“Being Savion Glover:“ Black Masculinity, Translocation, and Tap Dance
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"Being Savion Glover:" Black Masculinity, Translocation, and Tap Dance
Thomas F. DeFrantz
The music sounds a Dirty South beat, the bass booming to answer the incessant high-pitched car
alarm sound of synthesized strings. A woodblock sets the clavé, determining when and where I
enter the beat. Its pulse is a medium tempo, but my only way in is a double-time sixteenth-note
patter. I rush to meet the duple measure, stumbling over shifts of weight faster and faster, fulfilling
impulses that run down my legs and out my feet before I can understand what they are. The steps
flow freely from paddle and rolls - a fast-step wave and stomp performed directly under the body
that allows for speed - to abrupt breaks of the beat inevitably followed by a fast volley of sounds. I
feel my way into the hard edges of the ideas here, fueled by the unison melodic line sounded in
several octaves of voice and instruments calling a cautionary tale of black life in the big city for the
thug angels: "You wannt be a thug?/You wanna push drugs?/You want the cars in the videos?/Let
me tell you how it really goes."1
In the 1999 Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich a trio of hapless urbanites discover an unlikely passage
into the body of a contemporary "bad boy" stage actor. The translocation of bodies sets in motion two
reactions: first, an increased kinesthetic awareness of life as it is lived through someone else, a sort of
"eureka" moment of recognition and estrangement predicted by Freud and other psychoanalysts; followed
closely by the second, capitalist impulse to make money by charging others admission to this strange
opportunity, the appropriating, opportunistic "eureka" moment predicted by Marx and other class theorists.
In the film, we see lines of eager body thieves, the paying customers willing to spend a few odd minutes
being John Malkovich. This process echoes what audiences and researchers do when confronted by bodies
in dance motion.
The point of entry to John Malkovich's being occurs on a half-floor of a Manhattan building, a sort of
miniaturized landscape where everyone exists hunched over, always in physical distress, always imagining
being an/Other body in another kind of space. The metaphor of in-between-ness - the portal into Malkovich's
body is found in a closet on the 6 2th floor - operates in the movie as it does in many performances, as a
portal to desire mixing embodied memories with a prescient naive innocence. In the film, to open the door to
the thrill of living, briefly, in another's psychic and corporeal space, we have to pass through an area of
shrunken, guileless physicality. This space is also enacted for us by expert child performers, prodigies,
who, with no recourse to psychological self-doubt, summon barely imaginable worlds through their expert
imitation of adults.
The few child prodigies allowed American dance have been tap dancers. This simulacrum is indeed loaded
by race, class, and gender. Tap dance is a hybrid American invention, but its African influences are visible
and palpable. Consistent with American social constructions that have historically displaced and
invisiblized their African wellsprings, tap has been trivialized or infantilized as a vernacular form, accessible
to all but without the patina of profundity allowed art.2
But is tap dancing an art? Surely it can be, as countless performances by master dancers prove. But how
is tap dance art accessed or referenced by its performers - or by child prodigies? More importantly, how is
meaning in tap dance - for either audiences or dancers - assigned?
Rusty Frank begins her carefully-researched book of interviews Tap! with a definition of pickaninnies - the
usually anonymous small black children who tap danced on minstrel and vaudeville stages to provide a
frame for the star act. Pickaninnies offered a coalescence of racialized infantilization and emasculation, as
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their cavorting dances signaled an invariant accessibility of black rhythmicity and creativity. Pickaninnies -
"picks" for short - did learn useful show business skills while on the job, and often grew into adult
entertainers respected for the professionalism they gleaned as children. But as children, performing most
often for white adult audiences, "picks" confirmed associations of blackness and the puerile; common
American constructions linking guileless physicality to intellectual and cultural naivete.
Anonymous "picks" became less common in the early part of the twentieth century, and the expansion of
the film industry, combined with strengthened federal child labor laws, contributed to a decrease of child tap
dancers on public stages. Still, children danced professionally, and some of these tap dancers became
celebrities on screen. Frank's text continues to document several child dancing movie stars including the
obvious Shirley Temple (1928 - ) and the lesser known Jane Withers (1927 - ), as well as dancers who
started young, including Fayard (1914 - ) and Harold (1921 - 2000) Nicholas, known professionally as the
Nicholas Brothers. With their reputations buoyed by technologies of mass distribution, these youngsters,
who might have been "picks" a generation earlier, were termed child tap dance prodigies. This subtle shift in
terminology, enabled by the emergence of white girl dancers like Temple and Withers, moved child dancers
from the perceived realm of naive mimics toward a more "respectable" imaginary space of artists-in-training.
