That's Johne' Forge's' clicking fingers you hear behind the bar at Cafe Lautrec.
It's a hot, rainy Tuesday night. Forge's is warming up, the snap of his fingers resounding around the bar, an occasional kataka! of his feet on the wooden floor. He has just slipped a cassette into the tape deck and the jazz that swells out is high-balled, uptown. Holding a pair of tap shoes he Fosby-flops his muscular rump onto the bar counter, his back to the audience.
Tight and compact, he bends his head to lace up the shoes. The mustache is trim, the hair closely cropped. The gray pants squeeze his legs like snakeskin. The body-hugging tuxedo shirt and constricting black bow tie are built to choke. The black and silver suspenders seem to keep him from exploding out of his clothes like Pillsbury Pop'n Fresh Dough. Johne' is vacuum-packed.
Ian, a Jamaican seated at the bar, moves his glass from the bar to the stool next to him. Three other men on adjoining stools, their suits rumpled from a day's worth of office chairs and car seats, follow Ian's example.
"You gonna love this, mon," says Ian.
As Forge's stands up on the bar, a fixed, almost Kabuki smile pasted on his face, the bar crowd lets out anticipatory whoops. A moment later, Johne' Forge's' dancing feet attack a bar counter barely two feet wide.
Under his pumping thighs, the tap shoes talk. They chatter at each other, metallic gossipers at high speed. They click, they clatter, they thump. Your brain stops trying to register the individual taps and instead drinks in the whole percussive symphony, a sound like 20 crickets on uppers. When he hangs in the air briefly to click his heels together, the ladies scream.
"Ow!" shrieks Ian.
The music falls suddenly silent.Forge's taps quietly but furiously. The clattering builds to a crescendo. Louder, faster. Finally he leaps in the air and lands with a triumphant "Ha!"
The crowd stands, cheering. The applause cascades onto 18th Street. Beaded with sweat, Forge's drinks the applause -- a well-earned chaser. Beneath his feet, the bar is dimpled with hundreds of crescent-shaped indentations from almost five years of pedi-percussion.
Born in New Orleans and weaned on French Quarter street hustle, tapping for tourist dollars with bottle caps on the soles of his U.S. Keds, Forge's and his dancing feet have turned an offbeat neighborhood bar act into a citywide attraction. Crowds pack the Lautrec's main room and balcony for "the tap dancer" even on weeknights. Forge's even had a walk-on in the film "St. Elmo's Fire." He's on a roll, riding the tap wave he caught 25 years ago as a kid on Bourbon Street.
"I was always a dancer," he says. "My mum said I used to kick around inside her before I was born. She put the e' on my name. People used to shout down the street, 'Johnee!' and it kinda stuck."
"I've been dancing since I was 6," he says, "11 when I hit the streets.
"I got to know the strippers and the doormen. When you danced outside the clubs , you drew the crowd, so the doormen never turned you away, because it lured the people in.
"It was nothing for a kid to go to Bourbon Street and make $100, $200 a night. You only had the elite, who really had the money, on Bourbon Street. You might get $20 or $50 from one person. I've gotten as much as $300 from one person. Some rich couple would come out and say, 'Which one of you is the best?' We'd do what we call a jam session, where all the kids would come out one after the other. The one who won got the money. A man gave me a burned $100 bill he used to light his cigar."
With those earnings, says Forge's, "I helped my mother and father purchase their home."
Forge's has written these and other memories from the late 1950s and early 1960s into a one-man tap show called "Bourbon," which he is busy trying to peddle around town and in New York. During the day, when not playing with his two dogs, he is on the phone looking for side work. He has worked at different times with Cab Calloway, Art Blakey, Louis Armstong and Lionel Hampton, even dancing at a Lionel Hampton victory party for President Reagan. ("Hey, the way I look at it, it's work.")
He was off-Broadway in 1982 with Melvin Van Peebles' "Champeen" and had a tapping cameo in "The Cotton Club" ("Coppola loved me"), but it never made the final print.
But there were times when tap just wasn't tapping. In the 1960s and '70s Forge's "kind of hung my shoes up for awhile."
"Black people were trying to identify with themselves, saying 'Hey, the man always wants us to tap dance.' Everyone was trying to make me aware of myself. But . . . I had very confident grandparents [of Haitian origin]. My grandfather was an independent businessman, which during that time was unheard of. He always told me that [being black] was nothing to be ashamed of . . . I didn't have that identity crisis like most blacks . . . "
"Greg Hines has really liberated tap. Young people can relate to a young man. When they see [oldtime veterans] Bunny Briggs, Honi Coles, they do come out with that Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Tom kind of thing. That image was very important in the 1940s, those guys had to dance their hearts out. It was the only way they could get a job. What people call Uncle Tom was really survival. I don't condemn those guys, a lot of people do. Showbiz is hard enough these days, imagine what it was like back then for blacks."
At Cafe Lautrec, Forge's said he himself "went through my humiliation period. I had one woman tell me the reason her black drummer friend wouldn't come in was because a black man tap dances at the bar . . . I've been laughed at by my peers and black friends who say 'There he goes with the Ben Vereen thing. Why is the brother doing that?' "
The ready answer, Forge's says, is, "I'm just trying to make a living," but actually, he adds, "I'm one of the most fortunate artists in the city. I have the opportunity to do the thing I love five days, sometimes six days, a week.
"Tap is the only original American art form. Ballet comes from Europe, jazz comes from Africa. Hoofin' comes from the good old U.S.A. Even breakdancing is not an original [American] form. It's Latin. People there have been doing a form of it for hundreds of years."
When he first came to Adams-Morgan in 1972, Forge's says, "there was no entertainment on this street." The Greenwich Village mix of shops and restaurants was a decade away, and he spent years working for an electrical supply shop up the road.
"I had to talk with Andre' Neveu -- the original Lautrec owner for two years to get a spot here," says Forge's. "I sold all the refrigeration to this place, that's how I found out about it."
Returning from a visit to his sick mother in New Orleans, Forge's found all his possessions stolen. Down and out, he had to accept free food from the proprietor of a Jamaican food store. He finally convinced Andre' to give him the job and life has "been a green light ever since . . .I never got the receptiveness like I get in Adams-Morgan.
"I didn't always dance on the bar. My idea was to make it visual, so a lot of people could see. I had to create an arena for everyone to either see me or hear me. I've had the deaf in there and I made them put their hands on the bar to feel the vibrations. To see the expressions on their faces tells you more than a lot of people can tell you verbally.
"When I'm up on the bar, I'm not looking at anyone," says the tap dancer. "Sometimes I'll dance right off the bar and all the way to the front. I've danced on this piano stool, I can dance on a dust bin.
"You need a sense of home," says Forge's, fielding a hug from yet another customer at the bar. "And Cafe Lautrec is my home . . . I feel very faithful to this place . . . All the people in this neighborhood who helped me when I didn't have any money . . . I feel like I'm Adams-Morgan's baby."