Taps Illustrated

A spider sure knows how to ensnare the unexpected in its web.

A friend received from her sister a discarded library book titled Illustrated Tap Rhythms And Routines by Edith Ballwebber, an Assistant Professor of Physical Education teaching at the University of Chicago.  The publication, by big-time music publisher Clayton F. Summey (that held the copyright to “Happy Birthday To You”) is dated 1933, a year before Louise appeared in London with Blackbirds.  My friend passed this discarded find on to me.  She wasn’t familiar with my research on Louise Madison, but thought that as a tap dancer, I’d get at least a mild kick out of this curious book.

I was primed to be incensed by what I assumed was an attempt to reduce a complex African American dance form to a series of dumbed-down, regimented routines for the purpose of instructing high school and college physical education students.  My temperature started rising when I turned to the introduction and read “anthropology tells us the savage does not preach his religion—he dances it,” before I realized that, from the perspective of this author, African Americans were merely a footnote in the development of tap dance.   The introduction goes on to state “while tap dancing has probably grown out of, and is based upon, the traditional (Irish) clog and jig…it has characteristics all its own.  It represents a more mature interpretation of these rhythmic forms and hence Is more adaptable to advanced teaching situations.”  From the text and the plentiful hand-drawn, cartoon-like illustrations of lithe white gals and guys demonstrating the steps of structured routines (see example below), you would have no idea that Black folk had anything to do with creating this American dance form.  There was one striking exception to this representation.  The book contains a tap routine titled “Black Sam”, illustrated with a series of drawings of a lanky dancer with blackface and kinky hair.  He’s drawn with striped pants, a black tails jacket, and a derby hat, and flourishes a cane.  His mouth is framed in white, in stark contrast to his black face. (See “Black Sam” illustrations below.)  In addition to this explicit depiction of blackness—in one out of 13 routines presented—there is an oblique reference to African American culture in a glossary containing a definition for “Rhythm Buck”: “A more difficult type of buck routine done to 4/4 rhythm that has a crooning or ‘blues’ quality such as ‘Moanin Low’.  The steps are more syncopated, the breaks varied and often inserted within the steps as well as at the end.  There is a feeling of dancing first with and then against the music.” This is stated with what seems to be little or no consciousness that these characteristics reflect an African American aesthetic.

For those familiar with tap history, or those who have read some of my previous blogs, you know that the rise of tap dancing’s popularity in the 1920s and 30s was fueled by Black dancers and choreographers, not only through Black stage productions like Shuffle Along and Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds and Black nightclub acts, but also through the unacknowledged infusion of Black dance styles and choreography into white productions for the Broadway stage.  In one blog post, I wrote:

White entertainers and producers were constantly buying, borrowing, and stealing material from Black performers.  One of many cases in point is Clarence “Buddy” Bradley (1905-1972), a tap/jazz dancer originally from Harrisburg PA who, in the ‘20s started tailoring routines for white dancers, including Broadway stars such as Adele Astaire (Fred’s sister), Ruby Keeler, and Eleanor Powell.  He had a steady stream of clients at a studio near Time Square, operated by an enterprising Black businessman, where “Bradley worked twelve-hour days, shuttling back and forth between rooms,” rarely pulling down no less than a grand per week, according to dance writer Brian Seibert in What The Eye Hears.  Bradley claimed that in the late ‘20s there wasn’t a Broadway show that didn’t have at least one of his routines, but you wouldn’t find his name in the playbill.  Indeed, he did the choreography for the entire production of Greenwich Village Follies of 1928, even though Busby Berkeley got the choreographic credit.  Beginning in the 1930s Bradley found plenty of opportunities, as well as acknowledgement, in British stage and film productions.  He also ran a successful dance studio in the Soho section of London.  He stayed in London 38 years before returning to New York.

