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ICYMI: Tap (1989)


From the time I was ten until about twenty, rarely did a week go by that I wasn’t spending at least one a week tap dancing to my heart’s content. Was I any good? I had my moments. I had no Broadway aspirations or any true natural ability to get me very far but over time I accepted my limitations and just enjoyed whatever movement and sound I could create. I may never have lived up to my idols like Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr and The Nicholas Brothers but tap brought me joy and occasional inner peace.

For anyone interested in experiencing the magic of tap dance, look no further than 1989’s Tap. From Director Nick Castle (The Last Starfighter, The Boy Who Could Fly) comes a somewhat cliched but very stylish and genuine tribute to tap and just a few of its legends. The film stars the inimitable Gregory Hines as Max Washington, a former tap hopeful who found his father’s legendary shoes hard to fill. Max eventually gave up on his natural trade and became a thief. As the film starts, we see him in jail during his latest stint. When a water drip keeps him awake in the middle of the night, he straps on his shoes and dances his insomnia and frustration away. It’s a truly virtuoso scene, watching Hines display the talent and athleticism that made him a legend. Personally, it’s a reminder of the potentially therapeutic nature of tap dance.

After he gets out, Hines finds himself back at his late father’s dance studio, which is now run by his ex-girlfriend, Amy (the equally talented Suzzanne Douglas). Hines reconnects with the old gang which includes Amy’s father, Little Mo (Sammy Davis, Jr.), Amy’s teenage son, Louis (Savion Glover) and Little Mo’s old-time hoofer buddies. Soon, we are treated to the highpoint of the film, “The Challenge.”

For those not in the know, a challenge is a tool used by old school tappers when they test each other’s skills not unlike a modern-day rap battle. When Hines accidentally insults Davis, pure movie magic ensues with a who’s who of dancing legends including Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, and Harold Nicholas (half of the famous Nicholas Brothers) showing they all have plenty left in the tank. It concludes with Hines and Davis, Jr. going to head to head in a scene that is simply sublime. Watching these lifelong friends and legends “challenge” is the stuff of tap dancers’ dreams. Director Castle keeps things simple, keeping all performers in full frame and using very few cuts.

Tap does include a “necessary” subplot about Hines’ former criminal partners trying to rope him in for another score which is needed to provide conflict but is ultimately dismissed. Thankfully there are still plenty of numbers that make the film memorable. These scenes include:

  • Hines giving an improv class in the middle of Times Square focused on the sounds of the city and concluding at a construction site

  • Savion Glover being tasked with teaching a reticent boy some moves and giving an entire class (as well as the audience) a glimpse of his future eye-popping talent

  • The finale where Hines, using synthesizer enhanced shoes, brings the past, present and possible future of tap together

Sadly, Tap didn’t perform well at the box office and is rarely mentioned in the recent history of dance movies but the fact that it includes such luminaries as Hines, Davis, Jr., and Glover should make it more than noteworthy. It’s an amazing showcase for an amazing form of dance. And while Savion Glover has never displayed the visibility of Gregory Hines (who passed away in 2003) I do hold out hope the torch will be passed to the next generation sometime soon. As far as I’m concerned, a life without tap dance is dull and somewhat meaningless. Watch 1989’s Tap and prove me wrong.

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