George Nierenberg/About Tap and No Maps on My Taps

In No Maps on My Taps, director George Nierenberg features tap dancers Bunny Briggs, Sandman Sims, and Chuck Green. In About Tap, introduced by Gregory Hines, Nierenberg features Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, and Steve Condos. Both films are must-sees for anybody even vaguely interested in the art of tap, jazz, or the intersection of music and dance. Availability: NYC, Quad Cinema, July 7-14, to coincide with American Tap Dance Foundation‘s annual Tap City Festival.  Also available from Milestone Films.

 

DT: While introducing About Tap, Gregory Hines speaks about personal style. What do Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Sandman Sims, Bunny Brigs say about the importance of personal style in tap?

GN: I would talk about it in a broader sense than just the specifics of your question, in terms of a bigger sense of what it means to be your own artist. I came to understand that what they do and what they brought to their art is demonstrative of any person who tries to find themselves and tries to express themselves individually as to who they are, so for me they became examples of people who did that. You can see their personalities in their art. You can’t separate one from the other. You can’t have Chuck Green doing Bunny Briggs. You can’t have Bunny Briggs doing Chuck Green. It doesn’t jive. What Sandman talks about is very philosophical in the sense that he uses himself as an example of how he came to understand that you can’t duplicate anybody and be your own artist. You have to find yourself in yourself, and that’s what makes anybody unique and special. There’s plenty of imitators out there, but there are only a few who are real individuals. In art. In anything. In life. I hoped that I told that story to a certain extent in No Maps on My Taps, because it’s a very engaging story. People understand the humanity of the art itself, and gravitate to that, so it was a very popular film and really galvanized the tap community; it was sort of the genesis of the resurgence of tap. And thereafter a lot happened. There were tap parades, we did a tour around the world.

DT:  With the film?

GN:  Yes. The film was the first part of the show, and then the tap dancers would come out and they’d get a standing ovation just for walking out. We did over sixty shows around the world. It was called “No Maps on My Taps and Company.” The dancers never experienced anything like that. Normally they’d get on the stage and they’d have to work the crowd. But the crowd was in the palm of their hand when they walked out on stage because the film made them bigger than life. When I met them, Bunny lived in a small apartment with a woman who was not very nice to him, Chuck Green, all of them, didn’t have any prominence. Tap dancing was dying from their point of view. After the film opened at the Telluride Film Festival, Sandman Sims became a big celebrity, they did Broadway, they were in a feature with Gregory. Their careers took off, and a whole generation of tap dancers came up from them. Tap became much more popular, in a bigger sense, around the world, and they became the masters. They became the ones who were really respected old men. They got what they deserved: they were valued in a way that they never could have anticipated.

The reason I made About Tap is that after I made No Maps on My Taps, I never felt that I had really paid tribute to the art of tap. I was very, very careful about who I selected for  both films,  because I could have picked any tap dancer. It could have been Honi Coles, it could have been Buster Brown. I wanted Jimmy Slyde to be in No Maps on My Taps, but he was in Europe. It could have been Lon Chaney. I chose those three dancers because I felt collectively they could tell the story. When it came to About Tap, I picked Chuck Green again because I felt he was such a galvanizing force for the other dancers—they respected him so much. He was institutionalized for many years, but when he came out, he was like a force…he brought all of them together because they respected him so much that I felt it was important to have him in the film. I wanted to capture Jimmy Slyde because I hadn’t in the earlier film, and I wanted to capture Steve Condos because his style was so unique, and they were all so distinctively different. I picked those three because I felt collectively they would show a spectrum of the dance. I felt they really could articulate what they did above and beyond the dance itself, that their way of expressing what they did was bigger than the dance: they put it in a context under which you could view it differently, so what they said enabled you to see inside of who they were and what they were doing.

 

DT:  Let’s go back to the issue of personality. You got to know them pretty well over the course of filming. Can you articulate what it was about their personalities that came out in their dance?

GN:  Bunny Briggs does a little pose where he puts his hands out and his fingernails are out front. He said to me, “You know why I do that? Cause I get my fingernails manicured, and I want people to know I take care of myself.” It’s a perfect thing. No other dancer would say that, but Bunny would. Sandman has his sand dance. It’s his whole identity. He said Bill Robinson was the one who told him he needed that to make a living. He’s able to make those moves, and he came up with the whole thing himself. He lived in California, and there’s a lot of sand there. It was a perfect mechanism for him. He created the board. He’s like any musician: his board was his instrument. Pouring in the sand, putting in the microphone, that was his instrument. He had to make the whole thing.

DT:  Bill Robinson did a sand dance in Stormy Weather.

GN:  He did a sand dance, but Sandman perfected it. He created a board you could stick a mic in,  it had a certain kind of surface. He got a certain amount of sand, he poured it on the board. Bill Robinson tapped up and down stairs. That was his thing. It’s not like nobody else has done a sand dance, but Sandman had the name Sandman, you know what I mean? With that board he’d come up on stage and dance in one little spot. Steve Condos would dance in one spot, too.

 

DT:  Let’s talk about Steve Condos. What was he like?

GN:  Intense. He was so committed to his dance. With all these people, once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. My mother was a tap dance star when she was a child. The height of her career was when she tap danced for the inmates at Sing Sing.

DT:  How old was she?

