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Who Invented the Shimmy?

The history of tap dancing in America is a joyful and troubled story.

George Konig / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1981, two tap dancers, Brenda Bufalino and Honi Coles, sat down for an interview for an oral history project. Bufalino, who was white, had helped lead the tap revival of the 1970s. Coles, who was black, was her teacher, friend, and collaborator. In the forties, he and Cholly Atkins had been the most celebrated class act in the business, two elegant men on the move and, decades later, he and Bufalino reprised some of their old routines. 

For most of their four-hour conversation, Bufalino and Coles were an affectionate pair, but when they discussed the origins of tap, things got tense. As Brian Seibert describes the scene in his new book What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, Bufalino “suggests that if it weren’t for the mixing of cultures, tap wouldn’t have existed.” Coles stiffens. “I don’t know how you mean that,” he says, then “brings up an article he once read about how Mozart stole from Africans.”

In Coles’s response, you can hear a profound uneasiness. Was Bufalino implying that the history of tap dance, or of culture itself, is some happy melting pot? For as Coles well knew, the melting pot gets pretty sludgy. When he and Cholly Atkins choreographed their own dancing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, credit went to the show’s primary choreographer, Agnes de Mille. This was standard practice on Broadway, but it can’t have felt good. A few years later, their manager told them they were too debonair to get gigs. Show biz had no room, he explained, for black men “doing a white boys’ act.”            

In What the Eye Hears, Seibert manages to agree with both Bufalino and Coles. Tap dancing is the product of what’s best, and what’s worst, about America. As any tap dancer will tell you, “stealing steps” is a fundamental part of learning: you pick up moves from other people and find a way to make them your own. But unless you’re tracking a specific piece of choreography, ownership of movement is hard to pin down. Steps travel. And when they travel across the very lines of race, class, and gender that get used to police the movements of actual people, dance becomes a product—and an expression—of both freedom and oppression. “Every tap dance,” Seibert writes, “is an imitation dance.”

Tap history begins with enslaved Africans, who managed to maintain their culture in the very bodies that white Americans had declared their own property. West African traditions that survived the Middle Passage included polyrhythms (the hips shaking to one beat while the feet hammer out another); directing movement toward the earth (rather than, as in European dance, up and out from an erect spine); a sense of cool composure, no matter how virtuosic one’s steps; and the use of dance as communication—whether to mock a friend or channel the divine. When whites banned slaves from using drums, for fear they might stoke insurrection, dancers found new ways to percuss: with their feet.

At the same time, Irish immigrants and indentured servants were pounding out rhythms with their feet, too. Irish clogs, the ancestors of tap shoes, made practical sense for workers: they were cheap, sturdy, and could protect the feet from cold and wet. They also had artistic assets: jig in clogs, and you’d get a satisfying burst of noise. Irish dancing was fast and often extraordinarily intricate, but unlike in African dance, the rhythms were even.

African and Irish dances likely began to merge as early as the 1620s, when slaves and Irish servants worked alongside one another in Virginia and in the Caribbean. By the nineteenth century, when waves of Irish immigrants fled famine and poverty for the U.S., African and Irish dance was mixed-up enough that slaves were said to be dancing jigs. Up North, Irishmen and free people of color lived in the same neighborhoods; New York’s Five Points was the most famous. As Noel Ignatiev makes clear in How the Irish Became White, shared terrain didn’t add up to love and understanding. Fueled by economic competition, racism, and a desire to move up the social ladder, the Irish repeatedly rioted against—and murdered—blacks. Shared terrain did, however, help give rise to what became the most popular form of entertainment in America, as working-class white men, Irish-Americans included, painted their faces and pretended to be black. It was on the minstrel stage that, as Seibert puts it, African and Irish-American dances “became tap.”

Eric Lott titled his classic study of blackface minstrelsy Love and Theft, and it’s easy enough to understand the theft side of the dynamic. White Americans have been plundering from blacks culturally as well as physically, economically, and politically since before the country was even a country. The “love” part of Lott’s title, however, can be harder to see. White working-class minstrels and their audiences were also attracted to what they saw as black culture’s insurrectionary power. From behind the mask, minstrels poked fun at elites, finding a sense of unruly affinity with the very black culture they ridiculed. In such a context, tap dancing could seem like a goofy, even inept way to move—shuffling feet begetting the nasty stereotype of lazy, “shuffling darkies”—or a virtuosic way to claim control of one’s own body.

