Reveille for TAPS

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Seing Robinson and Temple is even more poignant, because while you can still go see Picasso's paintings or study the theory of relativity, aside from Bill Robinson as the jolly butler, his best dancing is only legend. Some of the finest black tap- dancers in the country were never on film, and those who are can be seen only for a few minutes at unusual film festivals.

For Camden and others of her generation, tap-dancing was something Fred and Ginger got dressed up and did on a sound stage in the middle of a romance, when, in reality, Astaire and Rogers were just a beautiful offshoot of the genre. They adapted an art form black slaves developed when their owners wouldn't let them use their African drums for fear they'd foment an uprising. It then went on the minstrel circuit, danced by whites in blackface as well as blacks, but strictly segregated, as were white and black vaudeville, which grew out of minstrelsy. Then Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, and other mostly white artists made it into the movies. And after that tap died out -- both black and white.

Black tap-dancing had its real heyday in the Jazz age -- the '20s and '30s -- in Harlem clubs, with jazz bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to mention the most famous. Performed live, it was much more vital and exciting and personal than the stylized, movie-ized version ("though Fred can still walk that walk," says Canden Richman, shaking her head in admiration).

There was an element of conversation to it, probably left over from the time it was a substitute for communicating by drum for the slaves. The dancers would try to better each other in challenges, where one dancer would tap out a fancy rhythm, and the other one would turn it upside down and tap back at his challenger, who would promptly turn thatm version inside out and dish it back up to the other dancer, to the accompaniment of yells and applause from the audience and jazz from the band. Individual styles developed. It was a rich and charming tradition, to say the least.

It's the kind of tradition that grows into a mythology. There are many legendary dancers who appear only rarely on film, and that appeals to people, like Camden Richman, who see the Fred and Ginger movies, take tap classes, and want to know where it all came from. When they find out about tap's roots and the unsung virtuosity that once existed and still lingers, they begin to look for a way to learn it -- in Richman's case -- or film it -- in Nierenberg's.

When Richman discovered tap, she was already a dancer with a modern company, descended by way of its leader from Merce Cunningham (who, Richman is quick to point out, did a turn on the California vaudeville circuit himself). "I didn't see any great black tap-dancers until I was 20 years old," she recalls. "Then I thought, 'Whoo! How did he ever learn so fast?" They'd been doing it the whole time. But they'd been working at McDonald's."

The artists of tap didn't disappear when tap disappeared, of course. They simply found other work. Some kept dancing or at least stayed in show business; others stopped. The '50s and '60s were discouraging times. "I know, because I grew up, and didn't see any great tap-dancers. And I would have," Richman says.

Unlike an aspiring ballerina, who must compete with countless other aspiring ballerinas and decide among various dance schools, Camden Richman had to search alone for a teacher, and then coax him to teach. Tap was so passe then that it was only taught at the kind of schools that also teach baton twirling, and that wasn't what she was looking for.

She had seen the old film clips of the Step Brothers, Buck and Bubbles, the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson, all of whom had their own styles and amazing stunts. The Nicholas Brothers jumped from great heights into the splits and leaped up to splatter taps all over the stage. The Step Brothers worked in precision, eight feet sounding like two, then breaking off into different crazy rhythmic offshoots, all the time joking and mugging and giving each other shoe shines, and rag going in syncopated time. Bill Robinson stayed up on his toes and seemed to be gently coaxing taps out of the floor, as if you needed to do was smile and be sweet and they'd come of their own accord, easy as pie.

All this was too wonderful for a young dance fiend to ignore She first studied with Lynn Dally, who now is in the Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble, and who learned tap-dancing from her father, Jimmy Rawlins, a veteran of the white vaudeville circuit. Then she heard Eddie Brown dance.

Brown is a fast ad lib dancer, whose feet never seem to move, let alone leave the floor, as they somehow must, if they're going to smack those taps down and get sound out of them. To tap close to the floor requires extremely articulate feet, capable of pulling the tap up a fraction of an inch and then hammering it down immediately in just the right way to set the floor to resonating.

