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No Maps on My Taps: An Appreciation

Film by George T. Nierenberg

Review by Lynn Dally

" . . . I got no maps. . . on my taps. . . I takes the raps. . . "
-- Chuck Green

No Maps on My Taps, an hour-long documentary by filmmaker George T. Nierenberg, emerged in 1980 at the same time my West Coast colleagues and I were creating a new format for tap dancing-live, and in concert. On a mission to rediscover, reinvent, and revive the form, we aspired to be the Modern Jazz Quartet of tap, a small chamber ensemble of distinctive soloists, each with a singular voice and able to participate fully as instrumentalists in the totality of the music-making. We were creating a tap-dance company with live jazz music, in which the creative collaborations and ideas of the dancers and musicians intended to engage an audience for a whole evening's presentation of tap dancing-not as a novelty, not as a seven-minute vaudeville song and dance routine, and not for the sake of nostalgia, but as a lively indigenous dance art worthy of attention and begging for new exploration.

No Maps went straight to the heart of our passion for tap dancing. As Nierenberg was investigating the roots of tap in its living history via the artistry of Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and "Sandman" Sims, we and dancers like us across the country were searching for living artists who were willing to share their life experiences and their dancing expertise. We particularly sought the African American influences that nurtured rhythm tap, because it was our perception that the rhythmic thread was broken when tap dance fell into disuse in the 1950s. We believed that if we could reconnect with "rhythm," we might have a chance at taking tap into the future. Nierenberg made a great gift to tap dance when he chose to film the stories of these three artists, all well known and revered in the field, with care and simplicity. His directorial approach allows us a clear view of the dancing and honest response in the close-ups.

No Maps poses the question "Is tap dance a dying art?" and then proceeds to inspire the viewer with a strong and straightforward narrative that carries us into the lives of three veteran African American tap legends. These artists may represent the end of an era, but their dancing is captured on film in such a way that people like me learned a lot from it and were inspired to find our own voices and create our own stories. As the late, great John Bubbles (often referred to as the father of rhythm tap) questions Chuck Green in their familial crosscountry phone conversation, "Chuck, are you creatin'? . . . are you creatin' steps? . . . listen, Chuck, tap dancin's still alive-it just needs more people to execute it, that's all . . . And get more jobs in better places." Nearly 25 years after the release of No Maps, America has experienced a genuine rebirth of creativity and interest in tap, and John Bubbles's questions have been answered by legions of tap dancers, male and female, young and old, amateur and pto. As the first tap dance documentary, No Maps played an important role in this renaissance by capturing history and giving voice to the pertinent question "Are you creatin'?"

To tell this story, Nierenberg's research led him to create a context -- specifically, to produce and film a live concert at Smalls Paradise, a well-known Harlem club of an earlier era. The concert would bring together three legendary tap artists who knew each other from show business but were probably never on the same stage at the same time, and who represented three very different aesthetics in tap dancing but shared a chemistry, or at least a camaraderie, that enabled the story to flow. He hired Lionel Hampton, who, like many traveling bandleaders, had engaged tap dancers to perform with his orchestra on many occasions. Nierenberg also developed other appropriate locations for the shoot, including the street in front and the alley behind the world-famous Apollo Theater, a small outdoor stage in the park, and a classic second-floor dance studio with upright piano, wooden floor, and windows looking down on the street. He created an atmosphere that gave a sense of the importance of this gathering to the artists, to their live audience, and to viewers of the film. He revealed the intimacy of backstage preparations, heightened the electricity of performance itself, and gently nudged the "challenge" concept into the story, giving a deeper understanding of how this art form is transformed and passed on. His compassionate interest in each man's life story created a lyricism that gives beauty to their sometimes very harsh daily experiences. He created a comfortable, famil¬iar situation for the artists, which opened the way for a full expression of the spontaneity and creativity that are intrinsic parts of the dancing itself

Ah, the dancing! What a pleasure to see these veterans in all their wonderful  individuality. The stage show's opening number -- a classic "BS Chorus," an old tradition of time steps and flash where unison dancing is the mode -- is the only time in the entire film that we see a "group" dance. We learn, as the film progresses, that this art deals with each person's own inventions on the rhythms. We see a 1933 clip of the young Bunny Briggs doing the classic time step and "trenches," and then real "rhythm" and vernacular at the club. This "rhythm" dancing is what John Bubbles refers to when he speaks of"creatin'," and the contrast between the accomplished kid and the mature artistry of Briggs is also the history of tap and some of its innovation from the 1930s to the 1950s and 1960s.

Chuck Green improvises a cappella at the studio and then dances "Caravan" with Lionel Hampton's orchestra in the show. "Caravan" and "Take the A Train" are two of Green's signature tunes. Viewing a master's improvisational approach to jazz standards such as these Ellington pieces is enlightening; we see clarity and sparseness, punctuated by select moments of high, rapid articulation-and this from a man who is very large and yet goes into the air with astonishing grace. He almost hovers when he isn't more grounded in his sliding steps. And, of course, we are entertained by "Sandman" Sims's specialty, the old rhythms with the captivating gritty sound. Though his rhythms are in a sense raw~r than those of the others, he too weaves a fabric of continuity and driving rhythmic energy.

The film clips of Bill Robinson and John Bubbles are priceless. They give us a clear picture of the power and presence of each of these great stars, and they let us in on the evolution of tap dancing. Bill Robinson's style, vocabulary, and musical presentation were crystal-clear, tight packages of eight-bar phrasing performed primarily from the balls of the feet, giving lightness and efferves¬cence, a symmetry of phrasing, and a knowing delight to his audiences. Bubbles experimented with "dropping" the heels and thus added new dimensions to the rhythmic possibilities of tap dancing. He was a showman and an innovator whose artistry opened up the second half of the century for tap and allowed this simple art of four metal plates on the bottoms of shoes to proceed musically along with the development of jazz from swing to bebop and beyond.

Toward the end of the film, Chuck Green describes how a "melody" came to him. This poignant moment references the challenges and difficulties faced by these artists as they did what they had to do-dance. The film succeeds in delivering the experience of great dancing that is so "in the moment" there is no residue, and hence, "no maps."

[Lynn Dally is Artistic Director of Jazz Tap Ensemble -- ed.]

Reprinted with permissions from Envisioning Dance on Video and Film.  Judy Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, Dale Ann Stieber, Nelli Heinonen, Norah Zuniga Shaw. (Eds.)  New York: Routledge, 2002.

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