Rooftop Cinema returns with a complex portrait of three tap-dancing greats. Info
The word "heartwarming" is thrown around a lot, but it should be reserved for movies like George T. Nierenberg's 1979 documentary No Maps On My Taps. With music by jazz legend Lionel Hampton supporting mesmerizing tap-dancers Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and Howard "Sandman" Sims, I find it difficult to watch this Milestone Films restoration of the definitive American tap-dancing documentary without smiling, laughing, and tapping my foot.
No Maps On My Taps follows the three African-American tap dancers, who were trained by successful legends like Bill Robinson and saw themselves as the heirs to a great American tradition, in the 1970s, long after the art form's heyday. The documentary contextualizes tap dance as yet another African-American cultural innovation that was taken over in the popular sphere by powerful white people (like the Robinson-influenced Fred Astaire) and that subsequently went out of style, leaving professionals like the three depicted in the movie without much work and with lingering resentment for a national culture that in some sense has left them behind. This exasperation comes to a head as the three dancers argue with a man who books the Apollo theater for not putting on enough tap-dance, as the booker claims that rock music is the thing now.
Even with the crushing sadness of cultural entropy constantly on the horizon, the amazing tap-dancing performances make this a great feel-good documentary almost in spite of itself. In addition to the enchanting depictions of the art form, the historical narrative and empathetic depiction of three performers at the end of the metaphorical cultural rope—still fighting their good fight, getting gigs and wowing crowds—makes it a wonderful start to this summer's MMoCA Rooftop Cinema Series. Hopefully, I'll have the chance to write a calendar entry for an upcoming local tap-dance show after No Maps On My Taps revives interest in the art form yet again, as it did decades ago when it was heralded as ushering in another era of interest in tap. —Reid Kurkerewicz