Unlike the "picks," whose usefulness lasted only so long as they were still children, prodigies held the
potential to become artists - or at least stars - as adults.
Child tap dancers seem to lack the nagging interiority of mature adult life. In this, the ascendancy of first
the "picks" and later the white girl dancers reflected prevalent attitudes toward African Americans and white
women. It should not surprise that there are few celebrated white boy tap dancers. If American adulthood is
constructed to suit a hegemonic norm of unmarked white masculinity, all Others - including
African Americans and white women - fall outside the preferred markers of adult identity. Because tap had
been originally identified as an Africanist performance idiom, it could be more readily inhabited by African
Americans, white women, and Others than it could white boys.
Ultimately, white male tap dancers found celebrity through a careful side-stepping of implications aligning
tap dance with blackness, femininity, or social eccentricity. For the two biggest stars of tap dance, this
achievement involved the depiction of a youthful enthusiasm unbounded by concerns of adulthood, as in the
several films of Gene Kelly, or a psychologically-motivated reclaiming of desires expressible only through
dance, as in several solo dance sequences by Fred Astaire. Still, tap dancing began as a raced, gendered,
and classed form of dance best suited to the naive or child-like. More than this, because it developed within
the crucible of intercultural collaboration and interracial corporeal interaction of the Five Points district of
New York City, tap dancing emerged in the widest American imagination as a hybrid entertainment idiom,
and not an art form with respectable provenance.3
For black men, tap dancing rarely reflected interior landscapes of, say, ambition, desire, regret, or rage.
Typically, tap afforded black men access to circumstances otherwise unavailable, as in the case of dancer
Bunny Briggs (1923 - ). In his published interview with Frank, Briggs details working on the streets and in
private homes throughout the 1930s as a child entertainer. In particular, Briggs remembers being dressed
as a page boy and chauffeured from Harlem to parties at the [Vincent] Astor home in Manhattan's tony
Upper East Side. Costumed, and displayed for their guests, Briggs functioned for the Astors as a guileless,
miniaturized being; an African American totem of innocence, commodity, and boundless energy. For his
spectators, Briggs offered what was not unlike a portal to an unknown realm configured by an unknowable,
but controllable, pre-modern desire.
Dapper in a suit and trademark bowler hat, Bojangles confronts a five-step construction placed
unceremoniously on a blank stage. A stationary camera captures the scene as in a documentary,
front-on for most of the 3-minute sequence. The piano accompaniment sounds an uninspired but
secure stop-time version of a "coon" song, and he dances, without apparent irony, to "Way Down
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 2 of 9
Upon the Swanee River." Bojangles smiles, his trademark grin that is almost a grimace in its
intensity, eyes almost bulging but not quite. As he approaches the stairs to dance, he focuses
attention carefully to the task of bounding up and down the narrow planks. Each stair seems barely
long enough to hold his foot in its entirety; he will have to be on the balls of his feet to navigate the
stairs successfully. Still, he smiles. The marvel of his dancing comes in the clarity of sound in all
its variations. The stop-type rhythm provides an open forum for his innovations; unexpected
syncopations and accents emerge into the stuttering accompaniment. Bojangles is clear and
precise at every pause. He ascends the stairs on the off-beat, stopping at the top to skirmish
briefly with the floor, then continues tripping lightly toward the stage platform. He treats the stairs
as the means to create his dance, kicking them, hitting against them, running up and down them,
at times patting his fist on the stairs before he ascends. Most of his steps are very simple cramp
rolls, but performed with a clarity on gesture on such a small surface that his technique emerges
transparently virtuosic. After several pristine choruses, he ends by running up and down the stairs,
and then off the set and out of frame.
