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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

What the Eye Hears

A History of Tap Dancing

Brian Seibert

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Whenever there’s a mixed bill of tappers, you can bet that all the dancers in the show will cram onstage at the end for the Shim Sham. Often the dancers in the audience will join in, too. Lingua franca and lowest common denominator, it’s the one routine that everybody knows, even if the versions they know aren’t exactly the same. Sixty years ago, when a top-rated TV program such as The Ed Sullivan Show might feature two tap acts in one episode, if the host decided, impromptu, to ask the acts to do a little something together, the dancers needed only a shared glance to break into the Shim Sham. A version without taps was even more common, a dance for performers who weren’t dancers.

Where did it come from? Was it some folk tradition, its authorship shared by an anonymous collective? Or was it actually invented by someone? Up until his death in 2004, Leonard Reed claimed to have devised it; at the end of his life, when he was in his nineties, there were few people with firsthand knowledge left to contradict him. As Reed told the story, he and his partner, Willie Bryant, put together the Shim Sham in the late twenties when they were touring with the Whitman Sisters.

“It was a simple thing to do for the finale,” Reed remembered. Willie Bryant told the jazz historian Marshall Stearns that the dance evolved from something called the Old Man Shuffle: “We used to do it at a very fast rhythm and it was a comedy dance.” They named their new routine the Goofus after a hillbilly song they set it to; later, they used “Turkey in the Straw.” There were four parts (an in-place shuffling, a crossover step, a side-to-side and in-and-out bit, and a twisting, hopping finish; one motif, the break, repeated at the ends of some steps and in the middle of others). They would teach audience members one part per night. If you wanted the whole thing, you had to keep coming back.

Also performing with the Whitman Sisters was Jo Jones, who was soon fired. In New York, Jones joined up with Billie Yates, whom the Whitman Sisters had also let go. Along with a third dancer, Jones and Yates formed a tap trio called the Three Little Words, and at a Harlem nightclub they soon introduced a closing number with the catchy title of the Shim Sham. As Reed tells it, the number wasn’t new; it was a slowed-down Goofus. The nightclub may have been Connie’s Inn or Dickie Wells’s Theatrical Grill; the routine spread fast. “The whole club would join us, including the waiters,” recalled Jones, who informed Stearns that he had invented the dance. “For a while, people were doing the Shim Sham up and down Seventh Avenue all night long.” On Fridays, a spotlight would scan the audience, and whichever celebrity was caught in the beam was expected to do his or her own version.

“I never got any money for saying I originated the Shim Sham,” Reed said. “If I were to get some money, then there’d be a fight. But I don’t care what they say. I know I did it.” He said this in an interview with a tap dancer in 1997, by which time he was being lauded as the creator of the routine, and few people remembered Billie Yates or Jo Jones. Twenty years earlier, while being interviewed for Redd Foxx’s Encyclopedia of Black Humor, Reed had offered a long list of his accomplishments as a producer, songwriter, and performer without including the Shim Sham. Among tap dancers, though, the routine was Reed’s number one claim to fame. In 2000, when he was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the New York Committee to Celebrate Tap Dance Day, all the dancers on the program gathered to join him for the inevitable Shim Sham. A few measures into the song, Reed stopped the band, stopped the show. “No, no, no,” he said. “You’re doing it wrong. It’s always been done wrong.” The problem was in the second step, where the dancers came in half a beat earlier than he wanted. Reed demonstrated how to do it his way and expected all of the performers to fall in line. Many had been doing the Shim Sham their own way for twenty, forty, sixty years. Some followed Reed’s command, some didn’t. Regardless, Reed had made his point, and he went on making it whenever he saw the Shim Sham performed. Reed’s Shim Sham is now official, though many dancers persist in whichever variation they learned first.

When asked to account for the longevity of the dance, Reed gave a clear answer: “Simplicity.” But just as important is the answer he gave in frustration: the dance had always been done wrong. It was flexible enough to change while remaining itself. Reed couldn’t have been too aggrieved about credit, because he knew that he and Bryant had cobbled together the Shim Sham from popular steps of the day. In one of his last interviews, he admitted how he and his partner had lifted “excerpts” from the older dancers Jack Wiggins and King Rastus Brown, from “old films of kids shuffling their feet,” then “switched them around.” Reed understood the game. “I knew how to come up with an idea,” he said. “If I didn’t, I would steal an idea from somebody. I didn’t care who. I would steal it and change it around a bit. I watched everybody and I stole from everybody.”

