When supposedly dead or outmoded art forms like the Lindy Hop, jazz tap and swing music bring a 1980s audience to its feet, screaming, you've just got to wonder why they were ever pronounced dead in the first place. Thanks to the Smithsonian's spring series, "The American Dance Experience," the hippers and tappers of yesteryear returned, both in the flesh and on film, this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday and created quite a ruckus.
The celebration began when Ernie Smith, premier jazz dance film collector, brought forth reel after reel of rare, mind-boggling footage: Bill "Bojangles" obinson performing his legendary "Stair Dance"; the manic acrobatic tap routines of Harold and Fayard Nicholas; a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. tapping blithely away in oversized top hat and tails.
In addition, Smith offered a cinematic mini-history of social dance in this country, beginning with censored and uncensored versions of an 1893 belly dance, moving on to the Charleston and cakewalk, and ending with three decades' worth of black-and-white Lindy Hopping.
Last night's live performance was magic-carpet time. First Panama Francis and his Savoy Sultans came on to recreate the smooth, velvet sound of the original Sultans, the house band of the Savoy Ballroom back in the '40s. Francis, a perpetually smiling, frenetic drummer, led his eight-man ensemble through such tunes as "Norfolk Ferry" and "Second Balcony Jump," then had them back up both the "Flash Act" -- Sugar Sullivan and her Lindy-Hopping Associates -- and the "Class Act" -- master tapper Chuck Green.
Sullivan is a grandmother with the legs and attitude of a wild teen-ager at her first dance contest. She and her trio of jelly-limbed, hambone hoppers flew through an outrageous display of the shim-sham shimmy, Charleston, truckin', Susie Q and Lindy heaving each other about like laundry bags, dipping and strutting and falling down in feigned stupors.
Chuck Green's hoofing brings to mind such things as bourbon on ice, silk ties, stones being expertly skipped over a placid lake. Sound -- endless cascades of tap magic -- is his bag; his tall, graceful frame moves in spare, minimal ways, allowing the rhythm to take center stage. At times he appears to be skating, or jumping rope, or shaking a stubborn piece of dust off his foot. Watching his crinkly, beaming face, hearing those perfect beats, one cannot help but relive tap's golden age.