November 6th, 2010

Tap dancing, then and now

Let’s take our minds off politics for a while, shall we?

Here’s a video of the fleet-footed, technically adept, incredibly klutzy and profoundly uninteresting (to me) Savion Glover, giant of tap dancing for the last couple of decades:

And here are the Nicholas Brothers, from the 40s. They’re impressively elegant and terrifying at the same time. And if you don’t think those two things can co-exist, just take a look (be patient; it builds and builds and builds):

Reviewer Alastair Macauley of the NY Times agrees with me about Savion Glover’s curiously off-putting and even unpleasant style:

The tap choreographer-dancer Savion Glover is a puzzle. He is the most famous tap dancer to have emerged in decades. He has been hailed as the greatest tap dancer who has ever lived by people well qualified to pass such judgment. He is the man who has done most to make tap a youthful genre again. But it is hard to think of a celebrated dancer performing today who is more tedious, more devoid of stage sense, more undancerly and more lacking in musicianship.

The review goes on, and contains nothing but complaints about Glover, such as this:

I’ve never seen a tap dancer whose execution looked so disembodied. It isn’t just that from the ankle up he does so little. It’s that from the ankle up he’s an ungainly bore, without physical grace or line or intensity.

I second the motion. But I don’t think it’s really about Glover. He’s a sign of our times, part of a general dance trend in favor of meaningless and extreme technique at the expense of everything else, including what makes dance joyful and meaningful.

The Nicholas Brothers were the opposite. As was the incomparable Fred Astaire (the dancing starts at about minute 1:35, after the singing):

And of course, this segue is irresistible:

50 Responses to “Tap dancing, then and now”

  1. julia NYC Says:

    I cannot bear to watch Glover dance. He is tedious beyond belief for me. Glad to hear others feel the same way. The Nicholas Brothers were fantastic. Once in a century kind of dancing. Glover, what a snooze. usually when I watch great dancing I always think, “I wish I could do that, how lucky they are!” but I never feel that way when I see Glover dance. Love watching that guy on Dancing with the Stars, Derek Hough I think his name is. That kid is great. Wish I coud do what he does. “Dancing with the Stars” is tough to watch though because only one of the dancers is any good, well, I guess it’s a fun curiosity.

  2. donb Says:

    I was never much of a fan of tap dancing, but then I saw a wonderful local production of “My One and Only”.

    The first act closed with the co-stars “tap” dancing (more appropriately “splash” dancing) barefoot in a thin film of water, with every splash glittering in the multi-colored footlights. Beautiful and creative!

    I have often wondered whether it was performed in that way in the Broadway original. I strongly suspect it was. After all, the Broadway original was choreographed by, and starred, Tommy Tune. He won Tonys for both efforts. (And interestingly, his co-star was Leslie Hornby, better known as “Twiggy”!!)

  3. DJMoore Says:

    The Nicolas Brothers are just a hair shy of combining tap with parkour. I think if Astaire had ever seen it, he would have incorporated it instantly, with angelic grace.

    As it is, I suspect some of its moves originated with these guys.

    I have nothing to say about Glover tapping his feet.

  4. Tatyana Says:

    Thank you for Nickolas Broth. – never heard of them. Fantastic performance! and what a choreography; it really is “builds and builds”. As in Fred Astair’s piece, too.

  5. John Schroeder Says:

    You have stepped into one of the great debates in the arts – What is tap all about – rhythm or style.- and it is buried in race.

    The contention is that tap was “invented” by blacks and is a rhythmic exercise. It was only when it was “stolen” by the white man and combined with more acceptable forms of dance that it took on the appearance you seem to prefer. Some have even accused the Nicholas Brothers of “selling out” – and Bill Robinson was “forced” to dance that way to make a living.

    I personally think there is room for both styles – they ask very different things of the audience. One is essentially visual and one aural.

    Savion is not pretty, but close your eyes and listen – there are professional drummers that cannot do that with four extremities and a kit.