He grew up in Kansas City, and when he first arrived in New York, around 1925, one of the first places he visited was a gambling den two doors down from Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. A room in the back, furnished with a bench, an old upright piano, and a good floor, served as an informal rehearsal space for tap dancers—hoofers, in the parlance of the time. This was the Hoofers’ Club, a small space that would grow in memory into the epicenter of twentieth-century tap. Reed, a relentless debunker, would insist that more dancers came to gamble than to practice. Even so, he remembered, “There was always dancin’ going on, known dancers and unknown dancers”—so much dancing that the floor had to be replaced every six months or so. (As at Swing 46, tap would always rely on permissive property owners.)

“All the dancers would hang out,” Reed recalled, “and they would trade ideas.” The scene resembled the trading sessions that Buster Brown would find in Baltimore, and the gatherings on the street corners of Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and Omaha. But this was New York, Harlem in its heyday, where the most ambitious black dancers came to prove themselves. Reed learned his own specialty, the set of tap steps called “wings,” from a guy everyone called Piano. (“I don’t know his real name, and I don’t know if anyone ever did.”) Using the upright as a ballerina might use a barre, Piano would jump, and as he slowed his descent with his arms, he would fit in a flurry of ground-striking sounds before his weight settled. Take the piano away, and he couldn’t do a thing. Not all the dancers at the Hoofers’ Club were ready for the stage. But even those who weren’t contributed ideas. “He invented all sorts of things and we would do them”—figure out how to accomplish the feats unassisted. A guy like Piano stretched the conception of what was worth trying.

That conception was stretched further when a known dancer came in, a master. Then the place went quiet, all eyes and ears fixed on the informal demonstration. Once the master was satisfied that he’d confirmed his mastery, he left, and only then did the younger dancers take to the floor and try to reconstruct what they had just witnessed. (“He did this.” “No, he did this.”) By such means, a solo likely improvised became set, duplicated, and distributed. Other aspiring kids around the country were memorizing the improvised solos of jazz musicians, captured on records and shipped all over, but very few of the tap dancers at the Hoofers’ Club, or anywhere else, would appear on records. Just a handful made it into films. Most of the time, dancers studied their betters and rivals live. They came to the theater in packs, soaking up as much as they could. Stealing took a sharp eye and an ear that could recognize and retain rhythms. A step was a rhythmic phrase and also the movements to make it: you had to catch both. Canny dancers frustrated stealing by changing their act frequently or, through improvisation, constantly.

At the Hoofers’ Club, the exposure was at its most direct and intense. Dancers would vie for prominence in battles that might last for hours or even days. These matches were called cutting contests, carving contests—violent terms that suggest how fierce competition could get. Between bouts, a few experienced dancers might be willing to share their knowledge openly and break down steps for upstarts. One of those novices remembered King Rastus Brown, legendary and past his prime, not merely demonstrating a step but tracing its genealogy: the steps that came before it and the steps that branched off. Most masters, however, guarded their treasures closely. You had to be clever to pry anything out of them. John Bubbles, one of the greatest hoofers, became infamous for his espionage. Noticing a step he liked, Bubbles would shake his head sadly, informing the dancer that he’d missed a beat and had better try again. Taking the lure, the dancer would repeat the step, and Bubbles would say something like, “Now, that’s not what you did the first time,” which would prompt the dancer to repeat himself again and give Bubbles all he needed. “That reminds me of a step I used to do,” Bubbles would finally say, rendering the newly acquired step and topping it with variations. If the first part of his method was devious, the last part was crucial. It followed the lesson that King Rastus Brown taught: the variations made the step yours.

Ralph Brown, a younger Hoofers’ Club member unrelated to King Rastus, put it this way: “You can take whatever you stole. Because you never learned the complete step anyway. You learned how to do part of it, so you take that part and put something else with it. Then you made your own step.”

“That was affectionately called ‘stealing steps,’” Leonard Reed remembered, stressing the affection. “Everybody did it. That’s how you learned. You would do something, and you’d say to the other dancers, ‘You tryin’ to steal it? All right, do it!’ And they’d try it. Of course, when they did it, it was slightly different.”

A challenge. An imitation. Something slightly different. Essentially, that’s how tap was handed down. It was, in this way, similar to the children’s game called Telephone or Operator or Pass-the-Whisper: kids confiding a phrase to each other that mutates as it travels from mouth to ear to mouth, until, through a mix of mishearing and invention, it becomes something new. So it was with the techniques, styles, and traditions of tap. Part of the change was accidental: someone misremembered a step or couldn’t do what the first guy had done. Part of it was inevitable: steps just come out different on different dancers. Much of the change was willed, dancers striving to stand out, to express their individuality through the tradition. Competition pushed technical advancement, yet restyling in a more general sense was valued and encouraged. Steal It and Change It was integral to a professional code, and a way of life.

