No Maps on My Taps
NO MAPS ON MY TAPS, documentary, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles
By the 1970s, tap dance in America was a dying art. Rock and roll had changed the musical landscape, and TV was changing everything else. Supper clubs were closing down, big bands broke up, and Broadway shows had dancers doing Bob Fossestyle slithering instead of chorus lines pounding out chugs, shuffles, and time steps. Tappers who’d danced in the movies, on TV, and in vaudeville couldn’t find work. Filmmaker George T. Nierenberg’s 1979 documentary, No Maps on My Taps, focuses closely on this timein dance history, and on the dancing and interactions of Howard “Sandman” Sims, Bunny Briggs, and Chuck Green, three legendary tappers brought together for a jazz and tap show. The mood is elegiac.
Of course, tap didn’t die. A new generation of tap dancers, starting with Gregory and Maurice Hines, who were a big hit in the 1978 Broadway musical, Eubie!, began to explore new styles, music, and movement. No Maps on My Taps, restored and rereleased this year, exists as a document to an uncertain period, but also as a character study of three amazing artists and larger-than-life figures.
Lionel Hampton and his band backed up the dancers the night Nierenberg set up his cameras at a packed jazz club in Harlem. The sight and sound of Hampton in action at the microphone, conducting the band, or noodling on the vibes, offers a context of improvisation and play to the show. Hampton is totally in the moment, and completely in his element. So are Sims, Briggs, and Green.
As the dancers come onstage, they introduce themselves with the signature of their whipping, rapping feet. Briggs is the most stylized. He pauses in the middle of phrases for extended freezes. He has a round, boyish face, and doe-shaped eyes. A whiff of the feminine informs his movements. Sims gets a chance to show his soft shoe. He brings out a portable sand tray, which is amplified to pick up the distinctive sounds of grain against shoes. Green, who spent years in and out of mental institutions, appears as a somewhat remote presence offering stork-like movements and the most asymmetrical barrage of tap blasts. He is a crazed soul in magic shoes.
Nierenberg’s brilliant control over the narrative in his documentary is finessed through mere glimpses of the outside world — a grittier New York, where crowds in Harlem gather to watch the three seniors stage a little tap challenge on pavement. An outdoor stage in a park offers Sims and his young son an opportunity to dance together — a display of Sims’ virtuosity in contrast with the son’s unbridled, untrained, unselfconscious imitation. Backstage at the show, Briggs downs beer and chain smokes, while Green sits in silence. Sims offers a never-ending monologue; his chatter dominates a room filled with friends, costume and make-up artists, and film company assistants.
All of the artists have died since the movie first came out, but the popularity of the film, which had a theatrical release, appeared on PBS, and was shown widely on college campuses, helped rejuvenate the careers of the three stars. The fact that Green, Sims, and Briggs were different artists, with different styles of dancing, helped articulate the possibilities of a form with roots in the mid-1800s, popularized in vaudeville and Hollywood musicals, and then turned cool again after a low point by jazz tap artists of the late 20th century. The documentary is a classic and not to be missed by dance lovers and those interested in the history of African-American performance. It screens with Nierenberg’s short 1985 documentary narrated by Gregory Hines. — Michael Wade Simpson
Legends: From left, Lionel Hampton, Chuck Green, Howard “Sandman” Simms, and Bunny Briggs