Film Review: No Maps on My Taps

Appealing documentary about three extraordinary tap dancers is ready to win over a new generation of viewers.
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Returning to the screen in a restored version, No Maps on My Taps explores what appeared at the time to be the dying art of tap dancing. But by introducing to a wider public some of the masters of the form, the documentary helped change the course of American dance when it was released in 1979.

Part of the credit goes to George Nierenberg, an intuitive and sympathetic director who understands not only dance, but how to film it. (He also directed the esteemed Say Amen, Somebody about gospel music.) Nierenberg and his cinematographer Robert Elfstrom try to frame the dancers' entire bodies, using minimal cutting to let viewers see both the mechanics of tap dancing and the incredible skill of the dancers.

And it is the dancers who are the real attraction here. No Maps brings together three of tap's greatest stars—Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs and Chuck Green—and films their nightclub show at Small's Paradise in Harlem with Lionel Hampton and his band. (Hampton won an Emmy for Music Direction.) The three dance with each other and in solo segments, each displaying distinctive styles and steps.

Nierenberg also films rehearsals and interviews and includes clips of earlier dancers like Bill Robinson and John Bubbles. As an added treat, Sandman Sims takes the crew on a tour of Harlem, chatting with street dancers, practicing in a park bandstand and walking through the alley behind the Apollo Theater where performers challenged each other to dance-offs. And in one entrancing sequence, he shows how he acquired the nickname "Sandman."

The documentary addresses some of the problems the dancers faced. Rock and roll took away a large part of their audience. Chuck Green was institutionalized for several years. Age caught up with John Bubbles, who in a phone call with Green, his protégé, admits that he can no longer dance.

Funded in part by public television, No Maps on My Taps was a sensation in theaters and on TV. It was part of a wave of new interest in tap as dancers like Gregory Hines became bona fide movie stars.

No Maps on My Taps glistens in its new restoration by Metropolis Post. The estimable Milestone Film deserves congratulations for bringing this warm, engaging documentary back to the public.

The documentary is being screened with About Tap, Nierenberg's half-hour follow-up, shot in 1985. Filmed in a similar style to the earlier work, it focuses on Steve Kondos, Jimmy Slyde and Chuck Green.

Click here for cast and crew information.