No Maps on My Taps
Forgotten dancers

by Marcia Biederman

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

As a child I was fortunate enough to live within the broadcast radius of New York City's Channel 11 with its "Million Dollar Movie," which screened the same film twice daily for a week (three times on Sunday). Since the "Million Dollar Movie" owned a limited number of films, they often repeated the same film several times a year. Thus, at the age of ten I was able to see YANKEE DOODLE DANDY forty-two times in a single year. Forty-two times I sat with my mouth open and watched James Cagney tap dance down an enormous staircase in the penultimate scene of the movie. I also watched two black servants nod and smile at him as they helped him on with his coat at the bottom of the stairs. It was not until twenty years later, when I saw another film — this one a nonfiction film called NO MAPS ON MY TAPS — that I figured out why the servants were nodding at Cagney with a look of recognition. They were probably thinking of the great black dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and how he had invented the Stair Dance in the 1920s They might also have been thinking of the scores of talented black-tap dancers who, dressed as redcaps, had to hoof atop suitcases, or dance with brooms in street-cleaning scenes, while Ann Miller, Fred Astaire, and Eleanor Powell stole both the show and their art form.

George I. Nierenberg's NO MAPS ON MY TAPS, which I saw on PBS in April 1980, is the story of three of these black dancers who gather together to prepare for a tap-dancing contest at a nightclub in Harlem. The three dancers, Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and Sandman Sims, were once well known among jazz audiences and revered by other dancers. But by the time of this contest, the late 1970s, tap had met its demise even in Harlem.

In their book Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, Marshall and Jean Stearns theorize that tap dancing is an Afro-American dance form, born in the early nineteenth century when black Americans added syncopated rhythm, or swing, to the tap sound of European country dances like the jig and clog dance. [1] Developed in the early minstrel shows, it was performed by black artists to black audiences and by white artists in blackface to white audiences. This jazz dance form reached its apex in the 1920s and 1930s. Audience racial composition occasionally crossed over, as when the all-black musical Shuffle Along captivated Broadway in 1921. Tap, performed by rich and famous white artists who borrowed heavily from the techniques of poor black ones, remained popular through the 1950s. Bill Robinson, one of the few black tap dancers to become rich from dancing (although he died in debt), was recognized only in the latter half of his life. As late as 1965, Bunny Briggs, who appears in NO MAPS ON MY TAPS, danced with fluke Ellington's band. Soon afterwards, tap was forgotten, eclipsed by modern dance, ballet, and most of all by rock and roll.

NO MAPS ON NY TAPS opens in the barren backstage room of the club. One of the dancers explains good-naturedly to someone off-screen that a nightclub contest has been arranged "to see which one of us can dance the best." They do a little rehearsal dancing, accompanied by a piano. The camera shows their feet, then just their heads and shoulders, then their whole bodies. In a voice-over one of them explains that the beauty of jazz dancing lies in the chance-for improvisation. "If you dance ballet, you must do what the teacher says." They improvise, their faces revealing pleasure and camaraderie. They take cues from one another as they dance in a line, revealing the ironic nature of the "contest."

The film never clarifies whose idea the contest was — possibly the club owner or a promoter dreamed it up to draw people in. (As an added drawing card, Lionel Hampton, who used to feature tap dancers with his big band, will emcee the contest.) Later in the film Sandman Sims, explaining why he often dances in a sandbox, explains that you need "a novelty" to get bookings; he obviously resents the fact that managers have told him, "If you don't bring your sandbox, don't come at all." Initially I found the idea of the contest abhorrent — an exercise in humiliation for dancers who never got the recognition they deserved. Later, through reading. I discovered that "challenge dancing," in which each performer tries to outdo the other, is part of tap dancing's heritage, something like the jazz solos in which musicians try to outshine one another. The idea of competition appears to be related to performing for a limited audience. Jazz audiences tend to be knowledgeable about the music and place welcome demands on the musicians, and the same is true for jazz dance. "In Harlem the audience practically dared you to dance, and you had to swing," comments one performer in the Stearns' book. [2]

