The Tap Dance Kid, and other thoughts
    By Barry Leiba | July 22nd 2009 09:31 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Allow me, if you will, to stray from my usual posts about computers, Internet technology, and mathematics.

    In the mid-1980s I saw a musical on Broadway called The Tap Dance Kid. I enjoyed it a lot — I liked the story, the characters, the songs, and the dancing. It’s not a very well known musical, it got a poor review in the New York Times (Frank Rich liked it much less than I), and it ran for less than two years.

    It’s the story of an African-American family, centered around a pre-teen called Willie. Much of it is the standard sort of story: Willie wants to do one thing with his life, but his father thinks that frivolous, and demands that he aim higher, follow the family business, or some such. The Jazz Singer is one version of the story that’s been done a few times.

    In this case, Willie wants to be a dancer — a tap dancer, in particular. His father, William, is a lawyer, and would like Willie to be one too. He looks down on the dance idea, and on Uncle Dipsey, Willie’s mentor.

    In some versions of this story, the father is just being obstinate, insisting on his vision of his son’s success over the son’s own. The Jazz Singer has that, but adds cultural tradition to it. Whether it was Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neil Diamond, the son was more than just “wasting his life”, but also abandoning the family and its heritage.

    So it is in The Tap Dance Kid: William wants Willie to meet the former’s standards in life, of course, but he also wants his son to show the world, as he did, what a black man can do. And so it’s doubly disappointing to him that Willie is going in a direction that’s not only frivolous, but also stereotypical.

    William’s disappointment comes through in the story’s climax, the powerful and moving “William’s Song”. He starts by berating Dipsey before he addresses his son:

    Who ever heard of a grown man named “Dipsey” before?
    Every day of your life, every moment you live, you lose!
    You’re going nowhere, but you go too far,
    Telling my son he’s gonna be a big star,
    Shining, shining, sure:
    Shining shoes!

    Now, Willie, I don’t want you thinking I haven’t any feelings.
    I don’t want you thinking I haven’t got my dreams.
    I only want what’s best for you,
    ’cause we’ve got better things to do
    Than dancin’... like a monkey with a ring through its nose!
    Dancin’: every time a curtain opens
    Another door is gonna close behind you.
    And I won’t have that; I just won’t have that!

    [Listen to an excerpt from “William’s Song” on Amazon. And as I write this, I see that the out-of-print CD is going for $180! Yow! If I ever need some extra cash, I suppose I could sell mine.]

    I thought about The Tap Dance Kid and William’s line about shining when I was recently in Boston: there was a shoe-shine station in the hotel, off by a side entrance. Most of the time I passed, it was unattended. A few times, it was attended, but without a customer — the gentleman attending it, a black man who seemed to be in his 50s, his sparse hair graying, was reading a newspaper. But once, there was a customer.

    I had an uncomfortable reaction to the scene. There was a black man kneeling at the feet of a younger white man, the former buffing the latter’s boots as they made small talk. There were sepulchral echoes of a slave past going through my mind.

    But what of that? I felt uncomfortable? The man seemed at ease with his job, and perhaps he liked it very much. Perhaps he enjoyed working in a nice hotel and having a chance to talk with many different people throughout his day. I didn’t ask him, and I wouldn’t have known how to do so without having it come across disrespectfully. Am I being like William, expecting this man to represent all African-Americans... and denigrating[1] his job in the process?

    Worse, am I showing up as the white man looking to “save” the black man from... from what? From being part of an image that sticks in my mind and makes me uncomfortable? From something I imagine him to have risen above, when I don’t know the first thing about him or about his work? How arrogant of me!

    I don’t know how to conclude this entry, so maybe some commenters can provide a coda.

    [1] It’s the word that came first to mind, and I then realized that it has a particular connection here, in its obsolete sense of “to make black.”


    You've been mentally trained!   True equality can't happen until people stop looking at others through a skin color prism, including the liberal guilt one because a black guy has a job you wouldn't notice if he were white - and that means people making money turning things into a racial issue have to stop also(1).   The good news; younger people don't have all that angst so we are doing our jobs.

    Funniest example I saw of racial panic was on "30 Rock" last season.   Uber-leftie Alec Baldwin plays uber-rightie GE boss and meets Salma Hayek's character and asks how he should refer to her and she says, 'I'm Puerto Rican', leading him to say, 'Oh, I'm not comfortable with that term.'

    When TV shows can be funny again, we are okay.

    (1) Like a Harvard professor and Al Sharpton claiming that a Harvard professor getting arrested after standing on his lawn screaming at police was racism.    I remember one time as a young guy in Pittsburgh being locked out of my apartment - I started to climb up to go through a window to get in and a cop drove by and stopped me.    And that was in a ghetto.  I still had some 'splainin' to do (oops, I made fun of a dead Cuban).

    Should a cop not stop someone in a toney Cambridge neighborhood if someone is trying to break into a house?  Gates should have been relieved.
    Thanks for the comment, Hank.  I think you're right that our next tep is to get over the ultra-liberal misplaced guilt.

    On the other hand, the Gates situation wasn't quite like your Pittsburgh thing.  I wouldn't have any issue with the cops checking on him, and probably he wouldn't either, if it ended there.  But he showed them his driver's license and Harvard ID, both with his photo and confirming his address and the fact that he's a prof at Harvard, and they arrested him anyway.  WTF?  You can say it was for a reason other than racism, and you could well be right, but I'm having a hard time coming up with something.

    [An aside on that: the officers also refused to identify themselves, and Gates and Sharpton both take that as further evidence of racism.  I don't.  We're hearing more and more stories about the police pushing past the limits of their authority and refusing to identify themselves.  I find that scary.]
    Gerhard Adam
    We're hearing more and more stories about the police pushing past the limits of their authority and refusing to identify themselves.
    I agree and my concern stems from the problem of fear permeating so many elements of society whether it be terrorism or gang-related violence.  It seems that people are becoming more willing to give law enforcement (and government) authority that they should never be trusted with.  There is little more disheartening that listening to someone say ....
    "You shouldn't mind if you don't have anything to hide".
    Mundus vult decipi
    I 'm not sure what you mean about the police refusing to identify themselves.  A neighbor called the cops because two men with backpacks were trying to break in.   When the uniformed police arrived, Gates purportedly said, 
    "This is what happens to black men in America!," and, when asked by Crowley to speak with him outside the residence, Gates replied, "ya, I'll speak with your mama outside." 

    Every indication from everyone who knows the cop is that he is a clean guy.  He's an office in Cambridge, not east LA, so insensitive hardasses won't go far in toney neighborhoods.

    Gates is one of those guys who finds racism everywhere but he was arrested for being an asshole, not a black man.  There is zero chance I can stand on my lawn and scream at cops and get away with that.  Obama now saying the police acted stupidly makes this look like racial partisanship - or academic.   He certainly didn't make friends in police forces all across the nation.