"We danced in dumps, we danced in the high places, we danced in the Catskills, we danced for $25 . . ." explains master tapper Bunny Briggs during the course of George T. Nierenberg's outstanding documentary "No Maps on My Taps." And last night at Baird Auditorium, Briggs and his two hoofer colleagues, Chuck Green and Sandman Sims, danced live and on film, danced wild and smooth and fancy and funny, danced as if to make up for the years when tap went out of fashion and they couldn't find work.
Both Nierenberg's film tribute and the trio's live performance were parts of one perfectly wrought whole titled "American Tap Masters," the first offering of the Smithsonian's varied, comprehensive American Dance Experience series. Now in its second season, Dance Experience, organized by Sali Ann Kriegsman, fills in historical gaps, provides a framework for artists and art forms, educates and inspires both the novice and the connoisseur.
The evening began with the film, "No Maps On My Taps" followed the three dancers from rehearsal studio to their high-powered "challenge" at a Harlem nightclub. Briggs' two uncles reminisced about their newphew's younger years; Sims taught his young son a brief routine; Green chatted long distance with his mentor, the great John Bubbles. Watching these men jive and cavort, hearing them talk about the good old days (and the not so good ones), one came to know them rather well.
The live appearance, then, was all the more magical. There in the flesh was the tiny, wide-eyed Briggs, summoning cascades of sound from his legs and feet with a minimum of movement; there came the roustabout Sandman, sweeping and scraping his graceful way over a mound of sand. And then there was Green, shy, awkward, dressed in a baggy tuxedo, coaxing swell-elegant rhythmic patterns out of his spry old feet.