Critical dialogue
Tap dancing

by John Fell

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, p. 58
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Marcia Biederman's appreciation of NO MAPS ON MY TAPS (George Nierenberg, 1978) in JUMP CUT, No. 26, is very welcome, and perhaps a few additions may be useful to readers. While often commercially deployed (battles of the bands at the Savoy Ballroom), the notion of challenge rests deep in traditions of jazz and jazz dance. Artistic combat exists quite for its own sake but equally a way to learn and to test progress against the best. Young tenor saxes used to meet the great Coleman Hawkins on his home ground (New York) or wherever he toured with the Fletcher Henderson band. Sandman Sims touches on the matter when he speaks of Chuck Green, "He was my biggest challenge. I could always measure my dancing by his dancing." Later, "To challenge dance was to learn how to dance."

Many great tap dancers were/are singers, too, John Bubbles, Bill Robinson, and Bunny Briggs among them. Singing was part of the stage turn, and performers carried arrangements of their specialty numbers from job to job. Briggs appeared both as singer and dancer with Charlie Barnet's band. He can be seen in one of the Universal band shorts of the late forties, significantly dressed as a Western Union messenger. Bill Robinson's Broadway career was enhanced in BLACKBIRDS OF 1928 with "Doin' the New Lowdown," the Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song which introduces Lionel Hampton's band in NO MAPS ON MY TAPS.

In the film, each accompaniment enlists generations of stage and jazz overtones, from "Sweet Georgia Brown," written by the vastly underrated black composer Maceo Pinkard, to Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" at Small's Paradise, itself once an outpost for black entertainers, run by whites for a white clientele, like the Cotton Club.

While the respective merits of Bill Robinson and John Bubbles are yet argued, they also reflect-stylistic changes: Robinson high on his toes, Bubbles new with heavy-on-the-heel steps. Buck Washington and Bubbles, by the way, were also immensely popular. They (or Bubbles alone) played the Palace, the Orpheum circuit, Loew's, the Music Hall, London's Palladium, the Ziegfield Follies, and George White's Scandals.

NO MAPS ON MY TAPS doesn't pretend to be a history of the art, but conspicuous by their absence even in reference are figures like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers. Jazz and jazz dance are really closely integrated. Coles, himself now seventy, argues that innovations in jazz percussion, the bass drum bombs of bop drumming, for instance, started with dancers long before Parker, Gillespie, and Monk's experimentations.

Certainly Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly capitalized on black traditions of jazz dance, but how far they literally drew on black dancers' material is open to dispute. Even "Bojangles of Harlem," Astaire's tribute to Robinson in SWINGTIME (George Stevens, 1936), is noteworthy for its absence of Robinson routines. In tribute, black dancers are much more disposed to slip in and out of a Bojangles swagger like the inturned hand-on-the-hip that's documented in Nierenberg's film by a little clip from HORRAY FOR LOVE (Walter Lang, 1936).

Readers may be interested in another film, TAPDANCIN' (1980), produced and directed by Christian Blackwood. It features John Bubbles, Honi Coles, and the Nicholas Brothers. Coles notes he might have gone further but for racism and turns to the camera to say, "I might not have even been a dancer if I'd been white." For one who loves jazz music and dance, the remark poses a moment of terrible reflection. I like to think that Chuck Green's song-snippet "There's no maps on my taps …" somehow describes a man so skilled that artificial boundaries can't limit him. But of course Green's years in a mental institution belie that little fantasy.