How tap dance achieves meaning is still open to great debate. The aesthetic principles of tap - the formal
properties that allow us to recognize excellence in the form - follow Robert F. Thompson's canons of fine
Africanist form: percussive attack, multiple meter, apart playing, call and response, the aesthetic of the
cool, and the prevalent use of dances of derision.4 In tap these are obvious and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Musicality, though, while an essential element of almost any dance, is especially difficult to determine in
tap. Is it embedded in the musical accompaniment and the dancer's relationship to that, or is it actually in
the rhythm performed by the dancer? Is musicality a quality that can be detached from rhythm, or is this
"visual musicality" actually an element of style? Why is it so much easier to be musical in a "soft shoe,"
with its lilting rhythmic phrases, than in the hard percussive stamps of a "buck and wing?"
In the film of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's legendary stair routine,5 Bojangles (1878-1940) predicts profound
meaning available to tap dancers through a strange modernist translocation. As he dances while climbing
stairs that go nowhere and exist only on the stage as a means to produce the dance, we witness the
tension between his physical restraint, trim appearance, and aural accuracy against the abstraction of a
physical task. The labor of his dance is its own reward. Race, class, and gender provide primary markers
for meaning here; historically, black men had no mainstream public space for tap dancing unless that
space had been naturalized, or infantilized, as "vernacular" dance, available to "anyone." Black men like
Robinson were automatically assumed to be laborers; the occasion of a grown black man's labor that
seemed to be the production of his own pleasure - since tap had been unconditionally drawn in the
American imaginary as non-threatening fun - pointed toward an inevitable re-articulation of labor as rhythm,
or as dance. Robinson's stair routine reconceived labor as the production of rhythm as pleasure; it
demonstrated accuracy and mastery as elements of an emergent black masculinity available on public
stages and here, on screen.
Robinson's excellence trumps expectations of tap dance as visible labor. For black men, the work of tap
dance often had to be visible in order to be recognized as labor, and therefore consistent with mainstream
configurations of black male identity. Tap dancers like the Nicholas Brothers or the Berry Brothers had to
"show" their work, in extravagantly excessive physical tasks such as jumping or cartwheeling over each
other to land in the splits. In this acrobatic landscape, rhythmic subtlety or self-reflexive nuance could be
considered transgressive. Although the stairway Robinson confronts does offer an unlikely but obvious
physical challenge, its wages are abstract. The stairway goes, literally, nowhere and Robinson's dance with
it will succeed on its own, self-defined terms.
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 3 of 9
Self-definition in tap as a solo expression represented a turn from its origins as a competition form. Tap
dancing began as a competitive idiom that threatened to upset local social order in its execution. As Irish
and African dancers challenged each other at regular contests, local configurations of winners, losers,
champions, and the humiliated shifted. These judged competitions encouraged an active spectatorship of
dance challenges that were not unlike sporting events, and audiences came to identify closely with the
competitors and their techniques. From these spectacle-driven origins, tap moved easily onto the
entertainment stages of minstrelsy and then vaudeville. Its transition toward reflexive expressivity, rather
than competitive communication - from dance that *does* something through its implications in competition
to dance that is explicitly concerned with the shape of its interior meanings - has been negotiated with
difficulty. How audiences experience tap depends, in large part, on their ability to comprehend complex
constructions of rhythm. The expressive dimensions of tap are linear and supremely temporal; its
audiences hear rhythmic inventions in the very moment of their creation. Unmoored from palpable
consequences, tap dancing, like ballet, produces meaning within its own execution.
The melody emerges in bitter, jagged edges, its essence pushed violently into the keyboard by the
fingers of Thelonious Monk. What had been a wistful standard tune, "Just a Gigolo," sounds now
as an indictment of desire unduly pursued; as a counter statement to the wistful ambition of loving
many without consequence. In Monk's hands, the tune is powerful and angry. I reach for the phrase
in its overarching entirety - ignoring the crashing stops of dissonant chords, to grab at the impulse
connecting the sad irony of having nothing to show for so many couplings. In a second verse, Monk
imbues the dissonance with musical regret through a stride rhythm accompaniment; the stride
gives a rhythmic base that I can join, and ultimately, ignore. As the beat sounds steadily, the tune
lilts briefly, and the gigolo's solitary pleasure seems - not so bad. But when Monk misses a note at
the top of a run - and then corrects himself, in this recording - I stutter involuntarily with him,
slipping off-balance into a distended 9-sound flourish. My dance molds to his interpretation. But is
my musicality here actually contigent upon Monk's playing?6
In Africanist aesthetics, rhythm is a participatory gesture. We shape, and then break, the beat to allow a
communal entry into its potential, to fall into an expressive time not encompassed by the everyday. In this
creative aesthetic space, interiority is a respected performance practice, not unique to any single idiom, but
rather a means of reaching for the flash of the spirit, accessed physically, and sometimes more quickly
than thought. Here, rhythm itself is a nuanced expressive practice, widely respected and admired. The beat,
like the heartbeat, is eternal; expression within and against the encompassing beat marks, at least,
individual identity and artistic maturity.