That code had rules. You could mimic somebody else’s moves, among other dancers, as a tribute, a witty allusion, or a jibe. But doing it in public, for pay—that was theft. As much as there were steps that everyone shared, a dancer’s specialties were part of his livelihood, distinctive goods he could offer employers and audiences. The packs of dancers in certain theaters were also inspectors, and if you tried to pass off someone else’s stuff as your own, they might stand up and call you out. You could be humiliated, ostracized, maybe even roughed up. The best defense was to claim variation and try to prove it. One-upmanship was the ladder to respect.

And so if a cocky youngster was laughed out of the Hoofers’ Club, as John Bubbles was on his first visit (“You’re hurting the floor,” the experts told him), he went away and practiced hard. “One night I started practicing about eleven o’clock,” Bubbles remembered. “At three a.m. I took off my shoes and danced barefoot”—in consideration of his neighbors—“and around six a.m. I finished working out the step.” By the time the shamed dancer returned to the club, he would be prepared, “fortified,” in Bubbles’s words, “like a fellow with a double-barreled shotgun.” Then a relative old-timer like Toots Davis might be forced to swallow his laughter, saying, as one witness recalled, “I invented that step, but I never knew there were so many ways to do it.” When the transformation was thorough, credit was easily granted. When the something extra was less obvious, arguments could grow hot. Disputes were unavoidable, since private creations were continually entering the public domain. The truth was, as the highly original, influential, and now nearly forgotten hoofer Eddie Rector said, “You can’t copyright no steps.”

Within black show business, however, the code basically held. Early newspaper reports announced the Hoofers’ Club as a membership organization with a board of directors, but this was likely no more than a front for illegal gaming and liquor. Most dancers would recall the club less formally, as just the room in which steps were traded. Still, a club’s a club. Anybody could walk in—anybody who was male, that is—but not everybody belonged. Some described tests and trials. For one, a would-be member danced to the clapping of everyone else. Instructed to remember that tempo, the aspirant was escorted out and walked around the block, distracted by street noises and the chatter of his guide. Meanwhile, inside the club, the remaining members held the groove until the pledge returned, preceded by his minder, who gave the signal to maintain the beat mentally. That silent meter the recruit now had to match, synchronizing his dancing with the inaudible grid to demonstrate that he could keep time—could shelter it, like a flame.

Being black wasn’t exactly a requirement, but for many reasons, almost no white dancers ever entered the Hoofers’ Club. Hal LeRoy was one of the few. He had learned the basics from a black kid in his hometown of Cincinnati and had stolen the rest from hoofers who passed through the local theater. “Maybe I didn’t do the exact step,” he remembered, “but more or less.” He practiced five, six hours a day. In 1931, his rubbery, rapid tapping and boy-next-door manner made him an overnight star on Broadway. It got him into many movies, mostly short ones. And it earned him the respect of many black dancers. John Bubbles noticed what LeRoy was doing with Bubbles’s steps, and he encouraged the kid with a gift of metal taps. According to LeRoy’s memory of visiting the Hoofers’ Club around 1931, the assembled members asked him to dance outside on a platform six feet off the ground. Some hoofers called out steps and watched; others, underneath the stage, listened. LeRoy passed the test and was appointed an honorary member. The hoofers awarded him a pin.

It was one thing for a talented outsider to be invited—especially if, as in the case of LeRoy, the outsider’s sponsor was Bill Robinson, the most celebrated black tap dancer of all. This in itself was complicated, considering the mixed feelings that Harlem dancers harbored toward Robinson and his cozy relations with whites. Whatever LeRoy’s skills and personal appeal, his sudden fame and the unequal opportunities that his skin color afforded him could be cause for resentment. The taps that Bubbles gave him, the test, the pin—these all could have been tinged with irony and still have been genuine tokens of esteem. But it was another thing altogether for total outsiders to steal steps, or an entire act, then present that pilfered material in front of an audience that wouldn’t recognize the difference between original and copy, perhaps in a venue where the originator and his friends might not be welcome. That happened, too. In either case, and in the vast gray area between, the history of tap is a history of stolen steps.

Copyright © 2015 by Brian Seibert