Review: Tap World (2015)


“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.

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14 Responses to Review: Tap World (2015)

  1. stevie says:

    There’s a scene in “Bamboozled” that broke my heart yet was so uplifting because of the tap. Savion Glover, who’s brilliant in that movie, leads a stage full of African-American stereotypes – a mammy, some minstrels, a pickaninny, etc, – in a tap that’s been slowed down to the exact perfect speed, somehow each step is weighted with a combination of pain and overcoming pain. You hear Savion at the beginning calling out to take it slow – it’s the speed that makes it powerful. It lasts just a few seconds. The beginning is the catering of stereotypes to the audience; then the rise of the performers and their integrity, communicating their talent, their pain, their strength. I wish I could find the video clip of it. Like you say, there’s anger and power in the step. xxx Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – oh my God, yes, that scene. You describe it perfectly – what a BRILLIANT way to tell the story of pain – then transformation – through the danceform. wow. I want to see it again immediately!

      • stevie says:

        Me, too! That movie rocked my boat and seemed completely misunderstood by most who reviewed it, but Savion – oh he was brilliant.

        • sheila says:

          He really is – I’ve never seen him live. Acocella’s review makes me realize that I have been seriously missing out.

          • stevie says:

            He makes an appearance as Father Time in Barbra Streisand’s Timeless Live in Concert (New Years Eve 2000) – the actress playing 10-year-old Barbra is singing “Could be . . . who knows, there’s something due any day, I will know right away, soon as it shows. . . ” and Savion, standing behind her, opens his blue velvet cape to reveal the inside encrusted in mirrors, envelops young Barbra, turns around, then unfurls to reveal present day Barbra in a Donna Karan turtleneck sleeveless sparkly pantsuit singing, “It may come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose” as the audience erupts in tumultuous applause and Marvin Hamlisch leads the 30-piece orchestra in a series of ever escalating triumphant fanfares. Surely this was the most awkward moment of Savion’s career! I wonder if he knew he would be participating in one of the great camp moments in showbiz history? Super high class, perfectly executed, expensive top notch schmaltz as only Barbra can conceive and execute with that laser-powered intensity of hers. It’s a thrilling ka-pow star reveal moment. And there’s Savion in a dark blue velvet cape, the wings to Barbra’s butterfly head, thorax and abdomen. Awesome.

          • sheila says:

            Stevie – wow, I cannot believe I haven’t seen this.

            // Surely this was the most awkward moment of Savion’s career! I wonder if he knew he would be participating in one of the great camp moments in showbiz history? //


  2. stevie says:

    OMG, he plays Brother Time, not Father Time. And I forgot to mention the pan to the audience, where current hubby James Brolin smiles and applauds in exultant pride as ex-hubby Elliot Gould looks with a sheepish smile at Babs. If Barbra could’ve CGI’d a thought balloon over Elliot’s head, it would have read, “Gee, I really made a mistake letting go of that hottie!”

    • sheila says:

      // current hubby James Brolin smiles and applauds in exultant pride as ex-hubby Elliot Gould looks with a sheepish smile at Babs. //


      Okay I can’t watch this just yet but I cannot waiiiiiiit.

      • stevie says:

        The whole concert is like a pagan ceremony to herself. It’s cringe-worthy yet blissful as only La Streisand can achieve. The whole thing is worth watching – the big Yentl reenactment with mini-Barbra, movie Barbra and now Barbra, all in profile (you can see her irritation at Marvin for letting the orchestra lag at this crucial tech moment) – it’s a zinger. All sort of golden moments. She sings to her son; she sings to Brolin; she has a video discussion with Shirley MacLaine about time travel or some such. Oh, it’s something. I recommend coconut schnaps. Enjoy!

        • sheila says:

          // The whole concert is like a pagan ceremony to herself. It’s cringe-worthy yet blissful as only La Streisand can achieve. //

          It really is incredible how she pulls that off. Well, she’s a genius!

          • stevie says:

            It’s pure self-aggrandisement, but who is more worthy? Cleopatra (or Cher) coming in on a bejeweled elephant…..Mae West convulsing her three black maids with bawdy inuendo as they bedeck her in finery……who else…Napoleon? Hitler?

          • sheila says:

            Elvis in his cape at the International. Who else could get away with that?

            Napoleon/Hitler. HA. Exactly.

            Unashamed and conscious cult of personality. Although Babs/Elvis used it for good.

            “Cleopatra (or Cher)” … hahahahaha

  3. Helena says:

    Just chipping in to say ‘Goodbye, and many thanks, Dissolve’. Your review would have been another fine addition to a film site that was almost too good to be true. Smart, wide-ranging, film rather than clickbait focussed, with great female voices, it also cultivated miraculously good comments. I read it daily, and I’ll miss it.

    • sheila says:

      It really is SUCH a bummer. There is some regularly good feature-length stuff going on on Roger Ebert – although the comments section is not as good (generally – there are exceptions). Most of them just seem irritated that we aren’t Roger. Uhm, he’s dead? No offense.

      But that kind of long-form essay style about something that is NOT going on currently is just … out of style. It’s a horrible thing for film writing. Because then everything on every site becomes the same: “think pieces” on sexism in superhero movies, Lists that keep people clicking, and outrage about trailers or so-and-so was cast in the latest Marvel movie. There’s a place for that kind of thing – I get it – but not ONLY that.

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