What failures of scholarship and common observation would account for an academic from a vaunted American university essentially dismissing the contributions of African Americans to the art of tap dance at a time when the evidence of their/our influence should have been compelling for anyone who cared to look or inquire?  Did Prof. Ballwebber think to investigate the source of that “more mature interpretation of these rhythmic forms” that she assumed were derived from Irish clogs and jigs?  She might be forgiven for not knowing about all the fabulous hoofing that was traveling the circuit covered by the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), organized in 1921 to connect venues in the East, South, and Midwest where Black artists performed with Black producers for Black audiences.  Among the stars of the TOBA circuit were the Whitman Sisters, who in addition to being accomplished performers and producers, were canny businesswomen and talent scouts.  Alice Whitman, known as “Queen of Taps”, performed solo and with Bert, her male-impersonator sister.  Including siblings Mabel and Essie, the Whitman Sisters produced revues that packed houses year-round.  Alice’s son, Little Pops Whitman, was a show-stopping tap dancer, as was teenaged Willie Bryant, who the sisters discovered selling candy outside a Chicago theater.  (Bryant, 1908-1964, grew up to become a vocalist, jazz bandleader and disc jockey, and briefly hosted an all-Black variety show on the CBS television network.) TOBA is where iconic dancers King Rastus Brown and Ginger Jack Wiggins, as well as upstarts Eddie Rector and Willie Covan could be seen.

Photo of Alice and Alberta “Bert” Whitman.  Although they could pass for white, they identified as “colored” and their revues played the Black theater circuit.

Even if TOBA was too remote a place for a white professor of dance to be expected to venture in the 1930s for representations of tap dance, it would have been hard to escape the fact that by the late-1920s, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a national star appearing on Broadway stages and other venues that catered to white audiences, thanks to the exposure he got in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928 revue.  A New York Times review said, “there are hundreds of tap dancers, but there is only one Bill Robinson.”  An all-Black short film, Harlem is Heaven, featuring Robinson in an acting role and performing his famous stair dance, was released in 1932.  Eddie Rector and the Berry Brothers also appeared regularly on Broadway stages in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.  The inclusion in her book of a “Black Sam” routine suggests that Ballwebber was not totally oblivious to the presence of acclaimed Black tap dancers.  And her definition of “Rhythm Buck” implies that she could sense in some tap phrasings a rhythmic elasticity that was not typical of Irish dance forms, even if she couldn’t put her finger on the source.  Did she think these were anomalies in a principally white dance tradition?  Was she among those who thought that Black performers and producers were merely imitating white dancers and productions?

This is but one small vignette in a long and ongoing parade of ironies in the way that tap has been perceived and perpetuated.  For decades white dancers, producers and choreographers exploited Black aesthetics, innovations and creations to boost tap’s popularity with their audiences, while tap’s association with Blackness delayed its recognition as a complex and virtuosic dance form, and cabined opportunities for its Black exponents.  Even African Americans, at times, had an uneasy relationship with tap.  When I was growing up in North Philadelphia in the 1950s, many Black parents questioned whether enrolling their kids in tap classes would prolong stereotypes they were eager to escape.  While we delighted in watching Peg Leg Bates and the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., on the Ed Sullivan Show, tap was treated as mere entertainment. My dance mentor and partner, LaVaughn Robinson, never tired of reminding me of his outrage at a certain local doyenne of Black dance pronouncing that tap was not an art form.   Now tap productions and Black tap dancers appear regularly in seasons at the Joyce Theater, Jacob’s Pillow, and other concert dance venues, as well as in museum settings such as the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. In 2015 a tap dancer —-a white woman—received a MacArthur “genius” Award.  Last week a group of tap dancers dressed as traditional Japanese carpenters, and dancing to a Japanese work song, opened the Tokyo Olympics.  You can call this progress, I suppose.

Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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Germaine Ingram (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based jazz tap dancer, choreographer, songwriter, vocal/dance improviser, oral historian, and cultural strategist. She creates evening-length pieces that explore themes related to history, collective memory, and social justice, and designs arts/culture projects that explore and illuminate community cultural history. She collaborates with artists from diverse traditions and disciplines, including jazz/experimental music composers, site-specific choreographers, dance and vocal improvisers, African diasporic culture specialists, and visual/media artists.