  6. rickl Says:

    Glover: I suppose he’s good at what he does. I’ve never tap danced in my life, so it’s not my place to criticize. Others are more qualified than I am to do that.

    Nicholas Brothers: Awesome! And what band is that? They sound great.

    Astaire: Not much I can add about the dancing. I like the way he used his cane as a percussion instrument.

    Young Frankenstein: One of the funniest movies ever made. Arguably Mel Brooks’ best. I saw it in the theater when it first came out when I was about 16. I’ve seen it several times since, and it has held up very well.

    When I first saw it, I didn’t know the reference and couldn’t understand what Peter Boyle was bellowing.

  7. rickl Says:

    John Schroeder Says:
    November 6th, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Savion is not pretty, but close your eyes and listen – there are professional drummers that cannot do that with four extremities and a kit.

    That’s a good point. With him, it does seem to be more about the sound rather than the visual aspect.

  8. Kate Says:

    There’s no comparison. The Nicholas Brothers combine skill, musicianship and athleticism. Glover is purely technique.

    What sparked my interest in (watching) tap dancing was Riverdance – the Irish style, and the way Riverdance used it was a real eye-opener when I first saw it.

  9. DJMoore Says:

    John Schroder: “close your eyes and listen”

    Ah. Racial history aside, your contention is that Glover is not dancing so much performing music.


    I hear your point, but I have to say, I don’t much care for drum solos, and the few seconds we have Glover tapping with musical accompaniment don’t, to my ears, show him working well with the band, either.

  10. Bob M Says:

    rickl– That’s Cab Calloway’s band, he of “Minnie the Moocher” fame.

  11. rickl Says:

    Bob M:
    Thanks. That’s him at the beginning, isn’t it, with the baton or cane or whatever?

  12. rickl Says:

    Duh. It’s a baton, not a cane. I should have watched it again.

  13. Anonna Says:

    Music in general seems to have sped up in response to the pressures and stress of modern life. I now hear classical pieces played so quickly that all that can be accomplished is technical perfection. It’s a nice trick, but leaves out entire arenas of expression.

    As for the sloppy guy in the baggy coat who makes fast sound with his shoes — that’s nice.

  14. Bryan Says:

    “Tapping his feet” is a pretty accurate description of Glover. What he does is impressive technically, but it really cannot be called “dance.” He’s playing a percussion instrument on the bottom of his feet.

    Now, the Nicholas Brothers and Astaire? THAT is some dance. You can feel the joy coming right out of the screen. (Not that dance always has to be joyful; but Glover’s performance really doesn’t evoke any emotional response to me.)

    And I think Anonna has a point. Much the same problem exists in classical music today, where it is now played so quickly that very little of the original feeling behind the music can be found among the technical pounding of keys.

  15. Bob M Says:

    Yes, that’s him. My wife and I met him in the mid seventies, at a booksellers convention. We got there earlier and had a cup of coffee in the hotel coffee shop. He was there, by himself, having a cup of coffee and reading the paper. We said hi, but didn’t bother him. He was there to promote his autobiography. We bought a signed copy and read it. The thing that amazed me was his daughter talking about what an energetic magnetic personality he was on stage, but laid back and pretty quiet at home–almost like a different person from the guy she saw on the stage. He was definitely the second in the coffee, shop, although he was about 70 years old by then.

  16. Kate Says:

    Gene Kelly deserves a mention altho his style is completely different than Astaire. He’s terrific in Singing In The Rain.

    Astaire, as atypical a leading man as there might be, creates a seduction. No one, to me, sings Night and Day more convincingly.

    Glover? Yikes.

  17. gs Says:

    1. I am pretty oblivious–the deficiency is mine–to the merits of dance as an art form, so I’m grateful to Neo and John Schroeder for presenting their insights in a manner accessible to me.

    2. Wrt Schroeder: for the longest time, Bach sounded like aural mud to me. I finally happened to get hold of a score and, thanks to a year of violin in my youth, followed it as the music played. I saw the contrapuntal lines and the light dawned.

