Why It's the Right Time to Revisit the Movie "Tap"

March 18, 2021

Dance films and series are all the rage these days. But the trend didn’t appear out of thin air. In fact, the current obsession is built on decades of great dance movies. And right now—while you’re still stuck at home and already (beyond!) familiarized with pretty much everything already streaming—might just be the perfect time to look back at one iconic dance movie in particular.

The 1989 film Tap (available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube) isn’t just any dance film. In fact, in tap circles, the movie, which stars the late tap legend Gregory Hines, is an important piece of dance history. Not convinced to watch, yet? We get it—the movie probably premiered before you were born. Here are a few more reasons why it’s the perfect time to catch up on this ultimate tap dance film. (Pssst! Spoilers!)

Points of relatability

Directed by Nick Castle and choreographed by Henry LeTang, Tap follows a man named Max Washington (Hines), who has just been released from prison following a burglary conviction. As he revisits the tap studio his father once owned, he reconnects with Amy (Suzzanne Douglas), who teaches tap to children.

Following some flirty, hard-to-get antics—and an elaborate tap pas de deux, of course—Amy, who’s also working separately on an upcoming Broadway show, tries to persuade Max to perform again. She offers him a spot in her show, which poses a dilemma: Should Max follow his heart and continue making arty dance projects with the dance colleagues of his past, or “sell out,” as he sees it, taking a job that doesn’t challenge him but provides him good pay?

Of course, this is a bridge many artists are forced to cross at some point in their careers, and seeing someone navigate that very reality on the big screen always felt like a nod to all of us who walked the artist life. Times are especially tough for arts industries right now, but this movie offers an optimistic perspective on the value of dance as an art form—and as a way of life.

All-star tap cast

In addition to Hines, the cast features a young Savion Glover and the always-breathtaking Sammy Davis, Jr. When Max’s dance buddies encourage a tap battle by beginning chants for a “Challenge!” a slew of other tap greats make appearances: Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, Arthur Duncan, Howard “Sandman” Sims, Jimmy Slyde, and Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers—if you haven’t, check out their epic, acrobatic dance sequence in the film Stormy Weather).

Each of these tap masters offers their unique style to the sparring: some with such grace that they appear to hover just atop the wood tap floor, others showcasing a more grounded hoofing, playing between deeper-toned base heels and lighter notes on the balls of the feet—and all dancing with extreme precision.

As dance studios across the nation remain closed (or restricted in accessibility) due to the pandemic, dancers would be wise to watch the “Challenge!” scene for a schooling in grade A tap dancing.

Icon street dance scene

In the final scenes of the movie, morale is up, leading Max and his dance friends to rush the streets of New York City for a jam. Using the sounds of the city as their metronome, the group moves between intricate rhythms and show-stopping pizzazz.

There’s a dance phrase in this scene that die-hard fans of the movie have long idolized: a series of alternating syncopated Maxie Fords and scuff pull-backs that Hines and his crew make look as easy as they do cool. The cast’s execution is a perfect combination of technical proficiency and style. And even (especially?) in the monotony of a pandemic, those things matter.