Sonja Thomas is an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Colby College, where she teaches courses on gender and human rights, feminist theory, critical race feminisms, and postcolonial and native feminisms. She is the author of Privileged Minorities: Syrian Christianity, Gender, and Minority Rights in Postcolonial India. She has written articles on education and religious minorities in India, South Asian American comparative racializations, and Black vernacular traditions in the United States and globally. She recently answered a few questions about her article in Feminist Teacher, titled “Tap Dancing and Embodied Feminist Pedagogies.”
Can you tell me a bit more about the beginnings of the course “Critical Race Feminisms and Tap Dance”?
In the department where I received my PhD, graduate students were able to solo teach their own classes. That meant that we could develop our own syllabi. One semester, I had a student taking both my non-credit tap class and my Intro to Women’s Studies class. In the tap class, I must have been explaining something about tap history and gender and sexuality. She asked me why I didn’t teach that history in Intro to Women’s Studies especially because my Women’s Studies classes had quite a bit of readings on race and postcolonial feminisms. That made me start to include Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in my Intro to Women’s Studies class. Later, I developed a handout for students for an assignment called “social action projects.” In the handout, I wrote: “great projects start with you and your interests. For instance, I like tap dancing. Tap dancing is a feminist topic.” I then gave them an example outline for a social action project involving tap dance. In this mock outline, I included primary and secondary sources on tap history, race, and embodiment.
When I started teaching at Colby, I already had the beginnings of a syllabus based on this teaching material and handout!
You describe tap dance as a staple of minstrel shows in the nineteenth century. Did this influence how black tap dancers were regulated in the twentieth century? And to what extent?
I’d like to first contextualize what I mean by tap as a staple of the minstrel show. When did tap dancing as we know it today really become tap dancing? There were definitely African diasporic music, rhythms, and percussive dance in minstrel shows. Some might argue that the dancing of the minstrel show should not be called “tap dancing.” I, however, would say that “in general, the origins of a practice or concept seldom limit its scope of relevance.” In other words, does it matter if the dance of the minstrel show was tap dance as we understand it today? I believe that what matters most is how the percussive dance of minstrels became so popular, was seen to represent black culture to white audiences both in the US and abroad, and continues to inform tap and also what we think we already know about raced bodies in motion.
Minstrelsy entirely influenced entertainment in the 20th century and today. From cartoons (Mickey Mouse and Felix the cat), to Amos and Andy, to digital blackface. NPR’s code switch recently looked at this history and legacy. I recommend taking a listen!
But the minstrel show not only informed how tap dancing were regulated in the 20th century. It also informed resistances. In all black vernacular dance, you can see resistance. Tap dance is always embedded in forms of resistance—the body serving as music when drums and instruments were taken away from slaves, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson using his tap dance star power and breaking the “two colored” rule, the success of the all Black musical Shuffle Along which led to desegregated audiences seeing Black characters fall in love onstage. The effects of the minstrel show on tap dancers in the 20th century was in the regulatory mode for sure, but also operated in a history of resistance dance and opened up (limited) opportunities for tap dancers.
How were white/nonblack female tappers of the late 1970s viewed in relation to black male tappers?
White/nonblack college educated female tappers in some cases were and continue to be viewed with sexist stereotypes. But at the same time, these performers have access to racial privileges that black performers don’t. What I find extremely interesting is that many white/nonblack women who “rescued” tap are authenticated through a black male mentor. Brenda Bufalino through Honi Coles, Roxane “Butterfly” Semadini through Jimmy Slyde, Jane Goldberg through Sandman Simms. This authentication process reveals larger tensions about the intersections of race and gender. And relatedly, larger tensions about the line between appropriation and homage. Especially given a history of theft of steps, class exploitation, and racist violence who counts as an authentic tapper? Who is in the position to authorize that authenticity? While most tappers get uncomfortable with these tensions, I find them most instructive because they reveal how race and gender oppressions function intersectionally.
Another way to come at these ideas of who gets to be an authentic tap dancer and racialized and gendered authority over knowledge is to look at some of the amazing tap work of women of color. Ayodele Casel’s “While I have the floor” and her shout out to black/latinx women tappers makes me cry every time I watch it. The Syncopated Ladies viral videos; they are so good, you can’t just watch one. Or the amazing style of Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards that for me, simultaneously invokes the chorus line of Black woman tappers of Harlem and the rhythm tap of John Bubbles.
One major challenge you had to overcome when teaching about racism was encouraging all of your students to participate in possibly uncomfortable discussions. What advice do you have for your fellow educators to tackle this obstacle?
I always start by saying “if we are putting ‘not wanting to discuss race because it makes me uncomfortable’ out on the table, then I’m going to always counter with the uncomfortability of being on the receiving end of racism.” In a class that takes on Jim Crow blackface, Jim Crow segregation, and the new Jim Crow, we’re gonna always focus on the latter so we can think through feminist anti-racist research and activism. I also start by discussing white privilege and white fragility in the first few class periods. Honestly, the dynamic of the class seems to be what contributes most to the “success” of teaching about racism. Sometimes a class will just gel, sometimes it may not. But I can also see how tap dancing and moving our bodies always makes for a stronger class dynamic. I mean, I just played “tap tag” with my class—where we chased each other around doing “flaps” to Dean Martin singing “Mambo, Italiano.” All the students were dissolving into laughter after playing tap tag. Moving the body and making music with our bodies does create a sort of bond between students and between students and the professor. I believe tap dance opens students up to a sort of willingness to take on reading and discussing a history of racism, institutionalized racism, and feminist anti-racist research and activism.
 Uma Narayan, “Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism,” Hypatia 13, No. 2, (Spring 1998): 97.