    3. Of course I’m not comparing Glover to Bach, but I wonder if someday something will come out of Africa that will make Bach’s counterpoint seem like hopscotch tunes by comparison.

    4. Anonna Says: I now hear classical pieces played so quickly that all that can be accomplished is technical perfection. Heh. Somebody remarked that there have never been more good pianists before the public, but there are few if any great pianists. Do we want great pianists anymore, for that matter?

    6. An NPR affiliate here in MA runs a classical station. I happened to tune in on the classical fundraiser and something seemed odd…couldn’t put my finger on it. I finally realized that they were trying to advocate the classical repertoire while remaining multiculti PC: no hint of naughty expressions like high culture or Western civilization. (Neo, sorry if I’ve tainted the thread with political implications.)

  18. SteveH Says:

    I can’t fathom the physical stamina of the Nicholas Bros in that piece. And to move that crisp after a couple minutes of it is incredible.

  19. Gringo Says:

    I decided to watch 30 seconds each of Glover and the Nicholas Brothers, to decide which I preferred. I saw all I wanted to see/hear of Glover in 30 seconds. The Nicholas Brothers fascinated me so much that I kept watching until the end- and wanted more.

    Liked Fred Astaire and Young Frankenstein.

    gs: Agreed. Performers appreciate Bach more than listeners, because from the score they see the mathematical masterpieces that Bach weaves.

  20. Brian Swisher Says:

    Astaire and Kelly fans may want to give this a go…

  21. Hanoi Paris Hilton Says:

    I think that Glover’s tap moves were digitally sampled and uploaded into the animation of the dancing penguin’s feet in Happy Feet. Worth seeing.

    For those who haven’t quite gotten what Bach is all about, and who may not be able to follow a conventional score, these bar-code animations are simply phenomenal. Totally accessible to anybody, but not regarded one bit as lightweight or Mickey Mouse by serious musicians.

    I for one had always found the D Minor Toccata and fugue –particularly in the hyper-romantic performances of the 1950s– as kind of deadly and overwrought. But this visualization jut turned me totally around on that.

    This is another good one, using a rather different visualization concept and style.

    When you open these, dozens of other links will appear. Check them all out.

  22. LAG Says:

    This is a bit off-topic since it’s not tap, but it is dancing. You do like ballet?

  23. Hanoi Paris Hilton Says:

    Yikes! The URL links all disappeared. Let me try again

    If these disappear also, go Google “smalin”

  24. gs Says:

    Thanks, HPH.

  25. john Says:

    As of a few months ago, there was a much longer clip on youtube that included this performance, but I can’t find it anymore. Here is a slightly longer version of the same clip that adds a few minutes of Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway’s performances, well worth watching to see the performance in context:

    At the end of the clip, all that is left in the movie is that the dancers come back on stage for a few seconds, the camera zooms in a smiling Calloway directing his band, and fades to the “The End” title.

    I just have to say, take a look at the outfits the dancers are wearing early in the extended clip. They are looking SHARP!

  26. anna Says:

    Yikes, that Chinese circus ballet thing was oddly creepy for some reason.

  27. colagirl Says:

    I watched the clip of Fred Astaire first, and then of Savion Glover. While Glover is certainly technically talented, I think in artistry there’s no comparison. Astaire’s artistry was in every line of his body, the movements of his arms, head and torso, not just his feet. In contrast, all I could think of was that from the waist up, Glover looked like a zombie. His head drooped, his shoulders slouched, and his arms hung loose; all he needed was a cry of “BRAAAIINS!” to complete the image.

    It also seemed to me that Astaire had much more emphasis on connecting with the audience–eye contact with the camera as if he were looking directly at us. Perhaps it was the way Glover’s head drooped, but it seemed almost like he was staring intently at his feet throughout the whole performance. Now, I should be fair and admit this is the first time I’ve ever seen a performance of Glover’s; I don’t know if they’re all like this or not; perhaps he’s done some more engaging stuff, but based on this clip here I’m not impressed.

