What the Eye Hears: A Video Companion

Brian Seibert

What The Eye Hears

Like most books, my history of tap dancing does not include any video. But YouTube abounds in tap footage, easily accessible though impermanent, coming and going as copyright restrictions are irregularly enforced. By directing attention to it, I may cause it to disappear. Nevertheless, here I provide a guide to what I’ve found online. On my YouTube channel, you can find more clips, from very common to extremely rare, clips I describe in the book.


“The Pickaninny Dance,” 1894

Shot at the Edison studio, this is the earliest known film of tap, from before the dance went by that name. The company catalog labeled it as a scene of “Southern plantation life before the war, a jig and breakdown by three colored boys,” a description that suggests any three black boys, doing what black boys did. (“Pickaninny” is an old and disrespectful term for African-American children.) Yet the catalog identifies these three men as backup for a white soubrette on Broadway. Playing “pickaninnies” was the job of Joe Rastus, Denny Tolliver, and Walter Wilkins. This clip, like later ones, such as the 1907 “Fights of Nations,” captures some of the proto-tap known as buck dancing, while revealing the limitations of tap in silent film.


Bill Robinson, 1932

A scene from the all-black film Harlem is Heaven, this is the signature routine of the most famous black tap dancer in the first half of the twentieth century. You can find other terrific clips of Robinson online—from “King for a Day,” or “Hooray for Love” (with Jeni LeGon), or the extremely popular movies he made with Shirley Temple. But this one captures the essence of his art: the efficiency, the balance, the perfect timing, the subtle tones of his wooden taps on wooden stairs. The stairs amplify his rhythmic wit, showing how he plays with the structure of the music through how he plays with the structure of the staircase. No wonder he threatened would-be thieves of the routine with death.


Fred Astaire, 1934

Finding great clips of Fred Astaire online—such as this number, “Needle in a Haystack” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee—is no sweat. Astaire was popular and prolific and nearly every dance he filmed was on a level that no one else ever equaled: early, middle, late, the haystack is all needles. Singling out one clip is what’s difficult. But this early, spontaneous-seeming solo was character defining. Getting dressed to go search for the girl of his dreams, he dances with whole room. He makes it look easy, but not too easy. Suave as he might be, this bony fellow, betraying his anxiety as he strains for the high notes, wasn’t going to win the girl without dancing exceptionally well.


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, 1935

It’s also hard to choose among Fred Astaire’s tap duets with Ginger Rogers. Their swoony ballroom duets are justly famous, but their sublimated sex did not live by ballroom alone. Their duets with tap got an erotic charge from rhythmic badinage. “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” from Roberta, established the mode. It’s a tap conversation, a challenge dance turned courtship ritual with all flirtatious repartee relocated to body language and foot rhythms. Astaire’s tap duets with the more technically adept Eleanor Powell were more deluxe, but less seductive. Among tap couples, Ginger and Fred are still the top.


Ray Bolger, 1936

Before he was the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and also after, Ray Bolger was a first-class tap dancer in the eccentric line. In later numbers, such as in the film of his Broadway hit Where’s Charlie?, you can see how he uses tap not just for comedy but for character, stretching like Silly Putty to express a bumbling hero’s expansive heart. Here, in his first movie appearance, in The Great Ziegfeld, there’s some pathos to his satire, too—the precise syncopations that look like stumbles, the struggle to recover from splits. Yet however gentle, the comedy cuts. As a parody of thirties tap conventions, it’s devastatingly accurate.


John Bubbles, 1937

Sometimes called the Father of Rhythm Tap, John Bubbles was extremely influential. But there is precious little footage of him online. You can find the glorious cane-twirling struts and slides he performed in the 1943 all-black film Cabin in the Sky, playing a sharpie like Sportin’ Life, the role he had originated in Porgy and Bess. But early material, such as from the 1929 short In and Out, is closely guarded by collectors, and Bubbles, a legendary improviser and a black man, wasn’t shown much respect by Hollywood. These clips are from the 1937 college musical Varsity Show, in which Bubbles and his pianist partner, Buck, who were headliners in vaudeville, play janitors named Buck and Bubbles. Down in the basement, Bubbles disguises his masterful rhythms with a goofball manner. On top of the piano, he whips off the crunchy turns that so many other hoofers imitated.


Condos Brothers, 1938

Sons of Greek immigrants, the Condos Brothers modeled themselves on the black acts they saw at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia and earned a reputation as the fastest steppers of the late 1920s. By the time they made it into the movies, the oldest brother, Frank, had been replaced by the youngest, Steve. Even in ridiculous outfits, such as the ones they’re wearing in this clip of “War Dance for Wooden Indians” from the Sonje Henie film Happy Landing, they weren’t much to look at from the waist up, as they were the first to admit. But by the measures of speed, intricacy, and technical difficulty, their tapping was unsurpassed in Hollywood movies. Watch around 2:15, when Nick, on the left, goes into his famous “wing” steps. Steve, on the right, was an improviser and a frustrated musician who would flourish in the less commercial environment of the 1980s tap revival.