GN:  Ten.  She’s ninety-one years old now. She can still tap dace, but her knees aren’t very good. She wanted to put together a group of elderly ladies to tap dance on chairs. So once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. It’s part of your being. As far as personality is concerned, Chuck Green is very interesting at the end of About Tap. He has his hat, and he walks off in a certain style, the way only he does. He had this class. It’s really classy the way he walks off like that. Chuck is the only one who could do that. He had this incredibly unique face, which had such sweetness in it, but at the same time he had the capacity to be so angry, like he was at Sandman in No Maps on My Taps.

DT:  Did the challenge dancing usually get that competitive?

GN:  Chuck went in and out of…functionality, let’s say. On the day of that performance, we couldn’t find him. He had disappeared. I had a lot of money riding on that day—Lionel Hampton, his band, the crew, the place, and everything else. And literally Chuck could not be found. He hadn’t shown up at the home the night before. Nobody knew where he was, and now it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and we still haven’t found him.

DT:  When was the show supposed to go on?

GN:  Five o’clock. And we hadn’t found him. Finally he calls the office and they say to him, “Chuck, where are you?” He said, “I’m in a phone booth.” They said, “Look out the phone booth. Where you at?” He said, “I’m at the corner of walk and don’t walk.” Anyway, they found him and brought him up, but when he got there, he was in a certain state of mind that was a bit raw. Sandman could always get under his skin easily, but Sandman also respected Chuck so much, as he expressed so beautifully in No Maps on My Taps. So Sandman was trying to egg him on, it’s just Chuck was not in a state of mind that he could really take it. You could see at the end of the performance that Chuck is doubting himself about how well he did. Bunny is saying, “No, you did good, Chuck.” At the end, Chuck’s brow is being wiped off and he says, “Got no maps on my taps,” which basically means, ‘I can tap dance anywhere. There are no boundaries to my dancing.’ So that’s Chuck. He’s poetry.

 

DT:  Can you talk about the relationship between the dancer and the musicians?

GN: Jimmy Slyde talks about that a lot in About Tap. It’s an interaction, a give and take. Some dancers, like Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, there are a lot of dancers who like to dance without music. Sandman Sims—you notice how he stopped the band from playing—whereas to somebody like Chuck Green, it’s integral. Duke Ellington had Chuck, so that says a lot. When Chuck came out of that institution, he used to dance with knickers. When you asked him why, he said so people could see his feet. He wanted people to see his feet. He had enormous feet. For Jimmy Slyde it’s all about dancing with the music, to the music. When Sandman Sims does a sand dance he always cuts off the music. It starts when he comes out to introduce him, he cuts it off, and then it ends to get him out.

DT:  In that case, that makes sense.

GN: The same thing with Sandman when he dances without the sand. With Bunny, it’s integral to his dance. Everybody has a different approach. Gregory frequently danced without music.

DT:  What about Steve Condos?

GN: Steve Condos considers himself a musical instrument. He feels like he is all of them [the instruments]. He says Louis Armstrong is his inspiration, and Louis Armstrong didn’t play the drums. Steve hears himself, and it’s musical. So everybody was different in their relationship to music, but no matter what, music is an integral part. Whether people use music or not, it’s all musical. They’re just making music with their feet.

Remember, tap didn’t come up with music. It came up on the streets in its origin. So there wasn’t a musical accompaniment. When Chuck was a little kid, he would dance on the street with bottle caps and tar to put taps on his feet, but there wasn’t any music that went along with it. The notion of having actual musicians there wasn’t always possible. When big bands had a tap dancer, that was out of a certain respect. Peg Leg Bates would dance to music.

 

DT:  Do you think that part of the reverence for Chuck Green was his connection to John Bubbles? In tap there’s a lot of respect for the lineage of the teacher.

GN: Absolutely.  To this day. I just showed About Tap at Tony Waag’s place, the American Tap Dance Foundation, and the place was packed. For tap in particular the legacy is extremely important. It’s unusual.

I’m sure that part of the reverence for Chuck was that he was John Bubbles’s student. Sandman talks about lineage really beautifully in No Maps on My Taps. He talks about how Chuck learned from John Bubbles and who John Bubbles was; Bunny Briggs talks about how Bill Robinson wanted him as his protégé but his mother wouldn’t let him go. Had Bunny had that as part of his resume, it could have put him in a different class. That was a very big deal, being the kid act that followed John Bubbles. John Bubbles was extremely famous. He was the original Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. He was also the first one to be kind of a hoofer. He used his heel as much as his toe. Bill Robinson would dance more with the toe in a lot of steps—he didn’t use his heel as much. John Bubbles came along and was a real hoofer. So Chuck learned a lot from John Bubbles. In the phone conversation between the two you can see how much respect Chuck has for John. He calls him “Mr. Bubbles.” Chuck becomes a child.

 

DT:  Are you going to make another tap film?

GN:  If somebody’s willing to fund it, I would make it in a heartbeat. Remember, I shot the dance footage on film, so the sound is a separate element. It’s not like video, where sound and image are tied together. To put them together is very complicated and expensive. All that stuff is housed at the Schoenberg Library, and all the negatives are housed at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, so somebody would have to go up to the Schoenberg Library. When I gave it to them the intention was that they were going to put that stuff together, but they never did.

DT:  Who knows…maybe there’s someone out there who will read this interview and will either want to make the film or give you money to do it.

GN: I would do it in a heartbeat.

 

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