  28. colagirl Says:

    Just went back and read the entire comments thread. Thank you, John Schroeder and Bryan, for the points about “rhythm vs. style” and the comment that Glover was not exactly *dancing* so much as playing a percussion instrument with his feet. I was unaware of the existence of that debate in tap and it’s an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered. I guess you learn something new every day. I still think I would rather watch an Astaire performance though.

  29. Hanoi Paris Hilton Says:

    Earlier I mention a quite different score/sound visualization technique. Here’s a link to that one, also realized by Stephen Malinowski (“smalin”).

    I’m amazed that his stuff is not more widely celebrated!

  30. Artfldgr Says:

    Cid Cherise
    Gene Kelly
    Ray Bolger
    Russ Tamblyn

  31. Steve Says:

    Michael Jackson seems to have borrowed from Fred Astaire. They were both consummate song and dance men.

  32. texexec Says:

    Thanks for this post, Neo. I needed a break from politics AND from watching the Gawd Awful Texas Longhorns this year.

    Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are amaaaaaaaazing and without equal.

  33. donb Says:

    Here’s one that’s a bit different; it’s just for the fun of tapping, and is purely about style – not much rhythm to hear, since they are “tapping” barefoot – but it’s a lot of fun anyway (the dancing goes from 3:40 to 6:40 in the clip):

    Sadly, this “recreated here for television” version, while fun, doesn’t capture the visual effect of the splashes glittering in the footlights. (I still prefer “live” to “Memorex”, if you remember that old ad.)

  34. Denise Says:

    I’ve seen Savion Glover live, I enjoyed it, but I find that his stage demeanor is almost as if he’s just rehearsing or figuring out his dance. He seems almost autistic – very inward. He didn’t seem to connect to the audience at all.

    The Nicholas Brothers’ performance speaks for itself. I instantly found myself grinning from ear to ear. Amazing.

  35. mikemcdaniel Says:

    Hmmm. Considering that our President, a man whose speaking and rhetoric skills, fairly evaluated in any college class would earn a “C” at best (and I speak as one who has taught college speech), is widely considered the most brilliant orator of all time, it’s hardly surprising that this gentleman would be considered the tops in his field.

    Glover? An oddity; a curiously compelling enigma. The Nicolas Brothers? Genuinely entertaining artistic skill and grace. Fred Astaire? The epitome of real talent and class of the kind not seen in a long, long time, and perhaps, never again.

  36. Susanne Says:

    Thanks, that was fun!!

  37. Russ Says:

    Of course, the Nicholas Brothers were dancers, not just tap dancers. Enjoy them dancing with Gene Kelley in The Pirate (dancing starts at about 0:55)

  38. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    It reminds me of rock fans arguing in the 70’s that Alvin Lee was a better guitarist than Eric Clapton because he was faster.

  39. D. B. light Says:

    Neo, you have put your finger on one of the things that most distresses me about contemporary culture — the mindless emphasis on spectacle and virtuosity rather than craftsmanship and musicality. Mastery of technique is simply a necessary precondition for great performance, not its summum bonum.

  40. Beverly Says:

    Funny; I was just reading this about Cyd Charisse last night.

    ‘In her autobiography, Charisse reflected on her experience with Astaire and Kelly: “As one of the handful of girls who worked with both of those dance geniuses, I think I can give an honest comparison.

    “In my opinion, Kelly is the more inventive choreographer of the two. Astaire, with Hermes Pan’s help, creates fabulous numbers — for himself and his partner. But Kelly can create an entire number for somebody else …

    “I think, however, that Astaire’s coordination is better than Kelly’s … his sense of rhythm is uncanny. Kelly, on the other hand, is the stronger of the two. When he lifts you, he lifts you! …

    “To sum it up, I’d say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. But it’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.”‘

  41. Beverly Says:

    And here’s one of my favorite Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse routines, from Singing in the Rain:

    In my fantasies, I dance like that. . . .