Nicholas Brothers, 1941

Although the Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were never offered the leading movie roles that they craved, their blazing talents and their art, however quarantined, were well captured by the film industry. And a lot of that is online, from their adorable and astonishing debut in the 1932 short “Pie, Pie Blackbird” through to their leap-frogging tour de force in “Stormy Weather” (viewable here, with some delicious commentary by Gregory Hines) and even Harold’s solo turns. This number, from Down Argentine Way, documents the nightclub act that Fayard choreographed for their appearances at the Cotton Club in the late thirties. It’s a challenge dance, thrilling in its flips, splits, swinging rhythms, and showmanship, but also endearing in its fraternal dynamic, at once rivalrous and loving.


Miller Brothers and Lois, 1947

Using boards, tables, and pedestals of all kinds, tap dancers have always raised the stakes by performing atop elevated surfaces. This routine, filmed for the all-black short “Hi-De-Ho,” is a peak of platform tapping. It starts on the floor with some high-class precision work and grows more amazing and no less complex as the dancers’ distance from the ground increases. Lois Bright, the woman in the middle, was one of the rare ladies (rare in life, and now even rarer on YouTube) who could keep up with the guys and was allowed to do so.


Teddy Hale, 1949

On the whole, the advent of television resulted in a net loss for tap dancers, as the employment opportunities that the new medium offered were offset by the decline in theaters and nightclubs that it helped precipitate. But TV did capture for posterity some dancers (such as Peg Leg Bates) that the movies did not. Teddy Hale’s three minutes on Texaco Star Theatre can’t substantiate the stories about how he could improvise for hours without repeating a step, but they do accord with his ranking as one of the best hoofers of the forties and fifties (decades he spent in and out of jail, owing to his drug addiction). What beautiful coordination of sound and motion, the loose arms counterbalancing the lucid footwork. What ease, what sunny wit.


Bunny Briggs, 1950

Doe-eyed, dainty, and dandyish, Bunny Briggs started young, but he had staying power, and as jazz and showbiz began to change in the wake of the Second World War, he was one of the dancers who best adapted. In this film short with the Benny Carter Orchestra, you can see him giving the floor a close shave with the long phrases he called “continuation.” With taps as dappled and crisp as raindrops hitting gravel, he compensates for the loss of easy-to-follow patterns with stitching motion and pantomine, a different kind of show. As jobs for tap dancers dried up, Briggs kept working, as in a longer (and possibly even better) clip from Duke Ellington’s 1965 Sacred Concert.


Coles and Atkins, 1963

In the 1940s, Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins were one of the top duos in the “class act” tradition. By 1963, they had largely retired from performing, Coles having become the stage manager of the Apollo Theater, Atkins the chief choreographer for Motown. But at the instigation of the jazz historian Marshall Stearns, they appeared on the TV arts program Camera Three, thereby documenting their soft shoe routine, the slowest around. The tempo demands extraordinary control, and the men bridge the chasms between notes with grace, applying pressure to the traditional form without rupturing it. Coles would get a fabulous second act in the 1980s tap revival, but here you see a popular art neglected yet buoyantly resurfacing.


Baby Laurence, 1967

In the 1940s, the tap dancer most attuned to the rhythmic changes of bebop was Baby Laurence. Carrying his tap shoes in a trumpet case, he showed up at Charlie Parker gigs and played like a member of the band. His reputation among dancers was unsurpassed. (Teddy Hale was his main rival, in challenge matches and in number of drug arrests.) Yet apart from an astounding album he recorded in 1959, there is no extant record of his dancing until this appearance on TV’s Hollywood Palace. Going grey, he’s effortlessly cool, with speed that would impress anyone concealing subtleties to take a connoisseur’s breath away. This clip excerpts Laurence’s bit, but I recommend watching the full show from 7:10—when the host, Sammy Davis, Jr., the only black tap-dancing star of the era, humbly introduces Laurence as the greatest—all the way through to 12:50, after Davis (no slouch, but also no Baby Laurence) has conceded defeat.


Jimmy Slyde, 1977

Jimmy Slyde: the name advertises the specialty, the spelling signals the manner, as laid-back as a lowercase y. Out of what could have been a gimmick, he fashioned an entire expressive idiom, achieving a balance between sight and sound unrivaled by anyone other than Astaire. Visually thrilling in their elongation and slant, Slyde’s slides are equally musical; he uses them to tease the beat, to suspend it, to fall behind and to catch up. Coming of age just before tap’s decline, he struggled to find work through the fifties and sixties. Some footage from that time exists, even online, but this clip catches him in France, where he felt more appreciated, on the cusp of a tap revival that would bring him overdue recognition. There are too many foot close-ups for this most full-bodied of hoofers, but still, this is truly jazz in motion.


