No Maps on My Taps

NO MAPS ON MY TAPS, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - About Tap,

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

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