Either you love movies in which people suddenly break into tap dance routines to express their innermost desires, or you hate them. If you hate them, you’re in luck – they pretty much don’t exist in modern film any more.
Having said that, there have been some great dancing moments in the last few years, such as Amy Adams having a me party in The Muppets, or Meryl Streep bouncing up and down on the bed in Mamma Mia! But these aren’t tap dances, and they’re much more about enthusiasm than skill. Or High School Musical, Take The Lead and others give us great modern or ballroom dancing, but within the context of people putting on a show, or learning to cut a rug. The dancing is not integral to the emotions of the characters in the same way that, say, Gene Kelly swinging round a lamppost in the rain because of the sheer joy of being alive is an outpouring of feeling.
So what makes a tap dance a tap dance? Tap dancing is about the sound of the taps on the shoes striking the floor, making their own rhythm. It has roots in clog dancing and Irish dancing, and then became a fixture in its own right in Vaudeville theatre, with performers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson becoming famous enough to inspire a few songs and films. Then tap made the shuffle ball change over to the big screen, and a host of new stars were born.
Alas, sound production wasn’t good enough to capture the real time tapping, so often performers recorded the sounds afterwards in the studio, using a ‘tap board’. Still, it didn’t dent audience enjoyment. Tap dancing enjoyed huge popularity throughout the thirties and forties, but rock and roll came along in the 50s and changed the game.
There have been some resurgences of tap dancing, both on film and in theatre, and it remains a keen dance choice for those who choose to take lessons themselves, but the heyday of tap seems to be definitely behind us. So for those of us who still love those tappers, here’s a chronological list of ten of the best films you can watch to see real, brilliant, astonishing tap dancing – the kind where you’re in awe of the ability of the performer, and the beats from the tap shoes blur together to form a music all of their own…
1. Swing Time (1936)
There’s no piece of tap-dancing fluff that’s as perfectly put together as Swing Time. It’s not just the dancing – the script is funny and charming, and the performances are quirky and engaging. And the music (by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields) is as light and quick as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ footwork.
It also has a fun and not too taxing plot. Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is a Vaudeville hoofer who wants to get married, but his sweetheart’s father will only accept him into the family if he proves he can provide financially. So, not being too keen on hard work, Lucky decides to go to New York and become a professional gambler instead. There ensues a lot of complications involving bumping into a dance instructor called Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) but it’s not difficult to follow. But then, when dancers are at the top of their game, they never make it look anything but easy. Astaire and Rogers take to the floor to a song as carefree as Pick Yourself Up, and everything seems to fall naturally into place.
2. Broadway Melody Of 1940 (1940)
MGM released a number of Broadway Melody movies, and this was the fourth and last one. It features Fred Astaire and the magnificent Eleanor Powell.
When Fred dances with Ginger, you see him lead her with effortless artistry, and they make beautiful lines together. When he dances with Eleanor Powell, you see something quite different. They often stand side by side and make the same moves, daring each other to faster, better steps. The dance becomes a competition, and it may be the only time you consider the idea that Astaire might lose.
Eleanor Powell’s career started on Broadway, and she soon became famous as ‘the world’s greatest tap dancer’. She had long legs and an elastic torso, thin and bendy, and she had a staccato style, all attack and exuberance, with boundless energy. Broadway Melody is a pleasant movie with some phenomenal dances. It highlights how talented she was, and gives us the unique opportunity to watch Astaire dance with an equal. Just watch the finale, Begin The Beguine, and you’ll see what I mean.
3. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
If Fred Astaire was the most graceful dancer on the screen, and Gene Kelly was the most energetic, then James Cagney was the most enthusiastic. Nobody leaps around with such a lightness to his body, a big smile on his face, chin held high as if daring you to try to resist his appeal. He may be best known as a master gangster in so many great films, but he was also an exceptional tap dancer, having started out as a song and dance man on the stage long before the tough-guy image caught the imagination of Hollywood’s producers.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is the story of composer and patriot George M Cohan. Cohan’s life story is told as a kind of all-American parable – working hard and playing fair will bring its own rewards – and Cagney has an enjoyable fervour in his performance. He plays Cohan from a young man to an old one, and we believe in him, and in the story, in a kind of dreamlike way that one believes in fairy tales. It’s a great film to surrender yourself to, and get involved in a better world, with homespun truths along the way.
There’s a moment at the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy where Cagney does an amazing feat in tap dancing. He walks down a long flight of stairs with a spring in his step, and starts to do single wings as he goes. Wings involve brushing your foot out, then striking the ground with the ball of the foot before you land on that same foot without shifting your weight. It takes years of practice to be able to do it well, and Cagney does a host of them. Effortlessly. While walking downstairs. And quietly smiling away. Wow.
4. For Me And My Gal (1942)
Judy Garland was a big star by the time Gene Kelly got the part playing her love interest in For Me And My Gal – this was his first screen role, and it’s a meaty role, playing Harry Palmer, an opportunistic hoofer who would rather not go and fight in World War One. He’s morally ambiguous in a way you don’t often see in musicals.
Garland plays Jo Hayden, and she’s just so bright-eyed and likeable in this film, with her innocence and her feelings written large across her face. She and Kelly sing and dance so beautifully together – not in a showy way, but as a complementary pairing, and you find yourself willing them both to overcome their problems. Garland’s not the best tap dancer mentioned here, but she had a unique charm, and she uses it well here.
This film, like Yankee Doodle Dandy, uses World War One as a backdrop to raise patriotic feelings during World War Two. Both films are stirring stuff. Imagine sitting through those in the cinema during 1942. You would have waved your flag and bought war bonds too.