Chuck Green, 1979

The only proteégé of John Bubbles, Chuck Green entered showbiz as half of Chuck and Chuckles, a diminutive version of Buck and Bubbles. The act broke up in the forties, and Green spent a decade in a psychiatric hospital. After he returned to performing, he brought other dancers together, importantly in the 1969 “Tap Happening” that sprouted a group called The Hoofers. But Green himself often seemed not all there, smiling from some happier place. His demeanor and his big, bump-toe shoes could suggest a clown, yet his lumbering awkwardness contrasted with the absolute rhythmic control of his tapping. His dancing told the eye and ear different stories, an effect that’s odd and delightful and that sometimes feels miraculous. Watch and listen closely: his steady stream teems with little surprises.


By Word of Foot, 1980

In the late seventies and through the eighties, tap—especially the jazz part—was revived and transplanted to modern-dance venues. On YouTube, there’s very little record of that, or of the dancers, mostly women, who led the effort, forming tap companies and choreographing and creating opportunities for old masters to pass on their tradition. This is an excerpt from a documentary about “By Word of Foot,” the first tap festival. Bunny Briggs is here and Honi Coles and Sandman Sims and a paralyzed John Bubbles, but don’t ignore the frizzy-haired young woman with the giggle: that’s Jane Goldberg, and she made the whole thing happen.


Eddie Brown, 1980s

During the tap revival, some hoofers had second careers more successful than their first ones. In Boston, there was Leon Collins, who returned to dancing after fourteen years of reupholstering cars and newly applied his fastidious, bebop-derived technique to classical music. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, there was Eddie Brown, who had spent much of tap’s dormant decades drunk. His loosely draped body language physicalized the attitude behind his favorite expression, “Can you dig it?” He spoke of a little man in his head who told him what to do. That’s one way of accounting for the logic and beauty of his improvisations and their strolling ease enlivened by accents popping off in unusual places. Check out the brilliance of his trades with a drummer at 1:50. At 8:40, he does his “B.S. Chorus” routine with Linda Sohl-Donnell (on the left), in whose company he long served as guest artist.


Gregory Hines, 1990

In Gregory Hines, tap once again had a star: handsome, charismatic, multi-talented but always a hoofer. Online, you can find clips from his eighties movies The Cotton Club, White Nights, and Tap, or his “Dance in America” special on PBS, and see how he incarnated tap’s past and brought it into the present. But this bit is particularly fine, not just in capturing his warmth, humor, and conversational style of improvisation, but because it’s all in generous tribute to one of the men he idolized growing up and whose lineage he furthered: Sammy Davis, Jr. When Hines died of cancer in 2003, he left a hole that’s still a hole.


Sam Weber, 1998

When Sam Weber was growing up in the late sixties, he dreamed of being a concert tap dancer, as Paul Draper had been in the forties and fifties. But no one did that anymore, so he became a ballet dancer instead—until the Jazz Tap Ensemble was founded and a slot in that troupe opened up. That’s where he belonged: an artist whose mild charm wasn’t suited to Broadway or movies, a virtuoso whose subtlety required the concert stage. His ballet training is evident in his lifted torso and the way he chains steps together and swirls them around the stage, but his technique incorporates information from Steve Condos and Jimmy Slyde and Eddie Brown into a system of unrivaled efficiency. His extreme control allows for such floating demonstrations of musical versatility as this one.


Savion Glover, 1998

“The greatest tap dancer of all time”: words of Gregory Hines, quoted by the President of the United States in a television special filmed at the White House and broadcast nationally. The claim, worth arguing about, might be better supported by other footage, but no other clip better establishes Glover’s position at the end of the century, on top of tap and taking it to new places. His style is fully formed here, informed by hip-hop and bucket drummers, avoiding the usual compromises between rapidity and force, but there are still smiley traces of the Tap Dance Kid and (at 1:50) a Bill Robinson step. History is in his body, and it’s in his voice as he sweetly honors his mentors. In the dancers of his newly formed troupe, Not Your Ordinary Tappers, you can’t miss his overwhelming effect on people his own age and younger.


Bonus: Buster Brown, 1972

Since I start What the Eye Hears with Buster Brown, a video companion to the book shouldn’t leave him out. Here, you get his bounce, his convivial cool, and one of his favorite comic bits, building off his characteristically inviting motto, “If you can walk, you can tap.”

What the Eye Hears by Brian Seibert

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Brian Seibert is a dance critic for The New York Times and a contributor to The New Yorker. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. What the Eye Hears is his first book.

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  • janeasinner

    Excellent! Thanks for sharing this.