What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing


Happy National (and apparently International) Tap Dance Day! 

One of the things I enjoy doing is reading criticism from outside the accustomed vineyards in which I generally toil. Which is hard, since I write theatre, book, film and museum reviews. But I think I can confidently say that, though I’ve done a tiny handful of dance reviews, it’s not an area in which I have much prospect of expanding. Thus, I can read it for pure enjoyment. I can enjoy the writing for itself, and I can also allow it to take my mind and my writing muscles in new directions both for describing theatre itself (one does get into ruts) and for describing the dance components of theatre — it does come into play in the vaudeville field after all.

Tap, like the jazz it often accompanies, can be especially rewarding to read about, as (I find) it often inspires writers to reach for poetic and patriotic heights in their portraits. Music and dance, they are so unlike words…using words to describe them can be so interesting. It can often enter realms pioneered by Gertrude Stein, who was all about the sound of words, which I’ve always found to be so wise and so primally true.

I didn’t just generate this train of thought out of the blue. It was inspired by Brian Seibert’s incredible achievement What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, which came out back in November. Seibert is a dance critic for the New York Times and a contributor to the New Yorker. I warn you this is an appropriately formidable book. Indeed, I am not done with it yet, I only rush this post into the light of day because it is timely — National Tap Dance Day. The book combines rich, beautiful writing, heartfelt description with a truly epic scope, with chapters covering every single era in American tap from its origins to the contemporary scene. One often skims non-fiction for the facts. This is not the kind of writing you want to do that with. There’s too much pleasure in the reading of it.

And yet for someone like me a book like this has incredible utility. When I say that I’m not through with it yet, I also know that I will never be through with it. I’ll go back to it periodically when I need to, for I know that I will need to, and I imagine I’ll hit every last chapter before I’m done — before I end my own last tap dance.

It’s now got pride of place next to previous “go-to” tap tome, Rusty Frank’s Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories. It doesn’t replace the earlier book, but compliments it. Frank’s book is mostly first person quotes from the dancers themselves. Seibert is tap’s Homer. Dance lovers and vaudeville lovers alike, buy this book!

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