- Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History
In 1968, Marshall and Jean Stearns published Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. For the last four decades, it has remained the most comprehensive and influential history of the art. A number of excellent books have discussed American vernacular and black American dancing since—Joel Dinerstein's Swinging the Machine (2003), Brenda Dixon Gottschild's Digging the Africanist Presence in American Dance (1996), and Jacqui Malone's Steppin' on the Blues (1996) are three of the strongest—but none has approached the ambitious scope of Jazz Dance. That is, not until Constance Valis Hill's Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. Hill's book fills a niche that has been empty for too long.
Hill, a professor of dance at Hampshire College, traces the development of tap from 1650 to the present. Much of the Stearns's Jazz Dance discusses tap, and while Hill covers some of the same ground—she in fact cites the Stearns at least twenty times—she brings their work up to date with impressive, original research on the last four decades of tap history. No other writer has chronicled these recent years so thoroughly. Existing histories of jazz and tap often focus on male stars, whereas Hill makes a point of giving women tappers their due. From Ada Overton Walker, who shared the stage with her husband George Walker and the comedian Bert Williams at the turn of the twentieth century, to Ayodele Casel, who in 1998 became the only woman in Savion Glover's dance company. The result is a monumental history by a leading scholar in the field, a valuable resource for historians of both dance and American culture in general.
Many people think of tap as a historically black form, but Hill shows that its origins are various and tangled. Black and white performers have mimicked and altered one [End Page 823] another's steps for centuries, beginning as far back as the seventeenth century, when the gioube dances of African American slaves mingled with the jigs of Irish American indentured servants. The exchange of black and Irish cultural forms continued in the marketplaces and theaters of nineteenth-century America, especially on minstrel stages, where whites donned blackface to present what they billed as authentic representations of black culture. Hill argues that minstrel dances were largely Irish in origin, and asserts that "Irish minstrels were never mistaken for black men"—a strange claim, given that in a later discussion of the Irish-American blackface minstrel James Barton, she notes that Barton's reviewers called him "truly Nubian" and "a true levee darkey" (11, 76).
Hill does not explore the thorny issues of racial imitation and appropriation as fully as one might expect in a book billed as a cultural history. But such exploration does not seem to have been her intention: while she acknowledges that race, class, and gender are central to the history of tap, she chooses not to "attempt to resolve these issues but only to relate how bigotry, racism, and segregation were factors" in tap's development (4). Thus instead of explaining, say, the reasons tap has been so closely associated with ideas of blackness and masculinity, she focuses on how difficult these associations made it for white women tappers in the 1970s and 1980s to gain respect. Hill notes that she wants her history of tap to be "people-full," to pay homage to the strugglers and the greats in the tap community and she achieves that goal (xiii). Her bibliography cites over fifty interviews she has conducted with tap dancers and choreographers. She devotes some eighty distinct sections and subsections to individuals. Numerous other dancers make cameos in sections on particular schools, venues, performances, or stylistic developments in tap. The result is a feeling of pleasant crowdedness, with the famous and the lesser-known brushing shoulders.
Hill's reliance on sections and subsections often makes Tap Dancing America more encyclopedic than narrative, and when these chunks are only a paragraph or two long, they can seem like dumping grounds for material...