'American Tap': Film Review

Courtesy of American Tap/Mark Wilkinson
This fascinating doc will get your toes tapping.

Mark Wilkinson's documentary provides a comprehensive cultural history of the dance form.

There have been several excellent books written about the history of tap dancing, most recently What the Eye Hears by The New York Times dance critic Brian Siebert. But even the most well-researched and best-written tome can't convey the visual and aural glories of the unique dance form. Mark Wilkinson's documentary is thus all the more invaluable for providing a comprehensive history of tap complete with wonderfully entertaining clips of many of its foremost practitioners past and present. American Tap, which recently received its world premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera festival, should prove essential viewing for dance buffs and fans of musical theater and film.

Director Wilkinson and co-screenwriter Annunziata Gianzero delve deeply into the historical and cultural origins of tap, the earliest forerunner of which was the African drum circle. Although anti-drumming laws were passed in the Deep South after African slaves were transported there, there were exceptions. In New Orleans' historic Congo Square, slaves who had been given Sundays off gathered to sing and dance, essentially giving birth to jazz.

This led to the minstrel shows of the 19th century that featured white performers in blackface appropriating African dance styles for such popular numbers as "Jump Jim Crow." The net effect, as one scholar observes in the film, was that the borrowing "ironically preserved traditional black dances." The documentary includes clips of white entertainers in blackface, including Al Jolson and, most uncomfortably, Judy Garland.

The Irish influx in the 1800s also contributed to the form, with dancers incorporating Irish and English steps. Among the most influential pioneers was African-American William Henry Lane, whose stage name was "Master Juba" and who is widely considered to be the first true tap dancer.

Tap dancing flourished during the big band jazz era of the 1920s to 1940s, with the form given significant exposure in such Broadway musicals as 1921's Shuffle Along. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the first tapper to become a household name, breaking the color barrier by co-starring in four films with Shirley Temple. The form evolved further thanks to such performers as John Bubbles, known as the "father of rhythm tap," who pioneered the practice of dropping his heels to produce a bass sound.

Tap's heyday ended due to the enactment of the cabaret tax in 1943, which resulted in many clubs closing. The demise of the big band era led to the advent of bebop and smaller jazz clubs that featured little room for dancing. But tap never went away entirely, thanks to the efforts of such veteran performers as The Copasetics who mentored younger dancers. Gregory Hines was greatly influenced by them and brought tap to a new generation of fans. Among the modern performers keeping the form alive are Savion Glover, Brenda Buffalino and Michelle Dorrance, all prominently featured in the film.

American Tap does an excellent job of organizing its many diverse strands. The footage of both past and present performers are often dazzling, including clips of the amazing Nicholas Brothers and a montage devoted to such legendary female dancers in Hollywood movies as Ginger Rogers, Vera Ellen, Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell. Historical context is provided by a gallery of experts ranging from writers like Siebert and Cornell West to notable dancers and choreographers.

There are times when the film feels a bit too comprehensive, its accumulation of details giving it the air of a dense textbook. And the commentary can be more than a bit flowery and pretentious, especially toward the conclusion when tap dancing is somehow linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and the blackout in Puerto Rico. By the time West grandiosely likens tapping to democracy, you long for some judicious editing. But that doesn't make the film any less invaluable.

Production: Ivy Media Group Inc.
Director/director of photography: Mark Wilkinson
Screenwriters: Mark Wilkinson, Annunziata Gianzero
Producer: Annunziata Gianzero
Editor: Jaime Arze
Composer: Simon TaufiQue

90 min.