Tap's transition from an exhibition form to an expressive form - from "buck and wing" to "rhythm tap" - can
be mapped according to changes in musical forms invented by African Americans through the twentieth
century. As swing gave way to bebop in the late 1940s, tap found its first inward-looking artists willing to
explore their own rhythmic inventions to create percussive accents implied, but not bound to, the underlying
beat. This confirms an important observation about bebop and the idiom's radical displacement of the beat.
On one level, bebop replaced the primacy of the beat, so evident in swing music, with virtuosic renderings of
harmonic and melodic structure. Bop assumed the presence of the beat, whether it was barely implied or
clearly defined. This sense of assurance - of public entitlement to the process of making music - could not
have come before World War II and the strong African American presence in the United States military.
Bebop expressed an expanded experience of blackness, in which rhythmic structures, even when
submerged, are presumed to be eternal. The bebop era taught dancers that we don't have to hear the beat
to know that it is there.
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 4 of 9
The association of military service with the articulation of bebop here is not for nothing. In many ways,
African American military service evoked a construction of black masculinity coherent to hegemonic white
masculinity. The invention of bebop as a hyper-masculine idiom able to contain newly-found public
expressions of blackness also tied its creative innovations to maleness. The emergence of rhythm tap from
bebop aligned the form with a propulsive, self-reflexive expression previously absent from public dance
performances by black men.
To understand bebop, audiences had to learn how to hear the implicit beat in order to understand how the
music=s explicit, "off beat" riffs worked with and against the dominant pulse. Social dance historian Marya
McQuirter documents that dancers did eventually adapt to bebop and its complex rhythmic structures, even
if that adaptation took time.7 Eventually, bebop audiences came to appreciate the evocative, interior score
that the music provided for dance. Mature rhythm tap emerged from bebop, signaling an association of
musical thought with rhythmic innovation.
The shabby Siberian theater fills with attentive energy as the dapper performer launches into
"Dere's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York." Costumed as the character Sportin' Life in a
concert version of Porgy and Bess, Gregory Hines sings and struts, matching simple boasts in the
lyric with flashy melismatic vocalizations or the abrupt physical interruptions of spins. After a rising
accompaniment figure, the song reaches a climactic musical moment and the musicians lay out.
Suddenly, Hines launches into an extended cadence of tap dance that Gershwin never wrote, his
rhythms cutting against the swing feel of the tune. He seems to dance spontaneously, building
rhythmic ideas on top each other in a deconstructive rush of metric subdivision. He establishes a
pulse, then divides it with cross-rhythms, the entirety amplified by the film's sound designer to
sound with a crystalline liquidity, at once crisp and resonant. He works his way off the small stage
to dance in the aisle, winding between the silent Siberian audience members. The solo ends only
because the musicians reenter, coaxing Hines back to the stage to finish the song vocal.
Constance Valis Hill has written convincingly about how the challenge dance that spawned tap became
embedded within the structure of tap dance performance, so that dancing bodies eventually offered
competitive accents in the very rhythms they perform.8 By extension, a single tapping body can compete
with itself, as Gregory Hines does in the 1985 film White Nights. In this film, Hines plays an expatriate New
Yorker living in Russia, who escapes everyday American racism by his dislocation, but feels stymied by a
lack of familiar cultural markers that could enable his musicianship full expression. Ironically, at the film's
beginning, he dreams of returning to his native land with his Russian wife - a circumstance that would likely
cause more blatant racist response to their inter-racial marriage. Hines plays an entertainer here, of course,
which allows for set pieces of tap performances and an unlikely plot turn in which he aids Russian
expatriate Mikhail Baryshnikov through a dance challenge pitting tap against ballet.
