Above & Beyond
DanceJuly 10 & 17, 2017
“No Maps on My Taps” Is Back
The great, elegiac documentary on tap dance is restored.
By Joan Acocella
Jimmy Slyde in a scene from “About Tap,” George Nierenberg’s sequel to his 1979 documentary, “No Maps on My Taps”; both will play at the Quad.
Photo-Illustration / Photograph courtesy Milestone Film
When the filmmaker George Nierenberg made his documentary “No Maps on My Taps,” in the late seventies, a lot of people wondered whether tap was finished. The night clubs that had once showcased tappers had mostly closed down. Broadway, another important hatchery of tap acts, had switched to dream ballets and modern dance. Most important, jazz, the music that goes with tap, had been shoved aside by rock and roll.
This situation helps to account for the highly personal tone of “No Maps on My Taps.” Nierenberg’s mother had been a tapper. (She said that the highlight of her career was dancing for the inmates of Sing Sing, when she was ten.) It hurt Nierenberg to see the tap masters of the mid-century without work, without honor. So he picked three veterans who were as different from one another as possible and spent a long time with them. He came to love them, and he wanted us to love them, too. More than that, he says, he wanted to contextualize tap, to show how it was the product not just of a shared technique but also of personality. And so we get three vivid portraits, like something out of the National Gallery.
First comes the ebullient Bunny Briggs, with his childlike face and bugging-out eyes and, often, a super-sized Rheingold in hand. Next is Howard (Sandman) Sims, more analytic, telling us how his sand dance was done, showing us the box, the mike, even the grains of sand. Finally, there is Chuck Green, who spent fifteen years in a mental hospital as a young man, and still seems to live on another plane. He travelled with a collection of old newspapers and stale crackers; he liked to wear several layers of clothing. When he dances, his balance seems unsteady at times, as if he were on stilts, but his footwork is wonderfully clean—no blur, no doubts. His face seems to hail from Easter Island. The others revere him.
Spliced into the contemporary footage are clips of two giants from the old days, Bill Robinson and John Bubbles. In Bubbles’s routine, from the 1937 movie “Varsity Show,” he dances atop a gleaming piano being played by his partner, Buck (Ford Lee Washington). At one point, Buck pauses, right on the beat, to buff Bubbles’s proffered shoe.
Ironically, “No Maps on My Taps,” whose participants regarded it as an elegy, helped to start a tap revival in the eighties. The film was shown in festival after festival. Its stars travelled with it and danced, live, after the screenings. (Nierenberg says that Green’s multiple layers of clothing were not popular with airport-security personnel.) In time, “No Maps on My Taps” fell out of active distribution, but now—together with a sequel, “About Tap,” that Nierenberg made in 1985—it is being restored and rereleased by Milestone Films, in New Jersey. (“They care,” Martin Scorsese has said. “And they love movies.”) The cleaned-up prints will have their first outing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, July 7-13, to coincide with Tap City, the American Tap Dance Foundation’s annual festival. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the July 10 & 17, 2017, issue, with the headline “Tap Masters.”
Sign up for a weekly list of the best things happening in New York City and beyond.