The Circle Is Not Sacred: Mark Wikinson’s American Tap

By Nala Duma

Friday, April 14, 2023

Last December, the city of Boston unveiled 19 tons of bronze sculpture on its winter-struck Common: two bodiless arms, floating in circled embrace. The piece, titled The Embrace, was created by Hank Willis Thomas in reference to a famous photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King embracing one another. The statue’s icy unveiling just about coincided with the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Black officers of the Memphis Police Department on January 7th. For viewers, online and in-person, the empty boughs of The Embrace failed to deliver the soft romance of their inspiration. Instead, they signaled the political powerlessness of such works to bear the legacy of the American Civil Rights Movement in the present. 

Mark Wikinson’s 2018 documentary American Tap sets the stage for an equally miserable unveiling. The film chronicles American tap dance history from vaudeville and minstrelsy to more contemporary styles of tap such as rhythm tap and acoustoelectric soundmaking. Archival photos and footage of seminal figures in American dance history (from the Nicholas Brothers to Gregory Hines) relay as living legends (from Debbie Allen to Dianne Walker) offer personal anecdotes to suture the sinews of race, class, ethnicity, and culture that bind this entertainment history. Where the film divulges a sprawling record of tap’s somatic movement from Africa to the Americas, it attempts to frame us as living in a less racial, less contentious present.

Wikinson traces tap back, way back, to the African Drum Circle: a “sacred” convening of music and movement that “formed a ritual, a blessing, [and] a shared type of worship” within prehistoric African communities. Once abducted from these homelands and beamed into lives of interminable labor—working cotton, sugar cane, hemp, and rice fields in the Americas— enslaved Africans preserved the tradition of the Drum Circle, often using its mechanisms to communicate and encrypt plots for escape or rebellion. At the same time, a modern confluence of cultures began to take place in large American port towns such as New Orleans: newly Black diasporic communities exchanged music and dance techniques with Irish indentured servants and English, French, and Spanish settlers on town squares. And from the geoeconomic melee that smashed these groups, American tap emerged.

Musician Jon Batiste describes this contact of cultures, fondly, as a “gumbo.” Through his analogy, we are led to believe that the drive of globality and the exchange of cultures always requires world-rending violence. The violence is destiny. The swallowing up of Africa and its cultures is destiny. The delight of a gumbo requires it. Here, Batiste reveals American Tap’s well-trodden narrative course: how Black and white folks will, together, defeat the evils of racism and procure America’s true promise of equality for all

"Where the film divulges a sprawling record of tap’s somatic movement from Africa to the Americas, it attempts to frame us as living in a less racial, less contentious present."

The truer promise is that there is a lot of money to be made off of exploitation. When writer Mark Knowles recounts the story of how a 19th century white American performer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice wore blackface and mimicked the dance stylings of a Black American slave with arthritis and rheumatism to international acclaim, it could have been a great opportunity to describe the basis for an ongoing relationship between white and Black entertainers in the modern era—the exploiters and the exploited; the appropriators and the appropriated; Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton; Jack Harlow and hip-hop’s progenitors. Instead, Rice’s story is framed as a necessary evil that necessarily catapulted Black performance styles into the heart of American culture.

Wikinson ducks the arduous work of engaging anti-Blackness. As a result, American Tap fails to breach the banal. Instead, the film focuses on how multigenerational talents developed and preserved an art form through waning relevance toward the end of the 20th century. Narrator James Seawood illustrates vivid somatic portraits of Master Juba, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, John W. Bubbles, and Chuck Green, detailing how these hoofers dropped heels or slipped pick-ups in between steps like ghost notes in an effort to enrich tap with rhythmic and tonal variance. But by the film’s end, the Reagan Administration has gutted federal support for public arts education; Gregory Hines has passed, leaving a gaping hole in tap dance leadership; and, in the new millennium, a crop of whiter and lighter artists has emerged as tap’s foremost talents.

It’s a miserable unveiling. The sacred circle of Blackness is, once again, revealed to have never really been sacred. The closure of the African Drum Circle, like the arms of the Embrace, has been broken open by the world-rending violence of whiteness. Wikinson concludes his film by relaying clips of the 2014 Ferguson police protests as Seawood delivers a long-winded metaphor about how the freeness of jazz music and tap dance is indicative of the freeness of American democracy. It’s miserable.

Still, there is cause for hope. In American Tap’s final dancing shot, hoofer Savion Glover twirls infinitely around himself as the screen fades to black. He’s smiling. The movement signals a re/turn to the dark, to an abyss, to the kind of anonymity that fueled those immensely generative 1960s Black tap jams at a time when tap faded from the American mainstream. While the circle of Blackness may not be sacred, it can always gain strength in a blacker dark.

Stream American Tap, directed by Mark Wikinson, here. National Sawdust is able to stream American Tap in part thanks to the the ArtsForward grant program of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, made possible through the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

About Nala Duma

Nala Duma is a musician, choreographer, and writer whose critical lens on popular culture and contemporary music takes up Blackness as the break that might rupture our attachments to Worlds, territories, and Man.