"Heel, toe and away we go," chanted more than 200 tap dancing enthusiasts as they stepped along a sunny but chilly parade route through the commercial section of Bethesda Sunday.
Organized by Carol Vaughn and D. J. Foster of the Feet First Jazz and Tap Studio at 7244 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, the starting point for the march, this was the first event in an afternoon devoted to the resurging art of tap dance.
"No Maps on My Taps" was the theme for the event, an expression coined by Charles (Chuck) Green, the 63-year-old "Godfather of Tap," to signify the free spirit present in individual tap dance styles.
Howard (Sandman) Sims, 56, who specializes in dancing in the middle of a box of sand, came from New York City to lead the parade and to entertain later in the day. Sims marshaled the tapping and clapping crowd, which included a 1-year-old boy, bundled up and smiling as his mother stepped briskly down the sidewalks, and a 72-year-old tap dancing student.
There were top hats, straw hats, derbies, tuxedos with silver stars sewn on them and bright red sashes labeled V.I.T. ("very important tappers") worn by some of the best local tap dancers. Joining the march were such notables as Charity Ball (she claimed she got the name by marriage), Mr. Rhythm, Joe Jeff, Brother Black, Charles the First and three women from the cast of Arena Stage's "One Mo' Time."
Radio station WEAM broadcast "a tappable program of Big Band music during the parade, and many marchers carried transistor radios. Some, tapping with or without tap shoes, went "Walking the Dog," "Shuffling Off the Buffalo" or did "Flaps" or their own particular shuffles.
The parade was not with incident: A police escort had to detour passing traffic around the procession; the sidewalk was flooded at one point, and a few of the tappers took minor spills.
Many onlookers, including bicyclists, stood with puzzled expressions as the parade passed. Two roller skaters even crashed the tap dancing party for a part of the way.
When the parade had covered its half-mile route, Carol Vaughn, thankful that the earlier drizzly weather had given way to bright sunshine, said she was convinced it was a sign that "God wants everybody to tap dance."
The marchers pulled off their tap shoes and piled into cars for a motorcade to the K-B MacArthur Theater for a screening of the 1978 tap documentary, "No Maps on My Taps." The crowd of tap devotees, which by this time had doubled, was treated to clips of some of the best tappers in history: Bill Bojangles Robinson, whose knack was tapping up and down steps; John Bubbles, the first Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess," and Bunny Briggs, described by Duke Ellington as a "superleviathonic tapsthematicionologist."
Producer George T. Nierenberg was present to speak about his personal efforts to rekindle tap dancing with live shows, assuring exposure for artists of "this neglected cultural form."
Sandman Sims, also one of the stars of the film, offered his views of the past, present and future of tap before entertaining with a show of his own virtuoso footwork. "The white kids went to dance school, but we learned how on the street corners," he said. "Tap dancing began in this country not with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire but with the slaves, dancing in the fields."
Interest in rock groups has been blamed for the temporary neglect of tap dancing. "Dancing was never lost," Sims argued. "People lost dancing, but we're comin' out from underground now and keepin' it alive." Sims is optimistic about the new wave of interest in tap dancing. He said a new program, "Each One, Teach One," is spreading around the country, giving students a foundation of steps. Then the student creates his or her own variations at home.
"Tap teachers want to keep people in dance school for as many years as possible, 'cause they keep payin' good money for it. We still need more dancers to execute this art and tradition of tap dancing."