Teddy Hale, Leon Collins, Jimmy Slyde, Donald O’Connor, and Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1950s); Bunny Briggs and Charles “Cholly”Atkins (1960s);The Hines Brothers (Maurice and Gregory), Brenda Bufolino, and Honi Coles (1970s); Lynn Dally, Linda Sohl-Donnell, Diane Walker, and Savion Glover (1980s); Roxanne “Butterfly” Semadini, Baakari Wilder, and Ayodele Casel (1990s); and, Chole Arnold, Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, Derrick K. Grant, and Sarah Petronio (present day). All of these tap dancers (amongst scores of others Hill writes about) have influence not only in the decade in which she spotlights them in, but also within the decades when the old timers intentionally or unintentionally stepped out of that spotlight to allow younger hoofers to continue on the path to tap dancing greatness.
Not only does Hill provide her reader with a significant (almost too much, in some instances) amount of physical detail, but she intertwines that physical detail with her thoughts and observations on the cultural significance of the dance. Her section on Ada (Aida) Overton Walker, for example, is one of her strongest:
Mourned as the foremost African American female stage artist, Overton Walker’s interest in both African and African American indigenous material and her translation of these to the modern stage anticipated the choreographic work of modern dance pioneers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Both in her solo work for women and in the unison and precision choreographies for the female chorus, she claimed a female presence on the American theatrical stage. She also gave presence to black rhythm dancing, thus opening the prime-time, public professional space for tap performance, which had been previously restricted to post-show-time, late-night buck-and-wing contests. By negotiating the narrow white definitions of appropriate black performance with her own version of black specialization and innovation, Overton Walker established a black cultural integrity onstage that established a model by which African American musical artists could gain acceptance on the professional concert stage. (41)
Very much like Lena Horne after her and in her own way, Aida Overton Walker was foundational and set the standard high for future dancers; and, Hill certainly gives Overton Walker recognition because of it. Overton Walker broke major misogynistic barriers, although it was (and in some ways still is) prominent some sixty or seventy years after she first set foot on stage. Hill’s strength is certainly in her ability to recognize the importance of women in a medium that never fully appreciated dancers like Overton Walker, Bufolino, and Dally.
I must admit that it was extremely difficult to get through Tap Dancing America not because of its sheer length, nor because of its abundance of information, but because, after reading sections of Hill’s book, I felt compelled to go to YouTube to see many of the acts she alludes to. Bunny Briggs, Brenda Bufolino, Honi Coles, Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde: simply amazing clips, all of which are readily available for everyone to see. Just type in each name, and watch how sweet it is.
And, yes, the Nicholas Brothers in “Jumpin’ Jive” is definitely one of the greatest tap dance sequences ever filmed; but the best: debatable.