But Nierenberg makes no particular attempt to place the contest he is filming within this perspective, except for his inclusion of one dancer's remarks about the continual dancing duels waged at the Hoofer's Club, a hangout for dancers in tap's heyday. Nierenberg uses the contest as a device to expose the situation of the black tap dancer. Never properly rewarded by the white world with its money and opportunities, and now neglected even by their own culture, the black dancers can't get a booking unless they agree to try to defeat one another in public. "Dancing is a gang war," a dancer told the Stearns, and his comparison seems apt. [3]

The first close-up portrait in NO MAPS ON MY TAPS focuses on the dancer Sunny Briggs. He has long-lashed eyes, a delicate baby face in a head of gray hair. He bows his head in deep emotion as he sits in a Harlem apartment drinking and smoking with his two uncles. He explains that he owes his career to his uncles. They acknowledge his gratitude but in turn explain that they owe their subsistence to Briggs. When his family discovered that young Bunny could dance, they took him to basketball games to perform during intermission. We see an old still of Briggs as a little boy. He is puffing out his chest, rolling his eyes. It is some sort of publicity photo; a comic-strip balloon emerging from his mouth says "Wooo-wooo." The uncle explains that family members came to the games equipped with quarters and half-dollars "to get the whole thing going." In some old footage from the twenties Briggs is shown dancing, dressed in a costume of rags. The uncles make it clear that Briggs had to do this to contribute to the income of the family. In a grim litany, they repeat several times that his family lived "in the top apartment of a cold building." Briggs is touched by their careful recounting of his biography.

The second portrait, of Sandman Sims, is quite a contrast. Unlike Briggs, who is almost fragile in his quiet elegance, Sims is energetic, athletic. We see him running around an outdoor stadium with his young son at his heels. He wears a T-shirt. He is thin but muscular, the very picture of the type of black man who is popular among advertising agencies today. At any moment we expect him to start tossing a basketball to his little boy. But, instead, he arrives at the middle of the stage and starts tap dancing. His son also dances. Sandman asks his son, "Can you do this step?" Wisecracking, the son retorts, "Can you do this?" It is the refreshing upbeat image of the liberated young black, out in the fresh air with his son. We are just about ready to believe that all that old-time oppression is over. We are out of the cramped, foreign-looking apartment of Bunny Briggs and into the familiar sunshine feeling of the television commercial. So he dances instead of playing sports — that's okay. We can relate to that.

But Sandman Sims doesn't talk much about himself at this point. He remarks that he began dancing as soon as he could stand up, and he talks a little about his family act. From there, he goes into an account of his teacher. We are plunged back into the darkness of the rehearsal room of the nightclub, and we see a big black man holding a plastic shopping bag and picking' out some lonely notes on the piano. He improvises a few steps, then slaps the bag as he dances, This Is Chuck Green, the tap dancer who is scheduled to compete against Bunny Briggs and Sandman Sims. Sims is being set against his teacher.

There are clips of Green dancing in a club. Sims tells us that Green was in a "rest home" for many years. He hesitates over this phrase, then, as he talks, he becomes more forthright and we learn that Green was committed to a mental institution for something like fifteen years. Sims maintains that Green never lost his touch for dance during the whole time he was in. "Physically, he was fine." As we watch Green doing his languid bop-dance with great concentration, Sims tells us that a whole group of young dancers fell apart when Green went into the institution and that they reunited and worked harder when he came out.

Though candid about Green, Sims is protective of him, as is the filmmaker. Because Green is inarticulate, Sims does the narration for Green's portrait. Only after we have heard much about Green's history are we allowed to hear Green himself, Through the contrivance of the filmmaker, Green is shown conversing with his mentor, a famous old dancer, John Bubbles, while another camera shows Bubbles talking on the phone in L.A. Green seems pleased to be talking to his teacher, but when Bubbles asks him, "Are you working much now?" Green covers his face with his hand and says that he is not. Later, Green is shown wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, indoors. He says that he heard a new tune the other day. "This guy was singing, Got no maps on my taps," He laughs to himself a little. Green hangs in a delicate balance.

Sims switches to other subjects. Out of doors again, he plays the part of the interviewer, facing the camera crew. Simulating a television reporter, he interviews an old man on a sidewalk in Harlem. His question is, "Why do you dance?" The old man is tongue-tied, so Sims graciously saves him by saying, "I know why I dance. I dance to try to dance as well as this man, Candy." His respect for the older performer is compelling and unfeigned.

