“Rhythm is the international language.” That’s just one quote of many about the importance of rhythm in Dean Hargrove’s Tap World a celebration of the global tap dancing community. Coming in at a brisk 72 minutes, Tap World makes its points efficiently, with no pretensions. The dancing far outweighs the talking. And the pure joy is often infectious.
Produced by tap-dancing sisters Chloe and Maud Arnold (who both appear in the film), Tap World does not take an academic approach, although Constance Valis Hill, tap historian and author of Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, is the one official “talking head,” providing context and historical perspective. She points out that Irish indentured servants and Africans, captured into slavery, were transported to the Caribbean at around the same time, two ancient cultures with stomping-feet dance traditions. The stomp of rage and resistance. The original 1995 production of Riverdance made that cultural continuum explicit by featuring American tap dancers alongside the Irish stepdance company.
One dancer in Tap World observes, “Jazz brought a lot of different cultures together. So did tap dancing.”
The dancers featured in Tap World are a diverse bunch, proving the dancer’s point, but all are devoted to maintaining the integrity of tap. “We have to pay homage to the guys who came before us,” says one guy. Alaman Diahjio, an 11-year-old dancer, says, “I see us as dancers and musicians and performers and historians.” Seminal figures like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Gregory Hines, the Nicholas Brothers, inspire the current-day dancers.
One young guy from New Jersey lost a leg to cancer when he was in college, derailing his dance career. As devastating as that loss was, he says that he thought of “Peg Leg” Bates, a famous one-legged dancer, born in 1907, who made a career out of tapping with his “peg leg.” If Peg Leg could keep on going, so could he.
One dancer traveled to Johannesburg and encountered the African gumboot dance, with its exhilarating blend of stamping feet and rapid clapping, and was stunned by its clear cultural connection to American tap. Developed by the miners who worked the mines in South Africa, not allowed to speak, the stamping and clapping became a way for them to communicate with one another. Through suffering, an artform was born.
The interview structure of Tap World is simple and clear: the film swoops around the world, from New York, to Paris, to Taipei, introducing the tap community in each. Tap dancing isn’t a lucrative career. All of the dancers have to teach to make ends meet. There’s a lack of careerism in the interviews, resulting in people talking in terms of pure passion and love, like the one dancer in Tokyo who works three jobs to support her dancing, saying her love for tap is “higher than a mountain and deeper than the ocean.” The personal stories vary widely, but they all say a similar thing: Other dance forms are about rhythm, but tap is about rhythm and sound, and this is the essential difference, the compelling pull.
Here is where “Tap World” almost reaches profundity. Ultimately what tap is about is communication: communication between dancers on the stage, “talking” to one another through the taps even if they don’t speak the same language. Chloe Arnold, an American tap dancer, taught at a tap academy in Japan, and ended up not needing a translator during the classes. She and her students communicated perfectly through dance. One of the best sections in the film features the ongoing collaboration between Chitresh Das, a 62-year-old master at the Indian classical dance known as Kathak, featuring rapidly tapping bare feet, and Jason Samuels Smith, an American tap dancer. Watching these two dancers, from two totally different backgrounds and cultures, perform together, pushing each other competitively, all in front of an Indian audience roaring their approval is the clearest example of the film’s “pure communication” message.
The dancers’ stories are fine, but the reason to see the film is to see these people dance, to celebrate what they can do. Tap World is filled with dance footage: dancers in studios, in class, in performance. There’s something martial about the sound of all that tapping, an invigorating assault on the senses. As one dancer says in Tap World: you should be able to get the whole story of a tap dance, even if you close your eyes. (At that point the screen goes to black, and the vigorous tapping continues. Just to test the theory.) The closing number of Riverdance sounds like a call to arms. Of course, enjoy the dance itself, but try just listening to it.
In a 2004 review of Om, the show created by Savion Glover – the best tap dancer in the world currently, Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, wrote:
Certain rhythmic patterns that Glover came up with made me think of something visual—a locomotive, a whirlpool—and, of course, they were always audial. But eventually I seemed to enter a kind of pan-sensory spell. Instead of getting sights or sounds or even emotions, I felt I was hanging in the air above them all. This is what Kandinsky and the other mystical-minded artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were looking for, and it’s apparently what Glover is looking for, too.
Tap World catches that vibe a bit, especially in its open-hearted appreciation for the sound of the taps, and what that sound can mean. Tap World takes tap dancing seriously, but the main impression one gets while watching is how much these dancers love and respect tap dancing, and how fully they have devoted themselves to that love. It’s a pleasure to be in their collective presence, even if it’s only for 72 minutes.
Tap World opens tomorrow in U.S. theaters.