When black dancers entered the profession in the late nineteenth century, they had no choice but to conform to the precedent white minstrels had set: they wore the blackface mask, literally and figuratively. But as numerous fine scholars of black performance have made clear—including Daphne Brooks, Louis Chude-Sokei, David Krasner, and Karen Sotiropoulos—the meanings of that mask could be shifty. For white audiences, blacks in blackface might justify ugly stereotypes. But to black audiences, blacks in blackface could make different jokes, subverting the mask from inside. As the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar put it his 1896 poem “We Wear the Mask,” black performers learned to “mouth”—and to dance—“with myriad subtleties.”

Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times, doesn’t seem to have consulted these fine scholars, which is a shame because their analyses might have helped him expand his own. Take, for instance, this description of a performance by Billy Kersands, a black man who performed in blackface, which Seibert quotes from one of Kersands’s contemporaries. Kersands would “lie flat on his stomach and beat first his head and then his toes against the stage to keep time with the orchestra. He would look at his feet to see how they were keeping time, and then, looking out at the audience, he would say, ‘Ain’t this nice? I get seventy-five dollars a week for doing this!’”

Seibert notes that Kersands’s joke has a “double edge,” but that description barely touches its nuances. Kersands, an accomplished dancer whose gliding Virginia Essence was said to be the best of his era, was getting paid to beat the floor? That in itself could be a jab at white expectations—no sophisticated movement here!—or an opportunity for Kersands to brag about how easily he manipulated his onlookers. At the same time, his stance sounds like that of a man who’s been beaten down, his lines a lament for the way he’s degraded himself for money. Kersands, after all, was famous for stuffing billiard balls into his mouth. This was percussive movement as profit, pleasure, and pain.

But such analyses may not be part of Seibert’s agenda. In his conclusion he tells you that a good performance will make “the questions”—about tap’s hybrid status as music and as dance, about its range and its power—“go away.” Seibert cares, first and foremost, about the dance as dance. He’s done a marvelous job tracking that dance, too, digging deep into primary sources to help you see, and hear, dozens of tappers from the nineteenth-century to the present: William Henry Lane (a.k.a. “Master Juba”), George Primrose, Harland Dixon, Eddie Rector, Peg-Leg Bates, Bill Bailey, John “Bubbles” Sublett, Jeni Legon, Ruby Keeler, Harold and Fayard Nicholas, Eleanor Powell, Paul Draper, The Berry Brothers, Donald O’Connor, Jane Goldberg, Lynn Dally, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, Michelle Dorrance—the list goes on. Seibert generously invites both the famous and nearly forgotten into his pages, making a case for why each of them matters as an artist. This is a big tent approach to dance history, and it’s an admirable one.

Seibert follows tap from the minstrel stage to the Vaudeville palace, where it thrived on both black and white circuits. By the thirties, tap was recognized as a uniquely American art form, popularized by some of the biggest movie stars of the era, including Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, Shirley Temple, and Bill Robinson. Robinson was the rare black artist who crossed over to become popular with white audiences, but even he had to bend to type. On Vaudeville, he was a nattily dressed ambassador of Harlem sophistication, but in Hollywood, he had to play servants.

Black performers had fewer chances for national recognition—and for money—than their white contemporaries. That made it harder to accept as mere rhetorical bluster the claims white artists sometimes made about their own, isolated genius, such as Gilda Gray’s assertion, in 1927, that she invented the shimmy—a dance move black Americans were doing before she was born. Ditto the ludicrous title Ned Wayburn, an accomplished white teacher and choreographer, gave to himself: “Inventor of Ragtime.”

Yet white performers were sometimes forthright about how much they learned from, and admired, black artists: Wayburn also said that he learned ragtime from a black piano player. Such stories can be attempts to express admiration or pay a cultural debt. At the same time, they let white Americans imply that their own moves and music are “authentic,” anointed with perceived black coolness, even black approval. Witness Fred Astaire riffing on the rhythms of black musicians and laborers in Shall We Dance, then being applauded by those same black men. As the critic Joel Dinerstein has pointed out, the closing shot acknowledges “only the appreciation—and not the contribution—of those who provided the aesthetic materials of his art.” In other words, love and theft did not perish with the nineteenth century.