In "Evolution of the Blues," a jazz revue directed by Jon Hendricks in San Francisco, Brown would walk out on stage, a small, thin, slouching black man, not particularly snappily dressed, and the music would stop for him. He'd then proceed to send a hail of taps out onto the audience for a brief, spell- binding moment, which may have been just as well, because it then took several hours just to get over the amazement. "Strictly like that, every night," Richman assures me. "He never did the same thing."

So she studied with him. It wasn't easy. Other than that nightly moment of glory in "Evolution of the Blues," Brown was in a bad way. "I went to see Eddie Brown for two years, three times a week. . . . I went over there, woke him up, got him out of bed, and we'd go down in his basement, and he had this old piece of wood." They'd dance on that. Or rather, he'd dance, clattering nimbly up and down the boards at breakneck speed, and she would try to follow. "It was sessions. It was just sessions -- that's all I can call them." And he'd talk about the past. "I have tapes of him just talking about what he was doing, where this came from -- remember this and remember that. So it was more than just picking up steps as fast as you can. Or picking up rhythms and working to rhythms. And it's the way he moves and the way he approaches them. . . . You find it in yourself how to do that."

It was an education for her, hearing about the hard times in Brown's career. ("The tears still flow," she says, when she thinks of what some of the most gifted black tap-dancers went through.) For Brown it may have been something of a rebirth -- he's now teaching regular classes. Only a dedicated researcher would have kept going back, but she just says brightly, "I knew he was a great artist, and I knew he wanted to get up!"

By the time she found Eddie Brown, she was already tapping fast and slow, which, she had gleaned from the clips, was the way the really great dancers did it. Baby Laurence, whom she never saw live, is her all-time hero. "I miss Baby ," she says sadly of that dancer who was so musical that you can listen to a record of him tapping ("Baby Laurence, Dance Master") the way you'd listen to a record of a jazz band. It transcends novelty.

Studying with Brown gave her speed and an ear for syncopation, so that when Honi Coles (who recently amazed viewers of the Dick Cavett show) came west to dance in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" she was ready. "He worked very differently, but I could hear what he was doing, and I could see what he was doing and the magic of it, and the quickness, and the speed. And, like, I didn't have to see what he did. I wasn't watching so much as I was listening."

That's the way people like Honi Coles and Eddie Brown probably learned to tap-dance in the first place, rather than by taking classes. In Harlem, people danced on the street corners, challenging each other, constantly picking up new steps, and always trying to be the best. Taps were just in the air, if you knew where to hang out.

It is the sociable aspect of tap that appeals to George Nierenberg, and his movie, "No Maps on my Taps," revolves around a challenge between three great tap-dancers, Bunny Briggs (bright- eyed and chipper as his name implies), Sandman Sims (named for his sand dance, which he does by pawing around in a tray of sand), and Chuck Green (a subtle dancer and a very aloof, introverted man, who communicates through his feet).

The contest displays some of the finest percussion you can hear anywhere -- three different styles of tap dancing, each, in its own beauty, revealing the dancer's personality. They're doing steps, sometimes, ones they learned 40 or 50 years ago. You can see the years in their dancing, the way you can see the years in the painting of a masteR, or the mature work a novelist writes when he has gotten all the youthful flash out of the way.

There are plenty of fireworks, was when Bunny Briggs seems to be standing still, rocking slightly on straddled legs, but somehow letting you hear a tiny precision drill team marching around in syncopated rhythm, somewhere under his toes. And Sandman does some hopping turns among his delicious dry sandy brushings that make your heart skip a beat. Chuck Green, frowning and distant, does a gimpy strut around the stage, snapping out a little thunder storm every time a foot touches down, that somehow speaks volumes about what he's lived through. This is dancing with character. This must be why they tell people not to write novels till they're 40. These feet have lived. The tough times have put an edge on "those happy feet." But they arem happy.

