If you can’t help but get happy feet any time you see tap dancing, the next entry in the 2019-20 Northrop Film Series is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. Reel Motion is a series of blog posts about the movies in the series.
In Tap, Gregory Hines stars as an ex-con who returns to his old neighborhood and to his deceased father’s dance studio now run by Little Mo (Sammy Davis Jr. in his last film appearance) and Little Mo’s daughter, Amy (Suzanne Douglas). The melodrama of whether Hines’ Max Washington will return to life as a burglar alongside his old partner (Joe Morton) or reconnect with his community of veteran hoofers and rekindle a previously failed romance with Amy is the thinnest of plots made in an MGM musical mold. It’s all just enough to provide a framework for the real stars of this film, the dancing and the phenomenal dancers on screen.
Written and directed by Nick Castle, whose early film work includes horror and sci-fi classics (he is best known for playing Michael Meyers in the original Halloween and directing The Last Starfighter) it seems odd that a film that nods to classics like Top Hat or gritty fair like Mean Streets would be made by the same guy who once played Michael Meyers. That is, until you learn that Castle is the son of Charles Edward Castle, a choreographer of television and film who’d worked with likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and some of the veteran dancers featured in Tap.
What makes this film particularly special is the supporting cast of Little Mo’s friends that hang out in the apartment above the dance studio. They include Jimmy Slyd, Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, Arthur Duncan, Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers, Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims, and Pat Rico. All of these men are real hoofers that represented the living history of the first American dance form. Tap dancing has developed via oral history, tap dancers learning by watching, hearing, and challenging each other, just as Little Mo’s friends do in the film. And, just as Amy’s son Louis shows others what he’s learned from hanging out at the studio, there is a direct through line from all of these greats of the form to Michelle Dorrance of Dorrance Dance who will be performing her piece Myelination at Northrop on Sat, Oct 19.
Once you’ve seen some of the greats of tap on film, it would be criminal if you didn’t get your tickets to see Dorrance Dance push the boundaries of the first American dance form.
Shayna Houp is Northrop’s Artist Services Manager and curates the Film Series each season.