Tap, on the other hand, seemed close to perishing, around the middle of the twentieth century. For decades, tap dancers had been able to find work touring in the remnants of vaudeville, gigging in clubs, performing with jazz bands, occasionally even cutting soundies for moving picture jukeboxes or appearing as specialty acts in film or Broadway musicals. But musicals were changing. Instead of a string of potentially show-stopping numbers, hung together by a thin plot, musicals increasingly used dance to develop plots and move them along. For that, choreographers began turning to ballet, which seemed to allow for a greater range of expressive capability. New, bebop jazz and the venues where it was performed didn’t make room for tappers; and while TV variety shows, the closest thing America had to vaudeville, still featured tappers, these were isolated gigs, no way to earn a living.

Seibert tracks tap’s survival through these difficult years and into its revival, in the 1970s, when younger dancers like Bufalino cultivated fresh audiences and gave older tappers new chances to perform. (One member of that scene, Constance Valis Hill, now a professor of dance at Hampshire College, recently wrote her own, wonderful history of tap dance, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History.) As the years went on, new masters like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover continued to honor the elders, and today, dancers from across the world use tap to forge their own forms of expression.

Instructors demonstrate a new dance composed by Fred Astaire, 1947.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Seibert is a tap dancer himself, and his writing on technique is illuminating. Comparing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, for example, he doesn’t stop with the commonplace distinction between Kelly’s muscular, man-of-the-people attitude and Astaire’s aristocratic elegance. Rather, he explains that for all Kelly’s graceful movement quality, “his rhythms were utterly predictable, with an Irish lilt and a triplet feel. In the age of swing, he seldom swung.” Astaire, on the other hand, hammered out sophisticated jazz rhythms; he was both dancer and musician.

Seibert also includes a bang-up description of his own experiences at the Sunday night tap jams that the great Buster Brown used to hold at Swing 46 in Manhattan. Brown models the all-inclusive ethos Seibert values most: he wanted everyone who showed up to have a chance to dance, Seibert included. “And so it was that Brian Seibert, a bespectacled white guy in khakis and a button-down shirt, entered the Swing 46 mix. As I hopped onstage, Buster announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Duane!”

This is masterful storytelling. Seibert has painted himself in familiar and humble strokes—a dorky white guy, all of whom look alike to Buster Brown—even as he establishes his own cred. At the end of each Sunday jam, everyone who’d showed up, no matter their age, background, or ability, “would crowd the stage for the Shim Sham, a routine from the 1920s, designed to be easy enough for anybody to do,” and “the group was held together, just barely, by routine and rhythm.”

Group dancing works, but it can get messy, and even orderly routines fall apart: a chorus girl steps out of line; someone gets hurt; disaster strikes. That’s what happens at the end of the 1932 Vitaphone soundie Pie Pie Blackbird, best remembered today—if at all—as the first time Fayard and Harold Nicholas, two of the greatest tappers of all time, appeared on film. In the opening scene, Nina Mae McKinney, dressed as a Mammy, sings them a song about how “the master says it takes a blackbird to make the sweetest kind of pie.” Suddenly there’s a giant pie onscreen, its crust opening to reveal the “blackbirds” inside: Eubie Blake and his band. Eventually the Nicholas Brothers, attired in chef’s whites, come back out for what Seibert cleverly calls a “challenge dance to set before a king.” Their tapping is thrilling, almost reckless, and so scorches the scene that smoke begins to drift around their feet. Flames sweep across the screen. The music stops. Taps keep time for terrified screams.

When the fire vanishes, all that remains of the performers are skeletons, who keep playing music and dancing. Seibert explains the film as “a disturbing joke about ‘hot’ jazz,” but it’s not funny. Intentionally or not, Pie Pie Blackbird is haunting, impossible to watch without thinking about the violence done to black bodies, the ugly stereotypes surrounding black entertainers (it’s in their bones!), and apocalyptic visions of America’s history of racism. In the old nursery rhyme, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie come out to seek revenge: they fly out and peck off peoples’ noses. The skeletons in Pie Pie Blackbird don’t get that far. But if you think tap dance isn’t filled with ghosts, you’re wrong.