In the short sequence described above, we respond not only to what Hines does, but to what he tries to do;
the hint of interior drama that drives him to produce dance. Our participatory space in this rhythm comes in
noting the formation of his accomplishment and its innovations, its improvisations in process. Hines
surprises his Siberian audience through the broad vista of his rhythmic ideas and his generative creative
force. He dances on the stage platform, on the stairs leading to the stage, in the aisle, and even against the
walls of the proscenium space. His rhythm tap solo seems to have no musical, physical, or metaphorical
Hines began performing as a child in the late 1940s with his brother Maurice in an act billed as "The Hines
Kids." He studied tap briefly with Henry LeTang, and performed on various bills with adult dancers including
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 5 of 9
Charles "Honi" Coles (1911-1992), Sandman Sims (), the Nicholas Brothers and Teddy Hale (). Each of
these artists were masters of the challenge dance that animated rhythm tap, and each of them had a
profound effect on how Hines imagined himself as a dancer. Because rhythm tappers do not "train" in
classrooms, in the manner of ballet or modern dancers, the impact of tutelage becomes paramount to the
development of individual style. Tap dance is passed body to body, across generations, but usually through
sustained apprenticeship. To date, technologies of mass distribution - including film and internet - have not
disrupted the need for sustained physical interaction in the emergence or maintenance of form.
In the 1989 film Tap, Hines plays a paroled convict seeking his way back into civilian life who finds the
strength to stay honest through his love for dance. The film builds to a climactic sequence in which Hines
performs in a night club, his shoes amplified through an electronic sequencer that transforms his dancing
into an aural landscape of deep funk. The film boasts an amazing complement of legendary hoofers,
including Arthur Duncan (), Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde (1927 -), Steve Condos (1918-1990), Harold
Nicholas, Sandman Sims, and Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990), who participate in a challenge dance
sequence earlier in the film. While some of these artists may have identified with the bebop era, none of
them can claim to be of its successive musical genres, rock and roll or funk. In the narrative of the film,
Hines is clearly positioned as heir to a tap tradition, and ultimately, the bearer of that tradition to an
audience responsive to funk music. Tap offered a generational story of tradition and innovation explicitly
concerned with black masculinity, apprenticeship, and technology.
Like Hines, Savion Glover (1974 - ) studied tap dance with Henry LeTang as a child. Like Bunny Briggs,
Glover traveled by limousine to work as a child tap entertainer, dancing professionally as the 12-year-old
title character in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway. 9 Glover began as a child prodigy in circumstances that
allowed him sustained physical proximity to veteran dancers. He appeared in the remarkable musical
Black and Blue, first produced in Paris in 1987, surrounded by mature cohorts Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown
(1922? - ), Chuck Green (1919 - ), and the adult Bunny Briggs. Glover also worked extensively with Hines
on film and on stage, dancing in Tap, and the Broadway musical Jelly's Last Jam (1992). In these
circumstances, Glover absorbed a professional ethic of dancing, as well as an awareness that tap could
potentially hold profound expressive meaning for its performers.
Thrown bodily into the alley, he stumbles into a dance of frustration and outrage. He starts in at full
tilt, with impossibly fast sixteenth-note patter thrust raucously into the air of the deserted nighttime
space. There is no musical accompaniment for his outburst. Instead, rhythmic ideas careen faster
and faster from his feet, with nearly imperceptible breaks improbably sounded at the same
breakneck tempo of the primary pulse. He holds his upper body with great tension, allowing his
arms jut out like unwieldy projectiles from his hunched-over torso. Suddenly, he shifts to a half-time
groove, but abandons it abruptly for a traditional soft-shoe traveling step performed now as an
angry indictment of the concrete pavement. He travels onto the top of a metal dumpster where the
striking of metal against metal amplifies his efforts. He settles into a swinging paddle and roll step,
attacked here with a twisting physicality reminiscent of an agitator in a washing machine. He holds
his head forward, bent over toward the ground, and the camera capturing the scene restricts our
view to an overhead angle, bearing down on his performance like a judge in the bench. We never
see his face, and can barely make out the dark, loose-fitting jeans and sweater he wears. He emits
groans of effort, making audible a connection between his interior emotional journey and the sound
his feet produce. Jumping to the ground again, he calls a rhythm with four definitive stomps, then
answers his own call with a complex syncopated volley of sixteenth-note beats. Satisfied at his
invention, and assuaged for the moment, he ends with a shrug and disgusted dismissive gesture,
striding from the alleyway with remarkable cool.10
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 6 of 9
Although it follows the "soul" idiom chronologically, hip hop is the first black music born as youth culture;
that is, nurtured as a component of intertwined Africanist aesthetic imperatives and the needs of the
commercial marketplace. Hip hop stands in uneasy tension with commerce, and its musical processes are
invariably troubled by an overabundance of market demands and expectations. At the end of the twentieth
century, hip hop - which had emerged, like bebop, as recognizable black musical expression - seemed to
be co-opted by its uses as a marker of youth, virility, the new radical chic, and anti-conservative
positionalities. In its style and attitude, hip hop came to stand for athleticism and mobility, individuality
amidst obscured ancestor worship, and, remarkably, modernity.
