New York — IF you've been longing for the days of Fred and Ginger to make a comeback, there isn't much hope at the moment. I haven't heard of anyone who thinks ballroom dancing is about to be a hot item at the movies again. But tap dancing is another story. There's something about it that seems right for today, and it keeps popping up in pictures like ``White Nights'' and ``The Cotton Club.'' Maybe it's back because tap is thought of as a masculine, almost macho form of dancing, suitable for a time when films are dominated mostly by male actors. Whatever the cause, tap is the heart and soul of one of the better movies to arrive in this generally poor season.
It's called ``Tap,'' and its story is pure Hollywood. Our hero is a guy named Max, who has a number of different talents. One is for dancing, and another is for crime: He's a second-story man whose specialty is breaking and entering tall buildings.
Unfortunately, his knack for burglary isn't quite flawless: When we meet him, he's in the slammer. But some thoughtful person has slipped his tap shoes through the bars and put a wooden surface on the floor of his cell, so he's tapping away in jail before the opening credits have ended. Soon he's back in society again, and, true to an ancient Hollywood tradition, he has to choose between two lives - making it big as a dancer or joining his old gang and returning to the easy money (and high risks) of crime. He doesn't decide until the climax of the story, and you can probably guess which choice he makes. Hint: There's an honest girlfriend in the story, who keeps saying things like, ``Dancing is your life! You can make it if you try!''
Yes, it's pretty corny. And the other characters are even cornier. There's an old hoofer, for instance, whose doctor says to take it easy, but he just can't help dancing. (He's played by - who else? - Sammy Davis, Jr.) And he's surrounded by a whole roomful of other old hoofers, each more crusty than the last. We've seen people like them in a million old movies - not to mention the girlfriend, and the sleazy Broadway producer, and Max's crooked companions.
If you get into the spirit of ``Tap,'' though, you'll greet these characters not as tired stereotypes but as old Hollywood pals. They seem mighty old-fashioned nowadays, but they're still good for a heart-warming moment or two. I don't mean to recommend ``Tap'' very strongly. It really is predictable, and some of its scenes are nothing but clich'es. Some moviegoers also won't like the sex angle, which gets more steamy than old-time Hollywood would have allowed.
Gregory Hines has a marvelous talent for acting and tapping, and the supporting cast has lots of energy and charm. It's hard to resist Mr. Davis, or Suzzanne Douglas as the girlfriend, or Joe Morton as the meanest crook, or Sandman Sims and Bunny Briggs as dancers like themselves.
``Tap'' was directed by Nick Castle, whose father used to dream up dance routines for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He's not a wizard of the screen, but he knows how to flesh out a time-tested plot with flying feet and unabashed emotions.