About halfway through producer Jane Goldberg's engaging 1983 video documentary By Word of Foot, Charles "Honi" Coles -- a tall, slender master of "rhythm tap dancing" -- demonstrates the language of this quintessential American art form for an appreciative group of students, sprawled behind him on a stage.
"And then I said," Coles deadpans, immediately firing off several seconds' worth of elegant, effortless steps, before stopping to repeat, "And then I said," and segueing into a different set of beguiling moves. Coles makes a half-dozen such "statements," a one-way conversation that effectively invokes the vernacular of rhythm tap while simultaneously displaying its physical and emotional appeal.
Working with funds from an NEA grant, Goldberg, a New York City tap dancer and teacher at the time, and Miami-based dancer and teacher Katherine Kramer corralled Coles and sixteen other rhythm tap avatars -- including John Bubbles, the genre's godfather, and Gregory Hines, its biggest star -- for a weeklong summit in Greenwich Village in October 1980 that united the dancers with eager devotees. (The film closes the Miami Jazz Film Festival.)
"We wanted to show that this type of tap dancing could be passed on -- it wasn't a museum piece," explains Goldberg, speaking on the phone from her apartment in Manhattan. "It should be shown as a contemporary art." Back then, she adds, "There were very few people studying rhythm tap."
Inextricably linked to jazz, rhythm tap emerged from both African-American and Irish dance traditions, making the transition to the vaudeville stage with the introduction of aluminum taps early in the Twentieth Century. It peaked as a performance art in the 1930s and 1940s, figuring prominently as part of the acts of big bands and in Hollywood musicals.
But rhythm tap's popularity waned in the 1950s, and by the time Goldberg discovered it as a twentysomething in 1974 -- she's now 55 -- "It already was considered a lost art," she recalls. Her teachers included Coles and Charles "Cookie" Cook, who also appears in By Word of Foot. "When I couldn't pick up the steps," Goldberg remembers, "I started interviewing them. Their stories were so fascinating."
Unwittingly she became an amateur rhythm tap anthropologist, with the By Word of Foot summit -- and subsequent film -- functioning as her dissertation. Persuading the tap greats, many in their sixties and seventies, to participate proved a problem. "They didn't want to be taped," Goldberg notes, "because they felt like there was a lot of money to be made from it, or their act would be stolen." Eventually, however, she won them over, giving each the copyright to his or her performance.
Only a handful of the seventeen master dancers remains alive, and in retrospect the documentary serves as a moving testimonial. Along with his elders, Hines too is gone, dying this past August at age 57. As Goldberg, who was Hines's friend and enjoyed a cameo in his 1989 film Tap, puts it: "He never even got to be an old hoofer."