Savion Glover is, ostensibly, a hip hop tap celebrity. In concert, Glover typically wears hip hop
accouterment: baggy pants by FUBU or Phat Farm, two Afro-conscious clothing companies that market
goods to self-identified hip hop "hedz." He dances with dreadlocked hair worn free, so that it often obscures
his face. His signature style favors machine-gun fast volleys of sound, with almost imperceptible rhythmic
breaks hidden amidst a veritable wall of crashing sound. Glover seldom gazes toward his audience, or
allows his spectators easy visual access to his face or the emotions it might register. Significantly, Glover
aligns himself with hip hop culture in its many manifestations, and most prominently with its music through
his appearances in several music videos and television commercials directed toward a hip hop demographic
of young urbanites.11
Glover's performance persona expresses interiority and emotion, passions not bound by the marketplace,
but also not indulged by him to the level of melodrama. His emotional palate is limited by the time allotted
to it and our ability to understand its subtle gradations. To get us there - to get us to be with him more
quickly, Glover tries to erase his body in his dancing; he displaces the fact of torso, arms, elbows, hands,
or even hips as he works through rhythm. He offers dances that we can hear and feel but not see. In this,
Glover defines his version of the hip hop "real" - his masculinity - to be located in his commitment to the
beat, buoyed by his interior life, which can only be partially represented by his dance.
Glover matured from child prodigy status to the in-between category of "youth dancer" - when, at the age of
twenty-one, he created Bring in 'Da Noise/Bring in 'Da Funk (1995) with director George C. Wolfe. Subtitled
"A Rap/Tap Discourse on the Staying Power of the Beat," the show made a spectacle of hip hop tap - that
is, dancing to music with a prominent booming bass and complex layering of rhythms programmed by
electronic equipment. Glover's startling innovation as a choreographer and performer redefined tap to be
urban, aggressive, masculine, and profoundly "black."
The original Broadway production featured an ensemble of young men - Glover's "crew," if you will - who
danced about the transition from adolescence to black male adulthood. In one sequence, the show
employed a curious "confessional" device in which recorded interviews with the dancers served as the
musical score for their live dancing. This reductive idea seemed to respond to a spectatorial desire to "be
with" the dancers as they work through rhythms. The texts offered an inevitable conflation of youth,
blackness, underclass, violence, and immutable masculinity. Glover, himself, ventured a "tap as salvation"
message, saying, "If I didn't have the dance to express myself, I would probably be stealing your car or
selling drugs right now. I got friends who do that, but tap saved me." While these words diminish the
liberatory potential of tap to a pedantic role as a socializing discipline, they also suggest a nuanced interior
life of a tap dancer who makes choices to become himself through his dance. This articulation of identity
formation as contingent on musicality and creative expression in tap may encompass the central revision of
Glover's accomplishment for the form. On stage, Glover draws his audience in by resisting its gaze;
witnessing him reaching for rhythms and beats he has not yet achieved, we go on a journey with him; we
chase after the thought process that produce the rhythms; we come to want to be Savion Glover.
"The beat is basically what takes you through life. Whether we have an up-tempo beat or a slow
beat. It's just a beat. There will always be the beat, you know, and there's rhythm in everything."
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 7 of 9
In this essay I've tried to map a strange landscape of miniaturization, aurality, legacies of apprenticeship on
the production of form, visuality, and how black masculinity is constructed in tap through its own
movements in process. Remarkably, many of these ideas converge in the 1999 Spike Jonze film.