5. Stormy Weather (1943)
If you want to see Mr Bojangles do his stuff, here’s your chance. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson appears in this, a biopic of his own life, along with a host of performers who often never got much of a chance on the silver screen because of the colour of their skin. Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne can all be found here, providing brilliant musical and dance numbers.
And then there are the Nicholas Brothers. A tap dancing duo from Philadelphia, they are still considered by many dancing professionals to be the greatest tap dancers that ever lived. Their sheer strength and energy enabled many moves that would defeat others; in the Jumpin Jive! number they pull themselves up from the splits many times without using their hands, simply drawing their legs together as if on strings. They leapfrog each other down a giant flight of stairs into the splits, and they jump over musical instruments and the big band with a deceptive lightness. Fred Astaire called it the greatest musical dance number ever filmed.
6. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a silent movie star. He’s adorned by millions. But the time of the talkies is upon us, and his co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has a voice like a Brooklyn train wreck. Luckily, starlet Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), with the pipes of an angel, might be able to save the day.
The strength of Singin’ In The Rain lies in the fact that it manages the rare trick of being nostalgic and ironic at the same time. It remembers fondly an era when lines of flappers danced in the first musical pictures, and then it lambasts that era in the next breath with squeaky, catchy numbers like All I Do Is Dream Of You. The film has its cake and eats it too, using all the benefits of rose-tinted nostalgia. The title song is actually from the 1920s, and many versions had been made by artists such as Jimmy Durante and Judy Garland, so viewers would have felt like they were in familiar territory from the opening credits.
There’s a lot of talk about Kelly driving Debbie Reynolds to tears and Donald O’Connor to exhaustion, and maybe he did. But he got results. The dance to the song Good Morning is a perfect piece of tapping – all speed and staccato rhythm, fun and fast and fabulous.
7. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
This Cole Porter musical is a modern version of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, and it has one of those scores that makes you want to sing along. Nothing is small in this story of a divorced theatrical couple (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson) who are reluctantly reunited for a stage play – it was one of the first 3D musicals, and its all bright colours, big sets, and enormous dance routines choreographed by Hermes Pan.
From This Moment On is a brilliant bit of dancing, by gifted dancers such as Bob Fossey and Carol Haney, but the real star of Kiss Me Kate is, for me, Ann Miller. She was one of the great tap dancers, but always played second-fiddle in Hollywood, being given supporting roles and one or two numbers of her own. In Easter Parade she does a great job of Shaking The Blues Away, and here she sizzles in It’s Too Darn Hot. She tap dances in a living room, on the table, on a sofa, and steals the show.
8. Tap (1989)
Tap dancing saw a resurgence in the 80s, with Gregory Hines leading the charge. Hines was a fast, funky, rhythmical dancer, bringing a new style of tap to a wider audience, concentrating on the sounds and tempos he could produce, but he was also very keen to keep alive the heritage of his chosen dance form. Tap is a film that brings together those two sides of his life perfectly.
Tap features Hines as Max Washington, just released from prison and looking to get back his old life, his family ties, and his girlfriend. It’s hardly a new plot, but the real success of this movie lies with the representation of the older generation – Hines’ father is played by Sammy Davis Jr, and there are a lot of veteran dancers that show they still know how to do their stuff in a really fun scene: Bunny Briggs, Howard Sims, and Harold Nicholas (one of the Nicholas Brothers) are all there.
Tying together the old and new is done so well here. Look at the street dance scene, where Max explains how to take inspiration from the sounds of the city. An innovative approach where crowds dance along to road workers and drummers suddenly takes us back 50 years as one of the dancers performs an unmistakeable Nicholas Brothers move. It’s a great fusion.
9. Stepping Out (1991)
I’ve listed some films that show how tap dancing can be phenomenal when done by experts, but this film is about something different – how much fun it can be to tap when you’re rubbish at it. Liza Minnelli plays Mavis Turner, a tap dance instructor with dreams of making it big, but right now she’s stuck teaching a group of no-hopers, and there’s a local charity performance coming up which she’s choreographing. Fear of embarrassment at record levels, Mavis forms The Mavis Turner Tappers, and work commences.
Director Lewis Gilbert uses a great and idiosyncratic cast to tell a traditional story that won’t bring any surprises but does a great job of taking you on an emotional journey. It’s about the joy of dancing, and Julie Walters, Shelley Winters, Ellen Greene, and Jane Krakowski make you feel the connection between your dreams and your feet, even if the two don’t work in harmony all the time.
10. Billy Elliott (2000)
Billy Elliott (Jamie Bell) is a young boy growing up in a mining town without hope, or a future. He feels trapped in his life, as if he doesn’t really belong there. And there’s no other way to express this feeling but through dancing. Basically, it’s Kes with the bird taken out and ballet shoes put in.
It’s great to see a modern film that incorporates dancing as part of the emotional landscape. Billy dances to keep from bursting. The best expression of this is in the scene where he tap dances out of the house and down the street, scraping his shoes and hands against the bricks to the sounds of The Jam’s Town Called Malice. In a film which is mainly about ballet dancing, it’s interesting to note that the emotion of anger is portrayed here through tap. It’s as if tap can be wilder, freer, more of a release.
Maybe there’ll come a time in movies once more where that connection between dancing and emotion is brought to the forefront, and we’ll accept that moving your feet is not a crime to realism. I, for one, am hopeful for more films like the ones listed here. Here’s hoping we’ve not seen the end of film tap-dancing yet.
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