Sims performs another role in the production as he narrates some history of great jazz tap dancers. We see clips of Bill Robinson dancing up and down stairs, dressed as a butler, in THE LITTLE COLONEL (1935) with Shirley Temple. Then Bunny Briggs recalls Bill Robinson as he sits on a stoop. Robinson, it seems, saw Briggs perform when he was still a little boy and invited him to travel with him. Briggs's family would not allow it, and Briggs regrets the lost opportunity.

Again there is a cut to Sims. Sims does not sit on stoops and appears to have no regrets. But slowly this illusion is shattered. As Sims runs around the Apollo Theater with his son, we learn that he, too, has been disappointed. He debates effectively with the manager of the Apollo, chiding him for sacrificing dancing to rock and roll. Insistent but not hostile, he tells the manager the kids would love tap dancing if they could be exposed to it. "How do you know it wouldn't sell if you won't even try it?" he asks. Sims claims that kids have been impressed with him, coming up and asking him. "What is it you are doing with your feet?" They've seen Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire, but never a black man tap dancing. The manager shrugs off these questions.

Soon after this scene, Sims recounts the humiliation of having to always perform in a sandbox. He stresses his adaptability. This "novelty," he says, kept him working through the years of rock and roll.

On the afternoon before the contest, the three dancers are shown leaving the nightclub. Suddenly Sims starts yelling, "Let's have the contest here and now, on this sidewalk," He is half joking, half serious. Has the prospect of the contest produced all this tension? Sims boasts that he is going to beat Green, although the rule is that the student should not surpass the teacher. Green is annoyed by this outburst and irritably shouts. "Don't touch me, don't touch me." This is the rare kind of psycho-dramatic moment that only seems to occur when people are aware of being filmed in documentaries.

The nighclub contest takes place as scheduled. Each dancer performs excellently in a distinctive style. The audience, almost 100 percent black, is appreciative. When Sims comes on, many of than recognize this youngest dancer, yelling, "Sandman, Sandman." The three dance together at the end. We see them changing back- stage. Green complains that the static from the sound system distracted him. Briggs and Sims reassure him that he was great.

There is some interviewing of the audience. The film makes it appear that the contest will be formally decided by audience vote, though this is not clarified. One woman says that Briggs is great — he's been dancing for years." A man is familiar with Sims, saying that he is one of the best dancers alive. There are some more opinions for Sims and Briggs. The last shot is of Green, looking spent and anxious as an aide or a friend mops off his forehead. If there were any "votes" for Green, who was once enormously respected within the jazz dance community, Nierenberg hasn't let us hear them. The opinions that we have heard have been based on familiarity. Green was out of circulation for fifteen years.

The last shot is reminiscent of the closing looks at Anthony Quinn in REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. But NO MAPS ON MY TAPS is no requiem. Though Chuck Green has been institutionalized and we worry about him, he still can dance. Briggs has been saddened and oppressed, but he's still going strong. His wife is shown, laughingly voting for him after the contest.

Most of all, the appealing Sandman Sims, who is not as young as he seems (he told a New York Times reporter after the release of the film that his age is a "matter of opinion"), infuses the film with brightness. His son may or may not represent the hope for the future, but Sins has not repudiated or sentimentalized his past. Still living on top of his "roots" instead of tearing away from them, he feels at home with the older dancers. Energetic and modern, he wears a baseball hat and T-shirt, but his T-shirt reads "Harlem."

The dancers in this film are now receiving some ephemeral attention as they tour with the movie (for what paltry remuneration one can only imagine, since a ticket to a recent Connecticut screening/performance cost only $4). Surprisingly, not only Sims but also Chuck Green has been appearing at many of the screenings, jumping onto the stage to dance after the credits. Whether these artists will ever be steadily employed again is doubtful. There are real limitations placed on than by a white-controlled art industry and the marketing concerns of promoters and managers. But, as Chuck Green says, "There are no maps on my taps" — whatever that means. Obviously it has something to do with courage.


1. Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance:
The Story of American Dance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1968).

2. Ibid,, p. 218.

3. Ibid., p. 346.