'No Maps on My Taps': Film Review

Courtesy of Milestone Films
An invaluable look at a generation between tap's Jazz Age heyday and its 1980s rediscovery.

George T. Nierenberg's 1979 performance doc stages a dance-off between three tap veterans.

Three aging but still-limber tap dancers show youngsters where it's at in George T. Nierenberg's loving documentary No Maps on My Taps. Released in 1979, when interest in the art form was at a low ebb (Gregory Hines' Tap and Tap Dance in America were still a decade away, though his career was already maturing), the film is the latest restored under the imprimatur of Milestone Films, the stalwart boutique distributor that has been especially attentive of late to films about the African-American experience. Taps will play especially well at dance-centric events, of course (its NYC debut coincides with the Tap City festival), but it boasts a broader time-capsule appeal as well.

Motivated by a question both hinted at and raised explicitly throughout the film — Is tap dead? — Nierenberg decided to create his own out-of-time showcase: At the storied Harlem, N.Y., jazz club Smalls Paradise, he arranged for a concert in which bandleader Lionel Hampton would play backup for a "challenge show" between Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs and Howard "Sandman" Sims. Less competitive than the kind of battle one might expect today, the evening offered each man a generous showcase before bringing all three onstage together.

But where many performance films suffer from being too attached to their present-tense anchoring event, Nierenberg's is expansive, letting its subjects range freely in interviews conducted in rehearsal rooms and on the street. Sandman Sims is especially voluble, holding up traffic to chat with old acquaintances about street-dance culture and accosting a man who appears to be the Apollo Theater's manager: Why, he demands, would Uptown's most famous performance venue not introduce youngsters to their heritage?

Sims was once mentored by Green, who, in turn, had been helped along by tap giant John "Bubbles" Sublett. Tracing this legacy gives the film plenty of opportunity to show off old movie clips, including one in which Bill Robinson teaches Shirley Temple to tap her way up a staircase — the kind of identifying gimmick Sims would develop later, when he started dancing on small platforms covered in sand.

Bill Robinson once chose a 6-year-old Bunny Briggs to go on tour as his protege. Briggs' aunt, a professional chorus girl, convinced his mother that was a bad idea, and here Briggs appears to have maintained the most steady life-performance balance of the three — though he's just as quick as his peers are to lament the shortage of opportunities to work.

These days, a filmmaker would likely have made a much bigger deal of the mental illness Chuck Green suffered from after his prime: He was institutionalized for many years, and according to press materials, he even went AWOL on the day of the Smalls show, nearly missing the concert. But Nierenberg keeps his focus on dance and the social scene directly related to it, relishing the variety of rhythmic effects produced by these three very different performers.

Production company: GTN
Distributor: Milestone Films
Director-producer: George T. Nierenberg
Screenwriters: George T. Nierenberg, Lynn Rogoff
Directors of photography: Robert Achs, Phil Parmet, Robert Elfstrom, Vic Losic, Ted Churchill, George T. Nierenberg, Paul Goldsmith
Editor: Paul Barnes
Composer: Dick Vance

58 minutes