In the jazz age, tap was queen to jazz's king, and then the unique dance form quietly slipped away.
But it's back now, in sizzling staccato style, the pounding rush of rhythmic feet - the energy and excitement of tap.Tap dancing is big, as evidenced by the new movie, "Tap," the Broadway show "Black and Blue" and the rash of tap festivals around the nation.
"Tap" is the first non-documentary movie about tap dancing in decades. It stars Gregory Hines, tap's most visible practitioner and booster, who also tapped in the 1985 movie "White Nights" with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.
"Black and Blue," a revue featuring tap dance, opened on Broadway in January with three singers and 24 dancers. Five are veteran hoofers, the eldest 79. There also is a trio of youngsters, including wunderkind Savion Glover, who also co-stars in "Tap."
Last year tap festivals were held in Boulder, Colo., Boston and San Francisco, and more are scheduled for later this year in Portland, Ore., Houston and Washington. There's also been a resurgence in tap dance classes, which actively are competing with aerobics and dance-exercise classes for students.
In January, the Jazz Tap Ensemble performed Morton Gould's "Tap Dance Concerto" with the Minnesota Orchestra.
And if House Joint Resolution 662 passes, then May 25 will be National Tap Dance Day. It marks the anniversary of the 111th birthday of one of the greatest tappers of all time, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
The Four Step Brothers were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last July, and the Young Step Brothers from St. Louis did some flashy dancing to celebrate it. Honi Coles won the Capezio Dance Award in 1988, a first for a tapper. And on March 17, PBS' "Great Performances: Dance in America" will present an hour devoted to tap dancing - another first.
Sammy Davis Jr. and the 71-year-old Sandman Sims co-star in "Tap" along with some other wonderful old-timers who recall vaudeville, the Cotton Club, 1940s Hollywood musicals and Broadway before ballet choreographers moved in and changed show dancing. They also remembered popular music before the big bands faded and rock and disco became too loud to hear the tapping of talented shoes. But "Tap" isn't nostalgia. Its storyline promotes one of Hines' pet contentions, that tap dancing can be an exciting, up-to-date art form. He taps to the music - and city sounds - of today.
"I can't fulfill all the work they give me. They all know me in Harlem. I can't walk out on the street without somebody showing me a time step," says Sims.
There's a difference between tap dancers and hoofers, he said. The Copasetics - a slang word once used to mean A-OK - seen in "The Cotton Club" movie, were tappers, using heel and toe. Hoofers use the whole foot and take their sounds from what they hear around them, as Hines' character does in "Tap."
"I told Gregory, `At the end of this movie, people will know the truth,' " Sims said.
He remembers growing up in the desert near the California-Mexico border and dancing on sand. When he went to New York he got a box and made his sound and reputation dancing in sand. It wasn't salt, as some have said: "Salt's too sticky. You can't get your feet to move in salt."
When he was 14, he hungered to dance, but had no money and spent most of his time peeping in the windows of a Los Angeles tap school.
"I got put in jail," Sims said. "I had to go to court to get loose. This is a true story. I told the judge I wasn't loitering. I like to see how they dance because I try to be a buck dancer. He told them to clear the chairs and desks away and to let him see what I did. I danced a little bit and he said, `Case dismissed!' "
Soon after, Sims moved to New York. "If I saw a dancer, I'd challenge him. I didn't care who it was. The way to get known in New York was to be the best. That's what I strived to be. It has kept me going."
Harold Nicholas started as a child at the Cotton Club with his older brother, Fayard, who played hooky from school and learned steps from vaudeville. Harold is in "Tap," and proves he can still do a split. Fayard choreographed one number in "Black and Blue."
When the brothers appeared in Hollywood movies in the '40s, choreographer Nick Castle thought up "mad tricks" for the pair to do, Harold said. Nick Castle Jr. wrote and directed "Tap."
Most of the tappers had to take other jobs during the lean years, said Henry Le Tang, 73, who choreographed "Tap" and most of "Black and Blue." Honi Coles weathered those years working at the Apollo Theater. Harold Nicholas spent the '50s working in Europe. Le Tang, who always loved to teach, opened a tap school when he was 20.
Le Tang is confident that tap will resume its proper position in the arts.