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John Hood: When taxes almost killed tap dancing

By John Hood

RALEIGH — I write a syndicated column on politics and public policy that often centers on the issue of taxation. I am also a sometime practitioner and teacher of tap dancing. Combining my two interests was only a matter of time. That time is today.

During the golden age of tapping, in the 1930s and early 1940s, this quintessential American art form played a sizable role in pop culture. You could watch the likes of Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and the brother act of Fayard and Harold Nicholas at the movie house.

Every city of at least modest size had thriving nightclubs that boasted swinging big bands and, frequently, tap virtuosos. Traveling acts still plied their trade throughout the extensive network of small-town theaters and venues once known as vaudeville.

And because it was as much a form of percussive musical performance as of dancing, tap could even be heard on commercially produced records and radio’s top-rated variety shows.

The economics of tap dancing took a stumble during and just after World War II. For a fortunate few dancers such as Astaire and Gene Kelly, film would sustain their tap careers for years. But for most — and especially for black performers whom predominantly white audiences would not yet accept as cinematic leads — earning a decent living as a tap dancer in America became nearly impossible.

Some transitioned into teaching while occasionally earning a few bucks doing gigs on the TV variety shows of the 1950s. A few emigrated to Europe and continued to perform on stage. Others transitioned into other roles in show business.

Consider one of the greatest duos in tap history, Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins. During tap’s golden age, they performed peerless routines with the likes of Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. By the early 1960s, Honi Coles was working as a production stage manager at the Apollo Theater. Cholly Atkins was working for Berry Gordy’s Motown, choreographing for such musical acts as the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops. Each had rewarding second acts in their respective careers. But they should have been headliners all along.

What brought an end to tap dancing’s golden age? As with most social phenomena, it was a complex event with many causes. The nightclub scene that play such a huge role in sustaining the economics of big bands and live dancing would likely have undergone eventual decline anyway thanks to long-term shifts in urban development, technology, and consumer tastes. But historians of swing music and tap dancing alike point to a proximate cause for the sharp decline of the mid-1940s: a federal excise tax.

Constantly on the lookout for new sources of revenue, a wartime Congress imposed a “cabaret tax” in 1944. Specifically, any venue that served food and drink and featured dancing had to surrender 30 percent of its gross receipts to the federal government as an excise tax. The highest-end clubs in New York and other cities swallowed their objections, paid the excise, and hiked prices on their patrons. But it was more than most of the market could bear. To remain viable businesses, thousands of nightclubs got rid of their floor shows and dance floors. Big bands shrank into jazz ensembles and trios. “There were fewer and fewer places for a tap dancer to dance,” observed Brian Seibert, dance critic for the New York Times and author of the indispensable tap history What the Eye Hears.

Under public pressure, Congress later reduced the excise tax to 20 percent, then to 10 percent in 1960, and finally repealed it altogether in 1965 (if you are surprised that a “wartime” revenue measure long outlasted the war in question, you probably aren’t that familiar with the history of taxation.)

By then, however, the economic damage had been done.

Fortunately, tap never died out entirely. New generations have fallen in love with the art form and renewed it, on Broadway and elsewhere. Tap found its legs, again — no thanks to the taxman.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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