Magisterial, revelatory, and-most suitably-entertaining, What the Eye Hears offers an authoritative account of the great American art of tap dancing. Brian Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times, begins by exploring tap's origins as a hybrid of the jig and clog dancing from the British Isles and dances brought from Africa by slaves. He tracks tap's transfer to the stage through blackface minstrelsy and charts its growth as a cousin to jazz in the vaudeville circuits and nightclubs of the early twentieth century. Seibert chronicles tap's spread to ubiquity on Broadway and in Hollywood, analyzes its decline after World War II, and celebrates its rediscovery and reinvention by new generations of American and international performers. In the process, we discover how the history of tap dancing is central to any meaningful account of American popular culture. This is a story with a huge cast of characters, from Master Juba (it was probably a performance of his in a Five Points cellar that Charles Dickens described in American Notes for General Circulation) through Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly and Paul Draper to Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Seibert traces the stylistic development of tap through individual practitioners, vividly depicting dancers both well remembered and now obscure. And he illuminates the cultural exchange between blacks and whites over centuries, the interplay of imitation and theft, as well as the moving story of African-Americans in show business, wielding enormous influence as they grapple with the pain and pride of a complicated legacy.What the Eye Hears teaches us to see and hear the entire history of tap in its every step.
New York Times dance critic Seibert's first book is easily twice the size of most other debuts, and it contains thrice the content. The word comprehensive comes to mind, but is insufficient to properly describe the depth of detail Seibert achieves. Drawing on primary sources of every kind, from written accounts by slave traders in the early 17th century to personal interviews conducted in the 21st, the author breaks down not merely the origins art of tap dancing itself, but the racial and gender constructs that forced the industry and its performers to develop in the ways they did, while acknowledging his own white male privilege. Seibert profiles legends such as Fred Astaire and Bill Robinson alongside dancers who have become largely forgotten outside of dance circles, such as the Nicholas brothers, and modern masters including Savion Glover. Seibert has a tendency to jump about in time, but that doesn't mar this fascinating, sharply written cultural analysis.