With the entertainment world focused on all of the movie awards announced in recent weeks, it was easy for many to miss the nominees for the National Book Critics Awards which were released last week and will be handed out March 17 -- yes, St. Patrick’s Day.
Given this date, it’s hard not to root for Brian Seibert’s nominated book What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. Seibert’s book is a long, detailed look at the history of a sometimes-overlooked art form. And Seibert focuses intensely on the role the Irish played in making tap what it is today.
As The New Yorker magazine put it in a rave review: “Then, there is tap’s history, the fact that it was created by extremely poor people, Irish and West African, in a place that they came to not because they wanted to be there --that is, here [in America] -- but because in their own lands either they were starving or they had been captured and converted into salable property.”
The magazine also noted that “some people still don’t want to hear that Irish step dancing contributed to tap.” But after reading Seibert’s authoritative book, it’s impossible to deny the massive influence of the Irish when it comes to tap, from the 1600s to the Famine right up through Riverdance.
“In America’s early Colonial period, one of the functions of the British colonies was to serve as a dumping ground for what authorities considered ‘the dangerous classes’: vagabonds, debtors, criminals, rebels. The Irish were well represented in each category,” Siebert writes.
In the American colonies, of course, the Irish were treated poorly. Early on, at least, the “distinction between indentured servitude and slavery was not as fixed as it would become, and race relations were more fluid. Servants and slaves, white and black, often worked together, played together,” Seibert adds. It was in this atmosphere of what Seibert calls “cultural mixing” that Irish and African dance traditions began to blend.
By the mid-19th century, the time of mass migration spurred by the Great Hunger, the process became accelerated.
As Seibert writes: “This wave of people...concentrated in the eastern cities of the United States, but also in the South, establishing an Irish America that was urban and Catholic. The propensity for dancing remained a just indication of its spirit and character.”
When it came to the Irish and the Africans in America, “Closeness gave rise to competition, hatred, and bloodshed, but also to friendship, love, and shared recreation among people to who dance and music were vital.”
Things weren’t always pretty, of course. As tap spread from street corners to dance halls, the racist yet very complicated tradition of blackface and minstrel shows evolved.
“The stage was an arena where immigrant Irish could grapple for a higher place in America’s racial hierarchy; they could become more American by acting Negro, more white by blacking up,” Seibert writes.
Some of the key Irish American figures Seibert explores include Ray Bolger, most famous as the flopping Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
“Bolger grew up in Irish Catholic Boston...learning his first steps on the sidewalk from a retired vaudevillian,” Seibert writes.
Then, of course, there was Gene Kelly, “a product of working-class Pittsburgh, the third of five children in a tight-knit, upward striving Irish Catholic family.” They were all part of an early Vaudeville act called The Five Kellys. Young Gene was picked on because of his dancing, but it helped his family survive the Depression and eventually made him a star.
Some might quibble with Seibert’s harsh assessment of late 20th century Irish dance.
“In Ireland and Irish America,” he writes, “step dancing became a discipline children were forced to study so that they might express the cultural heritage of their no longer dancing parents.”
Either way, it was into this world that Riverdance exploded, bringing the Irish contribution to American tap dancing into the 21st Century.
Not bad for an immigrant group of vagabonds, debtors, criminals, and rebels.
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