A stirring tap solo that hits all sorts of unexpected beats and clicks is also very funny. Maybe it's because everyone makes footsteps, so we can all relate to it. The more complicated they get, the funnier it is. In a way, tap dancing is an elaborate joke about walking. All you can ever do is move from one foot to the next. No matter how dazzling a step is, it's still a step. It's a very humble art form, being all in the feet, but then, it's also an exalted one. It's so much more glorious than walking around.

All that history can be quite awe inspiring for someone in the new generation of tappers. But Camden Richman says the dancing is the important thing. "There's a transformation when you begin to play music and you dance. It's not like he's 60, and I'm not 60. . . . I mean, when Honi starts dancing he's 20; I'm 80. . . . Of course, I don't have that history. I don't have that cruelty behind me. I see all these people as great artists."

Tap dancing does have a cruel past.Its popularity coincided with times of terrible racial segregation and hatred in the United States. Blacks only performed for blacks, and for less money and in worse conditions than whites did. There are dancers who remember being shot at by local Klan members after performances and being run out of town. And though the black dancers recognize and revere Fred Astaire's talent, who remembers John Bubbles, his teacher?

The few black artists who made it into the movies -- notably, Bill Robinson -- played servants, shoeshine boys, and bellhops and had to reinforce the role of the black tapdancer as a shambling, subservient clown just to be seen.

"There is tension," Camden Richman says, "but I've never felt tension from Honi or Eddie when we talk about the way things are, the way they were, and the way it is. The common thing that we have is that we're human beings; we're doing tap dancing, and we're artists, and we're trying to get work. . . . The problems of black and white are there. But I've been lucky; once you start to dance and once you start to play music, then you're doing what you do, and it comes out. You know, that's what I count on."

They must be impressed by her efforts, I venture.

"Well, you know, there are too many years for them to be impressed with any of this, just too many years," she says, then perks up. "I'm still interested in the art form. I can't help it. I'm not going to, you know, go do ballet."

She's very insistent that tap dancing is an art form, probably because she wants to stress the musicality and diginity of it, which she feels were lost when tap dancing became commercialized and then died out. She always refers to herself as a jazz tap percussionist, even in conversation. Her ideas for the art form are definitely not to preserve it in its present state. She reveres the past. (She recently had a chance to hold a pair of Bill Robinson's shoes. "It was like, 'I'm holding Bill Robinson's shoes. Don't bother me. I'm busy, I'm very busy.'") But she has no thought at all of re-creating Eddie Brown's style.

"I really am not doing what he does; it just became a great influence on me. I can't do just what he does. It would be greatm to do just what he does. . . . I don't want to say that I don't want to do it, but I know that there are so many directions that I want to go in, and I have a lot of ideas for my work with the musicians and for the art and for the theater. . . ."

There was an awed silence when the projector went off in Mr. Nierenberg's office. When he came in and turned on the lights, everyone began musing about how those people got to be so good, how the old days of tap dancing were gone, how there were many more old tap-dancers just working at McDonald's somewhere, and how it was impossible to get that proficient by taking classes.

Richman pushed her fluffy scarf down, looked George Nierenberg in the eye, and said, "I'd like to see the next step, when we just start dancing together. I accept that as history. Let's go on."

She said it in her soft voice, as fast as she taps, but there was an intent quality that reminded me that, delicate as she looked, under the table she had pistons for feet. Taken aback by this manifesto, Mr. Nierenberg said, "Well, you have an opportunity to add to that. . . ."

And they do. The musical ideas the ensemble uses come from all over. Keith Terry, the drummer for the group, also plays with the Berkeley Gamelan, an Indonesian percussion ensemble, and brings his knowledge of world music, especially rhythm, to the group. Their Latin piece, "Quartet," which Richman researched by going dancing -- and dancer- watching -- with pianist Paul Arslanian in Bay Area Latin clubs, also includes a section of Balinese Kotekan rhythm, which works like a cannon, with dancer and drummer phasing in and out, following each other. Terry also brings such instruments as a Brazilian cricket whistle, which he blows softly, while Richman dances (it sounds like a disco whistle and gets a laugh) and a set of kaxixis, straw baskets filled with seeds, which the dancers shake when they slink over the sidelines after tapping, to join the band.