  42. Paul_In_Houston Says:

    rickl Says:
    November 6th, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Astaire: Not much I can add about the dancing. I like the way he used his cane as a percussion instrument.

    Young Frankenstein: One of the funniest movies ever made. Arguably Mel Brooks’ best.

    Totally agree about Mel Brooks best. I suppose that working with a genuine madman (Wilder) helps a bit there. 🙂

    Astaire is one of those with such a laid-back and effortless style with his dancing (as with Frank Sinatra singing or James Garner acting) that he often doesn’t seem to be doing anything special at all. He makes it look so easy it appears that anyone could do it — until they try.

    I suspect that is a hallmark of a genuine artist.

  43. Trebuchet Says:

    “Savion is not pretty, but close your eyes and listen – there are professional drummers that cannot do that with four extremities and a kit”

    Get hold of any Louie Bellson, Ginger Baker, Max Roach or Niel Pert solo, great rhythm and much more fun to watch.
    Also, on the subject of where tape came from, I had heard that it originated on the plantations of America in the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s when the Irish Bond Slaves worked and lived in the same quarters as the African American Slaves. The Irish clogging met with the Africans’ rhythmic dance and tap was born. It makes sense when you consider most of the great Tap Artist of the early days of Vaudeville were either Irish or African American.
    You did leave three of the great Tap Artist out, the Hines Brothers and Donald O’Connor. I broke my arm trying to run up the wall like O’Connor did in his “Make “Em Laugh” dance sequence from “Dancing in the Rain”

  44. Gale Says:

    The Nicholas Brothers are amazing to watch – I had never heard of them, thanks for that.

    I loved Fred’s segment of Puttin on the Ritz when he dances with the male chorus. What impressed me is the total, absolute precision of the dances. What also amazed me is that with Fred in the middle, you know there is a dancer directly behind him but you do not see him, because he is so precisely matching what Fred does. I had to watch it twice.

  45. Gale Says:

    Arrrggghhh… I meant: precision of the dancers…

  46. Paul Says:

    If you can find it, there’s a fabulous PBS biography of the Nicholas Brothers with lots of clips. It includes the late great Gregory Hines talking about them with something approaching awe.

    One of the funniest parts is their interaction with Gene Kelley. One of the Nicholas brothers would sit and watch rehearsals, he just didn’t feel like tiring himself out. This got Kelley angry when it first happened. Of course, when it came time to perform for the camera, the lazy brother danced his part perfectly.

  47. Helen Says:

    May I just add that Fred Astaire himself considered the Nicholas Brothers to be the best in the business.

  48. Richard Saunders Says:

    If you want to see Gregory Hines (may his memory be for a blessing) at the top of his game, watch his dance sequence in White Nights (an otherwise completely forgetable movie). And then he dances with Barishnikov!

  49. Anonna Says:

    I wanted to add a little more on showmanship. Traditional flatfoot Appalachian clogging done by elderly performers of the old school has an interesting twist on showmanship. There’s no jumping and gesturing, but there’s also none of the stoop-shoulder self-absorption that Glover produces. Instead, the dancer looks out at the audience, at ease, relaxed, and perhaps even a little surprised by what’s happening as their feet, tap, tap, tap, tap along as if on their own. The dancer glides a little with the steps, but the feet seem to be doing their own thing! It’s charming. I believe the DVD is called, “Talking Feet.”

  50. Marcy O'Rourke Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Savion Glover’s tap dance, and the others, too. Have always been a fan of the Nickolas Bros. and Astaire. Also love Donald O’Connor. I enjoyed Glover’s tapping. It is very representative of today’s post ‘everything human and fun’ style. But somehow his enthusiasm leaks through his indifferent demeanor. Relief from politics in dance? Do you remember Arlene Croce? A great dance critic ruined by her response to an AIDS ballet.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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