Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Tatiana Serafin, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, talked with Brian Seibert about his book What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
I don't tap, I polka. But I’ve always been fascinated by a dance form so quintessentially American and connected to an idea of America that my immigrant parents came searching for. While I folk danced my way through childhood, I wondered about this thing called tap. Now my daughter, who takes tap dance at Rita Hamilton’s legendary Brooklyn school, is teaching me the Shim Sham. And this week I got the scoop from Brian Seibert, a tapper and a lover of tap who wrote What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing.
Our discussion focused on what drew Seibert to writing this story and the craft of writing itself. He explained he wanted to draw attention to tap dancing with honest truthful writing – writing that would encourage the reader to have the “eye” “hear” the sound of tap’s innate beauty and historical resonance.
“Tap dance is an instrument that is with you at all times,” Seibert told me when we met at Brooklyn arts incubator, BRIC. Though tap’s early 20th century heyday may be past, there is still a thriving tap subculture and young enthusiasts learning all the time in tap studios like Hamilton Dance. Seibert acknowledges there is a minority view that tap dance may die out, but says that a new star may rise and a new ripple of sound will emerge from tapping feet.
Seibert’s book may have never been born if not for his writing adviser at Columbia University who perked up when he was pitching his story ideas to her and mentioned in an offside that he had to leave to go to his tap class. His adviser guided him to write about his tap experience. In the process he realized how much he had to learn before he could fully tell the story. What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing is the book that he was looking for all of those years ago. "I was writing for me at the beginning."
The first section of the book on Buster Brown and his Crazy Tap Jam draws from much of Seibert’s first Columbia essay that he developed in 2000-2002. “I went to a jam session and what I saw was a mix of people. It intrigued me because there was an 88 year old and a 4 year old - all kinds of people bridging race, education level, language. That fascinated me as a journalist.” Seibert’s tap quest began in earnest. “I wanted to know everything.” Over the next decade he expanded on this story with endless research, “10,000 revisions,” “dark hours of despair” and a “patient wife.”
“As I learned more, I became even more fascinated. I saw tap as a neglected art form that I could explain to readers,” says Seibert. “I wanted to make it an education so that if I ordered it correctly as you are reading you understand what is happening and feel the historical weight. I believe the best approach was critical and historical, and one which included the eye and ear, dance and music.”
Seibert went looking for the roots of tap and found historical traces in the mix of black slaves and Irish immigrants copying and stealing steps and making a new kind of dance. “Tap is an art form or tradition. It was not even called tap dancing until the 1920s,” he explains. It grew until “it used to be at the center of everything in the 1930s and 1940s. You couldn’t get away from it, it was America’s form of dance.”
As Seibert followed tap’s timeline, he met as he called it “a cast of thousands.” He tells me that he envies the biographer whose subject is one person. Instead he dealt with overlapping biographies and dates and events that jumped around. “There was lots of accruing. It was a slow process of trying to figure out how to arrange the material in a way that made sense. Some dancers were given a couple of sentences and others were followed in the book through the course of their lives.”
Though Seibert’s research may not have been linear, his decision to write the book chronologically was a choice meant to show how advances in technology, social changes and historical events all converged to create tap as a new American dance.
He also wanted to show how dance lived in history.
“Until the invention of film, dance is words and illustrations. Then silent film promoted pictures, then finally came sound.” People could more clearly see and copy and steal steps thereby pushing the boundaries of tap. (Seibert admits that watching all the tap clips changed even his own tap dancing.)
Over the years Seibert was researching and writing his love letter to tap, technological advances changed both how he was collecting information and how readers can experience his book today.
“There was no Youtube in the beginning. There was only footage that collectors hoarded and you would trade under the table. If there was rare old footage, people would hang onto that footage. That changed completely with Youtube. I’ve since put up my rare clips as well. I want to share.”
Another change over the course of his research: digitization. “The digitization of black newspapers was important. Black performers were not covered in white press. There was a thriving black press – Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro American. I could put in a name and suddenly have a life. That was game-changing,” says Seibert. “I found tap dancers I didn’t know existed.”
Where did all this research go? “An ever expanding file cabinet,” explains Seibert. “I had a bookshelf with tangential reading. There are lots of books that touch the topic.” And lots of places Seibert went in New York, Los Angeles (his hometown) and Chicago chasing the story.
“I also had the researcher problem where the most obscure stuff was the most interesting to me.” Seibert even included a worldwide survey of tap in other countries as a “lens on what other cultures have made of this American thing.”
But the most essential way of getting into history was primary interviews. “Interviewing is the most efficient way of getting into the subject,” says Seibert. “I was sensitive to timing. I wanted to get to all the old-timers before they died. That is why I never got to interview Gregory Hines [who died suddenly at the height of his fame at age 57 in 2003].”
Who else would he have like to have interviewed or met that he didn’t? “Master Juba, an 1840s black dancer. There is no record of his voice. There is a lot about how he danced but almost nothing about him as a person in blackface minstrelsy.”
Seibert also found contradictions in historical record and different versions of the same story. He asked himself how people write history and how can we really ever know anything deeply. He chose to put it all on the page so that readers could come to their own conclusions. That is also why he called his book “A History of Tap Dancing,” not the “The Definitive History.”
Seibert researched and wrote simultaneously. He received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Corporation of Yaddo during which he focused on the book. “Mental time itself is always amazing. You have all of brain cells working on it. Those colonies were also important to my self esteem, to feeling like I belonged.”
“At no point did I think it would take this long,” Seibert confides. So how did he keep going? “I learned to be more disciplined. I set page goals, goals in terms of chronology – for example, I have to get to the 20th century by May. I blew through the goals but I found it important to have self deadlines.”
Seibert also had a writing partner, author Julie Orringer, whom he met during his fellowships. She held him accountable to his self-imposed goals. But almost no one read the book until later drafts aside from his wife and a German friend who is also a tap aficionado.
What the Eye Hears became intertwined with Seibert’s life and defined his career. Seibert is now a dance critic because of all the knowledge he built researching and writing the book. His typical writing day, depending on whether or not he is reviewing, starts out with him meeting a deadline in the morning, and then spending the afternoon on book projects.
When he finally gave the draft of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing to his editor it was twice as long as the current finished product. He had to go back and cut “surgically” taking out an example where there were two or three already and compressing ideas. This took another couple of years, Seibert admits.
How did he know when he was done? A combination of “fatigue, the contract was overdue, and artistic intuition,” says Seibert. “I got to the point where I realized this was enough, this was close to the idea I had and after that it was diminishing returns.”
After the book was in production Seibert worked on photos. “It was a difficult process of choosing the few images. I focused on what the story is in its most essential level. Like the juxtaposition of Fred Astaire in the 1920s to Gregory Hines in the 1980s.”
And now? Seibert is working on an audio component to What the Eye Hears. He is excited that Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer and choreographer, won the 2015 MacArthur Genius Award, and is looking forward to seeing tap star Savion Glover’s new Broadway endeavor, Shuffle Along, which opens in April.
Brian Seibert is the author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (FSG, 2015). Since 2011, he has been a dance critic and features writer for The New York Times, and he has contributed to The New Yorker since 2002. His reviews, features, and essays have appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Dance Magazine, and The Threepenny Review, among other publications. He has written children's books about George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for The Library of American Choreographers series (Rosen Pub Group, 2005). He has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Corporation of Yaddo. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia University, he has taught writing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, and Yale University. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
Tatiana Serafin, MFA ’15, is an alum of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School. She is an award winning journalist (2014 Front Page Award) and journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College. She is currently working on two book-length projects, as well translations of Ukrainian poetry.