Reveille for TAPS
Fragile-looking Camden Richman, just in from Oakland, Calif., for her New York debut, has come to a special screening of George Nierenberg's documentary, "No Maps on My Taps," about three great black tap-dancers. It's a verym special screening, just for Richman and her group, the Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble, and Tom Rawe tagged along (you may have seen his feet doing a marvelous mock-tap-dancing solo on "Dance in America," when Twyla Tharp was on with "Sue's Leg: Remembering the Thirties"). I got to tag along, too, because I'm such a big fan of Richman's.Skip to next paragraph
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The screening was in Mr. Nierenberg's office, and he left the room during the film, having seen it and worked on it and dreamed about it quite enough already. He got the idea around 1974 and spent 4 1/2 years hanging out with tap-dancers and trying to hang onto his vision while waiting for funding. Now he's distributing it himself, having won several awards.
When you meet Camden Richman, she looks smaller than she does on stage, where her thinness gives the illusion of height. And you can't imagine such a frail-looking person making the sounds she makes up there. Tapping to modern jazz, she is capable of snapping off drum-roll-like barrages of taps, her feet making the aluminum plates screwed into her tiny, pointed shoes sing, bop, crackle, and seem to explode. Though she couldn't weigh more than 90 pounds, her feet get into fascinating conversations with the band, holding their own in concert with the drums, bass, and piano, if not monopolizing the conversation.
At the screening, she looked particularly fragile, swathed in a fluffy white sweater a couple of sizes too big for her against the unaccustomed New York cold , wearing, even indoors, a scarf, urchin-style, up around her chin. She had the air of a prima ballerina, bundled against any possible contact with the real world -- a look that is deceiving.
"How long is the movie?" someone asks.
"It's an hour long [but it takes] three days to get over it," she says in her soft voice. Everyone nods, understandingly and gravely. The room is full of awe and great expectations. What is all this, you might wonder, looking around the office at the solemn, preoccupied young faces. It's a gathering of tap devotees, some of the most enthusiastic (perhaps the onlym enthusiastic) people of the generation that grew up in the Eisenhower years, revolted in the '60s, and came of age in the "me" decade.
Tap-dancing seems to strike certain people in a strange way. It's not that they just "get those happy feet" and fall in love with the era of elegance, when Fred and Ginger stepped out with eclat, elan, and a cheery tattoo on their glorious swoops across gleaming black sound stages. It starts that way, but the true tap devotee becomes something like a ballet-omane, according to Jane Goldberg, who dances with her own tap group, the Changing Times Tap Company, and writes about tap-dancing and who once watched Chuck Green dance every night for two weeks.
More intense than balletomanes, they rush out, clap taps on their soles, and learn some steps.In "No Maps on my Taps" there's a clip of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, the Babe Ruth of tap history, in his movie guise as a happy, humble, Uncle-Tom- style, tappin' butler. Shirley Temple, the little girl he's taking care of, watches him go slap, stompa bam carrrrunch-and-a- bomp! up the stairs, tapping on the tops of the steps and knocking at the fronts of them with his toes, not even shaking the tails of his elegant butlers's suit.
I want to do that," says Shirley, in her sulky little-girl voice.
"Me, too," I wanted to say, as I watched her toddle along next to him, her tiny feet whoming into those stairs, then stopping at the top, making a cute little pawing gesture on the floor to go with Robinson's sassy finish. I was jealous. Imagine getting to dance with Bill Robinson when you were five years old. It would be like having Picasso help you finger-paint, or Einstein do your math homework with you.