Clicko: The Wild Dancing Bushman

March 3, 2011

The interface between ethnographic studies and popular entertainment has attracted growing interest in recent years. As both popular historians and academics begin to mine this rich and controversial area, their treatments have ranged from the sensational to the serious. Jane Goodall's Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order (2002), the edited volume Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires (2008) and Rachel Holmes' The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (2007) are recent scholarly titles of note, and to these we can now add Neil Parsons' Clicko: The Wild Dancing Bushman.

Parsons brings us the tragic but miraculous story of Franz Taibosh, who was the inspiration for Carl Jung's "small brown-skinned savage" who helped him hunt down Sigmund Freud in a famous 1913 dream. In this entertaining and informative account, Parsons takes us from Taibosh's home on a farm somewhere north of Graaff-Reinet in South Africa to his eventual death in the US in 1940 by way of the Nouveau Cirque in Paris, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, court cases both sides of the Atlantic, and performances in Australia, France, Germany and Cuba.

Unlike his more famous contemporary William Henry Johnson - an African-American exhibited in sideshows and circuses as "What-is-it?" and billed as African-born - Taibosh was, as his stage name claimed, a real dancing South African "bushman" (although he was Korana rather than San). Promoted as "a unique specimen of human nature", first in the variety halls of London beginning in 1913 and then to greater acclaim and fortune in the US, Taibosh was a man whose story spans the intersection between race and science, popular culture and entertainment history.

Reading like an account straight out of Ripley's Believe It or Not!, but with sound historical detail underpinning his portrait of a frequently bizarre world, Parsons' impeccably researched and accessible book brings together a wide range of primary and archival sources relating to an astonishing performer who could dance non-stop for eight hours. We follow the tale of Taibosh's enslavement by entrepreneur Paddy Hepston, who brought him from South Africa with documents listing him as "W.D. Bushman" and who controlled him by means of cruelty; his kidnapping and subsequent court cases; and his happier final years in the employ of Frank Cook of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Among the astounding facts Parsons reveals are that the full-body cast made of Taibosh in 1917 for the Museum of Natural History in New York was on display as recently as 1990, echoing the more gruesome fate of the remains of a fellow South African performer, Sarah Baartman, whose skeleton, genitalia and brain were on public display at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1974.

The final chapters detail Taibosh's life with Cook and his adoption by Cook's family (an account of which is given in a memoir by Frances Cook Sullivan titled I Inherited a Bushman), and his transition to naturalised "American gentleman" who incorporated modern dance steps into his popular performances for the combined Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. Parsons brings serious academic scholarship to bear on a thoughtful, sometimes distressing and always compelling tale of an extraordinary man.

Clicko: The Wild Dancing Bushman

By Neil Parsons. University of Chicago Press. 256pp, £35.50 and £11.50. ISBN 9780226647418 and 7425. Published 30 November 2010

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