Sunday, February 5, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt five)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

But friends, it was not Michael who first slid backward across a slick floor on the tips of his toes. The first Black man to drift on some imaginary cratered surface was Bill Bailey, who probably invented the dance in the 1920s, but no one saw it on camera until 1943. Cabin in the Sky was one of the first films with a primarily Black cast. A film that attempted to veer away from many of the stereotypes and tropes that plagued Black actors of the era. An adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, it featured Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Despite its best intentions, the film was met with mixed reviews, with Black reviewers stating that it still relied too much on Southern folklore, which meant that it trod too close to the racism it was trying to avoid.

But what did stand out was a brief dance interlude, performed by Bill Bailey, who had then garnered a strong reputation as a show-stealing tap dancer. Bailey had perfected both Bill Robinson’s upright style of tap and also the paddle and roll tap style of King Rastus Brown. At the intersection of these movements, Bailey came up with something he called the “backslide,” a move he’d utilize as a way to exit the stage. When his tap set wore down, he would slide smoothly on the tips of his toes, waving his hat as he slowly vanished behind a curtain. When he does it in Cabin in the Sky, it is the first time the move is captured on film. It happens fast but is impossible not to notice. Like Michael when he broke it out at the Motown 25 special in ’83, the whole trick of pulling off the moonwalk is to spend all other parts of a dance routine training an audience to watch your feet. Before they can ask what is happening, the move is done.

Bill Bailey performed the move for years onstage, always at the end of his set. The way he saw it, the move was untouchable. Nothing could top it, so it had to be an exit. It seems this is where he and Jackson differ, as Mike would sometimes drop it into the middle of choreography, to drive people into a frenzy before bouncing on to something else. But I like Bailey’s idea more. Providing a glimpse of something unbelievable and letting it rattle in the hearts and minds of people trembling in disbelief.

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