- Tap Dancing America:A Cultural History
Amidst the singing Mormons and movie stars, the 2011 Tony Awards broadcast featured a disarmingly anachronistic musical number: triple-threat Broadway star Sutton Foster, who would go on that evening to win the award for Best Actress in a Musical, leading the cast of the 2010 revival of Cole Porter's 1934 musical "Anything Goes" in a rousing rendition of the iconic title song. With hair perfectly bobbed and smiles plastered across their faces, Foster and the cast executed choreographer Kathleen Marshall's steps with an almost scary level of synchronicity. Tapping joyfully to the syncopations of Porter's song, the performers seemed to embody the possibility of a simpler, more innocent moment of American entertainment history when nothing could more purely express the unbridled optimism of the American spirit than a chorus of boys and girls hoofing together onstage.
Questions of nostalgia and anachronism are central to Constance Valis Hill's Tap Dancing [End Page 114] America: A Cultural History. Tap dancers and enthusiasts have long recognized the problem imposed by devotion to a dance form that reached its popular apogee in the 1920s and 30s: "Tap can't depend on nostalgia, it is innovative," Jerry Ames—founder of a tap dance company at the center of the so-called "tap revival" initiated in the 1970s—has said. "We can't just lament tap dancing as a lost art" (222). Indeed, the latter half of Hill's book makes an impassioned case for the ongoing relevance of tap as a uniquely American aesthetic form. But reading Hill's book front-to-back, it is hard to avoid the impression that tap enthusiasts have struggled to overcome the loss of the form's Halcyon days, when tap dance performers and choreographers of Harlem, Hollywood, and Broadway directly channeled the throbbing pulse of the American cultural ethos. Despite the work of contemporary innovators like Gregory Hines, Dianne Walker, and Savion Glover, it is hard to imagine that tap will ever occupy the cultural centrality that Hill's work documents.
At its best, her book shows how tap dance has reflected and contributed to broader developments in American expressive culture. The history of tap dance, Hill demonstrates, is impossible to unlink from broader contestations around race, class, and gender. As she notes in her Introduction and early chapters, the history of tap has been marked by two distinct, if constantly intertwining, strains: "one based in black vernacular dance and black rhythmic sensibilities, the other in the jig and clog tradition of white Broadway" (4). Tap emerged as a distinct cultural form from the intercultural mixing of black and Irish populations in the American south and, by the mid- to late nineteenth century, in northern urban centers. Hill's book traces the ways that these two strains of tap developed alongside and through each other such that "the distinctions articulated at the turn of the twentieth century were indistinct by that century's end" (4). In this way, Hill offers a crucial corrective to previous histories of tap dance, which have tended to concentrate on the (predominantly white) Broadway/ Hollywood, Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly tradition of tap and ignored its deep roots in black cultural dance and music forms.
As in the best cultural history, Hill structures her book around the microhistories of specific dancers, groups, and companies; broader historical trends emerge from the tapestry of individual lives she weaves. The sheer extent of Hill's research, and her attention to the biographies of an astounding range of tap dancers, should make Tap Dancing America the definitive work on the subject. The book's twelve chapters—spanning tap's prehistory from 1650 through 1900; each decade of the twentieth century; and a generous and illuminating concluding chapter on tap in the new millennium—are encyclopedic in scope, but not feel. The book will be invaluable as both a scholarly resource on specific dancers, styles, and movements within tap dance's remarkably diverse purview, and as a compelling history that can...