The legendary American art form of tap dance almost fell out of favor completely in the last half of the 20th century—until it was resurrected by talents like the dancers Gregory Hines and past Wex visitor Savion Glover, and filmmaker George Nierenberg, creator of the 1979 documentary No Maps on My Taps and the Hines-centered short About Tap. Before we present the films in a restored 2K digital format this Friday and Saturday, Joshua Leavitt shares some thoughts on what No Maps on My Taps offers viewers beyond the fancy footwork of the tap legends it features. Long before he was an editorial assistant at the Wex, Joshua was introduced to tap at age 10 by the nonprofit National Dance Institute and he's been practicing it off and on ever since.
No Maps on My Taps and About Tap breathed new life into tap dance. The American Tap Foundation acknowledged this by honoring director George Nierenberg with the Tap Preservation Award in 2014. Nierenberg’s documentaries did more than display the enduring virtuosity of old-time (now late) tap legends Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, and “Sandman” Sims, even as the artists were getting up there in years. They did more than recover film clips from 1930s musicals featuring Green, Briggs, Sandman and other forefathers of modern tap. Most importantly, these documentaries captured—in fact, focused on—how these men spoke and thought about tap.
In her 2010 book Tap Dancing America, choreographer and historian Constance Valis Hill writes that “the most heart-rending moments” in No Maps were “the offstage interviews with the dancers, who told of their life and dreams” and how tap not only found them paid work, but also enabled them to maintain African American culture in places like New York and Los Angeles. Dance critic Brian Seibert, in his 2015 tap history What the Eye Hears, teases out Sandman’s “heart-versus-head argument, a division that broke down along racial lines […] a difference in pedagogy” between black tappers who developed steps and routines from self-expression or improvisation and white tappers who honed their techniques from formal dance school instruction. Through the dancers’ commentary, in other words, Nierenberg highlighted the ways tap dance and black manhood came together in twentieth-century city life and entertainment. Moreover, as Seibert wrote earlier this year, we could also say the “core theme” of these documentaries is “tap tradition and individuality.”
I think there’s another vital theme in No Maps and About Tap: the relationship between tap dance and mental health. It punctuates Nierenberg’s films like the dancers’ syncopated rhythms. Chuck Green was institutionalized in the 1940s and 50s from a stress-induced breakdown, and apparently was never quite the same. While Green does not discuss that time in his life on screen, Nierenberg includes Sandman’s comment in No Maps that dancing proved to be the best therapy for Green. Tap kept Green of sound mind during his hospital stay and long afterward.
This phenomenon comes through in No Maps as Green exhibits signs of dementia—except when dancing. Compared to the reflective Briggs and the swaggering Sandman, Green appears disoriented and is sometimes incoherent. During a staged telephone conversation with former star John Bubbles, Green simply repeats the phrases Bubbles says on the line. And during a sidewalk scene in which Sandman playfully challenges Briggs and Green to a tap contest, Green becomes visibly agitated, as though confused about whether Sandman is messing around or antagonizing him, and yells at Sandman not to touch him. Briggs defuses the situation. In the dressing room before and after the performance the documentary revolves around, Green seems not fully aware of the camera and needs someone to wipe his face. On stage, he blurts out “No maps!” during a solo by Briggs, who gestures to the audience not to react. In a backstage interview, Green shares that “no maps on my taps” is a phrase that once popped into his head. Yet by the time we could infer it’s a metaphor for improvisation—taking rhythms and movements in unplanned directions—Green’s anecdote devolves into speech fragments and blank stares.
It’s a different story altogether when Green is tapping. You can see in his face that he seems most himself when moving across the stage. And in a sense, his clearest interview takes place in the dance studio, as he clicks his toes and heels while rhythmically patting a shopping bag swinging from his hand. Nierenberg draws our attention to Green’s particular storyline by using Green as a structuring figure for No Maps, from the film’s title to Green’s presence as the opening and closing shots. In this manner, Nierenberg alerts us to a key though perhaps easily overlooked topic.
Medical evidence actually supports Sandman’s point about the therapeutic value of dance. According to the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, studies have shown that dancing—especially social and improvisational dance, though choreographed performance as well—can treat and even reduce the risk of dementia and other neurological conditions associated with aging. In younger people, dance can promote cognitive acuity with lifelong benefits.
This mental health theme goes unstated in About Tap, but it’s there. Chuck Green comes across in this film more lucidly, philosophizing on artistic communication between performer and audience. Yet he also drifts at points during his interview, like when he evocatively rambles about “certain laws… certain seniorities” in the tap world. However, Green seems entirely present in movement. The other interviews in About Tap are also telling in this regard. The late Steve Condos looks fired up describing and hammering out a sophisticated rhythm. The late “Jimmy Slyde” articulates his aesthetic philosophy about tap performance as gracefully as he glides across the stage. In a word, dance rejuvenates.
As tap soloist and scholar Margaret Morrison reminds us, tap is alive and well—but could use a larger audience. So, if not a pair of tap shoes just yet, buy a ticket to these landmark documentaries. I think it’d be good for you.
Lead image: Howard "Sandman" Sims, Chuck Green and Bunny Briggs; lower image: Chuck Green, from No Maps on My Taps. Courtesy of Milestone Films.