What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (Seibert)

As anyone who has seen me try can attest, I should be nowhere near even the word ‘dancing.’ So when this book won the Anisfield-Wolf award, I thought, “Great. Not reading it.”

But a respected reader suggested that once I saw Seibert at the awards ceremony, I would change my mind. And though she’s still not forgiven for the whole Paul Beatty incident, she was right about this.

Seibert has swung for the fences here and succeeded. Perhaps inspired by that fact that no one else will tackle this subject for some time to come, he sought to be comprehensive. And he does manage to pack a great deal into 540 pages. His enthusiasm for his subject is as evident as his knowledge. He has clearly done his research, though its evidence never bogs down his prose.

“Writing about music,” someone said first, “is like dancing about architecture.” What then, is writing about dance? These are the parts that I glossed over. This was one of the few times I could see the virtue of an electronic copy of this book, one that could provide links to the performances Seibert mentions. (Instead, I made a list of movies to see as I read.)

What is incredibly admirable here is the way Seibert’s focus on the evolution of tap necessarily requires an examination of the racial implications of every, generally non-linear, stage of its development. The two narratives must be intertwined and Seibert handles them both openly and gracefully. He acknowledges that questions of cultural appropriation are everywhere in his story and he more often asks good and hard (and undecidedly un-PC questions) than he provides answers. His writing is unafraid. And since he’s already captured us with his enthusiasm for and knowledge of his subject, we willingly follow him on this track, too.

The next step is to see what Fred Astaire films I can find on NetFlix and to wonder what Savion Glover is up to these days.


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