Savion Glover appears briefly in Being John Malkovich, in a mocumentary sequence describing a
possessed John Malkovich who becomes a puppeteer of tremendous skill and renown. The image of Glover
with Malkovich entertaining a packed stadium on an outdoor stage makes little sense in the flow of the film,
but Glover's presence offers a cipher of both pop and dance currency. Glover stands here for the young, the
hip, the urban, the meeting of vernacular forms as art in large public spaces. This may be just right for
Glover, who in 2001, headlined a sold-out performance at the 3,000 seat Beacon Theater in New York City.
Reaching inside himself toward his own emotional life to express the rhythms of hip hop predicts a future in
which tap dance may become an expressive form able to support psychological narrative and nuanced
emotion as a concert art; a transbodied site where many may want to "be."
An irony here is that hip hop, an aggressively radical black expressive form inevitably configured as
masculine and indebted to the power of technological amplification, might be the sound that releases the
fury of translocation.
Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap
Dance, Stole Elections and Became the Worlds Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press,
Frank, Rusty. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955 (New York: Da Capo Press,
Glover, Savion with Bruce Weber. Savion: My Life in Tap (New York, William Morrow and Company, 2000)
Foreword by Gregory Hines
Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the
Swing Era (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000)
Johnson, Anne E. Jazz Tap: From African Drums to American Feet (New York: Rosen Publishing Group,
McQuirter, Marya Annette. "Awkward Moves: Dance Lessons from the 1940s" in Dancing Many Drums:
Excavations in African American Dance, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 2002)
Stearns, Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance:The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York:
Schirmer Books, 1979), Second Edition New York: Da Capo Press, 1994
Hill, Constance Valis, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000)
At the Jazz Band Ball - Early Hot Jazz, Song and Dance USA, Yazoo Music Videos, 1993
Bamboozled, Spike Lee, dir., script, USA: New Line Studios, 2000
Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze, dir., Charlie Kaufman, script, USA: Gramercy Pictures/Propaganda
Films/Single Cell Pictures, 1999
Tap, Nick Castle, Jr. dir. And screenplay, USA, Columbia TriStar Films, 1989
White Nights Taylor Hackford, dir., Nancy Dowd, James Goldman, and Eric Hughes, script, USA, Columbia
Pictures Coporation, 1985
1. Wyclef Jean, "Thug Angels," Ecleftic: II Sides to a Book, Sony/Columbia Records, 2000.
2. In this, I refer to an argument raised in Brenda Dixon Gottschild's writings, that divisions between
high and low art are often drawn along fault lines of culture and race. In her most recent book, a
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 8 of 9
discussion of African American social dance formations leads Gottschild to assert, "We need to do
away with the labels that separate the popular and the so-called art culture. In the case of the Lindy
and so-called modern dance, these labels serve the function of racism by separating the realms of
endeavor that have traditionally been reserved for blacks - that is, vernacular or pop culture - from
those that are the exclusive property of whites - namely, the world of 'art.'" See Gottschild,
Waltzing in the Dark, pp 214-215.
3. While there is no authoritative history of tap dance, several books devoted to the form recount a
history that traces the emergence of tap dance to the Five Points district of New York City, where
African and Irish immigrants competed in public dance displays. See Tyler Anbinder, Five Points;
Constance Valis Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm; Anne E. Johnson, Jazz Tap; and Marshall and Jean
Stearns, Jazz Dance.
4. Robert F. Thompson, "Dance and Culture, an Aesthetic of the Cool," African Forum 2, Fall 1966,
5. The film is included on the DVD At the Jazz Band Ball.
6. Thelonious Monk, "Just a Gigolo," Monk's Trio original recording 1952, reissue Japan: JVC/Victor,
7. Marya A. McQuirter, "Awkward Moves: Dance Lessons from the 1940s" in Dancing Many Drums
edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).
8. See Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm.
9. For more biographical information on Glover, see Savion! My Life in Tap.
10. This astonishing performance by Glover is a *deleted* sequence from the 2000 Spike Lee film
Bamboozled included as a "special feature" on the DVD.
11. Glover has recorded with several artists including Prince and Puff Daddy.
12. Interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 30 May 1996, available at
DeFrantz "Being Savion Glover" Page 9 of 9
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