All these sounds, plus Terry's tactful drumming -- he has to hold back sometimes to let the more fragile percussion of the taps be heard -- give the ensemble sound a rich texture, as if there were not four percussionists but a whole steel-footed tribe, shuffling around, rattling, cheeping, and clicking to each other. Like the pianist, Paul Arslanian, who has played for many modern dance classes, Terry is particularly sensitive to dance, which is rare for a musician, at least in this culture. Terry says, though, that "Asian and West African music and dance are very related. . . . In Bali, the dancers are also musicians, and vice versa."

Arslanian, who has composed several pieces for the ensemble, says you just have to "leave enough space in the music. Make sure you're not doing a lot when they are. You have to know when to lay back and just accompany them" -- though the ensemble is definitely not dancers with musical accompanists. After a concert, I was congratulating Camden Richman on the dancing. "And the musicians are great," I said. "Yeah, well, there are six of us," was the answer.

"You do a lot of sharing," says Arslanian, who provides streams of melody, which set a mood for the dancing or just entrance the audience, pulling them back into the music when they've interrupted a piece by applauding a tap solo.

Tom Dannenberg, aside from playing bass for the group is working on portable floors to give the taps more sound. He has made a small raised floor with a hole for a microphone. Right now, mikes are taped to the floor when the ensemble performs. "We treat the taps like instruments. The musical problem is that they're so light and delicate," he says. This makes it necessary for the band to hold back a bit most of the time and not play at full volume. Amplified floors would enable the band to play with a fuller sound.

It's a step beyond what jazz bands and tap dancers have been doing. "They used to have breaks and play stop-time," Tom Dannenberg says. "Eddie [Brown] would say, 'Have them give you 8 here, have them give you 16 there,' because usually the band wouldn't be that sensitive."

At the end of their show in New York, the Jazz Tap Percussion Ensemble danced a piece called "Jam with Honi," in which they do this shim-sham step -- an old favorite -- and then each dancer dashes off into his or her own personal routine. Lynn Dally seems to be about to fall over, as she hurtles across the stage waving her arms and rearing like a bronco, to universal guffaws. Fred Strickler, the ensemble's third dancer, does some tight drum rolls with his feet. They roll on and on without a pause, as he stands still, his arms crossed , a pleasantly smug expression on his face.

Then Richman daintily tiptoes over to the piano, rises up as if on a unicycle , and lets fly, driving her feet slantwise into the floor and snapping off a barrage of asymmetrical, distinctly modern rhythms. She'll quiet down and drag her feet along the floor with a satisfying metallic clonking noise, then hop up on her toes and just rattle along on the melodic line, in unison with the piano. What comes out is as varied and intriguing as scat singing, playing with the music, going off on its own, laying back, and then bursting into a solo which she finishes off by falling over backward onto one hand and springing up again, propelled by applause.

When she dances, she listens intently. You can tell by her face when something amazing is coming. She has an urgent quality, as if she's tapping out a message, and can't pause for much. The audience, pulled forward in their seats by her intentness, roars, and Honi Coles, who happens to be in the third row, yells "Yeah!" as tap steps out into the '80s.

"Black Tap: A Live Dance and Film Program" which consists of the film "No Maps on My Taps" and live performances can be seen in:m

Greenburgh, N.Y., Town of Greenburgh Arts and Culture Committee, Feb. 3. Mt. Clemens, Mich., Macomb Community College, Feb. 28. Livonia, Mich., Schoolcraft Community College, Feb. 29. Rockford, Ill., Urban Arts Committee and Rockford Arts Council, March 21.m

"No Maps on My Taps" alone opens in small theaters across the country early this year, including: Cambridge, Mass., Central Square Cinema, Jan. 23. New Orleans, The Movie Inc. theater chain Jan. 29. Chicago, Facets Multimedia Center, February Later in Ithaca, N.Y.; Atlanta; Detroit; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C. And watch for it on PBS in the spring.m

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