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Tapped In

Jane Goldberg shares an insider’s perspective on a dance tradition

Mindy Aloff
December 08, 2008

During the late 1960s, when Washington, D.C. native Jane Goldberg was a student of the historian and playwright Howard Zinn at Boston University, she thought she was on her way to becoming a socially conscious journalist who would help to realize Zinn’s pronouncement that, “If you can’t liberate the world, you must liberate the ground upon which you stand.” Then came Goldberg’s eureka moment, in the unlikely form of a book review: Jack Kroll’s account, in Newsweek, of Arlene Croce’s landmark study The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book. Goldberg had never even seen an Astaire-Rogers film, but the article inspired her: She sought out other books on tap dancing, and enrolled in tap classes. And then she started to seek out the wonderful, famous, and, for the most part, African-American tap soloists (John Bubbles, Charles “Honi” Coles, Chuck Green, her eventual teacher and stage partner Charles “Cookie” Cook) whose golden age had been during the big-band and bebop jazz years of the 1930s and 1940s and who, thanks to the advent of television and rock and roll, had become sidelined from show business.

Ever the Renaissance woman, Goldberg put herself at the service of this older generation to bring them back into the limelight, arranging tap festivals, gathering oral histories, and, as in the case of Cook, performing with them, too. Her 40-year tap odyssey took her across the United States, to the Hollywood set of Nick Castle’s movie Tap (for which she served as a consultant and in which, at the request of her longtime friend and star of the film, Gregory Hines, she also appeared), and as far as India, where she brought her “rhythm-and-schmooze” tap act to quizzical audiences in Nehru jackets and saris. Some of her many achievements and tribulations, along with illuminating portraits of tappers she has spent time with—from Ginger Rogers to Meredith Monk—make terrific reading in her new memoir, Shoot Me While I’m Happy: Memories from The Tap Goddess of the Lower East Side.

You say that you came to an understanding of the difference between Broadway tap and jazz tap, and between show tap” and the real thing.” In tap dancing, what is the real thing”?

The first time I heard that expression was when Sammy Davis, Jr. used it in the movie Tap. He said, “In tap, we don’t go ‘5-6-7-8.’ We go, ‘UH, uHH. Bad um UH, uHH badum.’” Now, I just took the line the way he said it [that “real” means]: “black,” though he never said “black.” He might have meant that “real” means more syncopated and more…uncounted. That “real tap” was more old-school-on-the-streets, that it wasn’t taught, that it was self-taught.

Dance teachers would never say that what Gregory [Hines] was doing was “improvising.” You know the steps and you pull them out and do them differently every time. That’s why Gregory wanted the word “improvography” to be more popular than it is. He used to have trouble with directors, say, for TV. They’d say, Where are you going to land?” And he couldn’t say exactly. He knew what steps he was going to be doing, but they were never the same twice…He used “improvography” in the credits of The Cotton Club and Tap. Savion [Glover] even named his show Improvography, but he never explained where the word came from.

For “show tap,” it matters a lot how one looks. You used to perform in high heels—wasn’t that constricting to the percussive dance effects you could produce? Isn’t “the real thing” in tap also about the many subtle changes of texture in the sound?

I don’t think you’re looking for an individual sound when you’re auditioning for a Broadway show. The Honi Coles school of rhythm tap, and that world in general, was about getting your own sound, as an individual.

Women were all wearing men’s shoes. I could buy a pair of Capezio 360 low-heel men’s tap shoes for $40, and I had to decide whether $40 for an hour of psychotherapy was worth it, when I could get a pair of Capezio tap shoes. I remember making that distinction: $40 for 40 minutes, or $40 for a pair of 360s with 20,000 taps in them!

Wasn’t the issue of costumes and shoes for women in tap the occasion of some arguments with your friend Gregory Hines?

I think he did come around. He focused so much on women and wardrobe, and I said to him, “Why don’t you just let us decide what we want to wear?” his idea of sexy was not loose and comfortable. What was so ironic was that I was the one who danced with cleavage and high heels, but I was still defending the loose and comfortable.

Savion Glover sounds like an entire orchestra when he’s tapping.

There was a very famous scene at a Grammys, when Savion was pitted against the Irish dancer, the famous Michael Flatley. Gregory said that was really important time for Savion: they challenged each other, and it was clear that Savion had much more technique.

You use the word “challenge” when you write about tap. Would you explain what the reference is there?

Tap, at its red-hot core, is about competition and challenge. Guys younger than Gregory may not like the challenge mentality, but they still know who the champ is. They like to think that they’re as good as Savion; and they are all really good. But in that black male tradition—tap and boxing came out of the same era. A couple of tappers from Bubba Gaines’s act were also boxers.

The challenges that interest me the most are the ones that don’t even happen on stage but that you just hear about. Like this guy, Groundhog, who was from Cincinnati. [Jazz dance historian] Marshall Stearns set up a venue at The Village Gate with Chuck Green and others. And he literally beat all the guys, and then he just fled back to Cincinnati. He wasn’t in it for the profession; he was in it just for the feet!

There are so many Jews, whom you discuss in your book, who have been part of tap—Carl Schlesinger, Mura Dehn, Sammy Davis, Jr., of course, who converted. And it worked the other way, too. Honi Coles goes to Seder at your house. . .?

And he knew more Yiddish than I did, because he had worked in the Catskills. He really did. All those dancers! Look, Jennie Grossinger hired all of them!

Would you speak a little about your Hebrew tap”?

I was hanging out with a girlfriend in a temple in South Orange, New Jersey, and I just started tapping to, “A-DON o-LOM, a-SHER Mo-LACH.” I got into that, but I never thought I’d use it in my act. Then I did a [demonstrates] “Ba-RUCH, a-TAH, A-don-AI ch-ch-ch-ch.” That’s a soft shoe. Cookie [Cook] really liked that, and he got off on doing his roots in sand dancing. So that was part of our act.

Yeah, I found that Hebrew was very conducive to tap dancing. I used to love to go to Hebrew school, just for the singing parts. You could really tap to it.

What music is tappable and what is not?

Savion asked me once why the guys I worked with, who were from the 1930s and 40s, didn’t tap to the music they were listening to now, rather than stay in swing music. In other words, Buster Brown might listen to Mel Tormé, but he’d only tap to his work song, “Cute” [a Neil Hefti chart for Count Basie]. I think jazz lends itself to tap, because the two really evolved at the same time. I can tap to Bob Dylan, so I am answering Savion’s question about tapping to music that I listened to, when I came of age. But I think the purest sound—I’ll get in trouble for this—is really jazz music and tap.

A friend just sent me CDs from the 1980s, and I’d listen and list off “tappable” or “not tappable.” It just depends on the song. Rock is a little bit square. Van Morrison is very tappable, Dylan. And I’m still very old-school: I don’t play CDs [in classes]. I teach to my singing.

Watch a clip from the companion DVD to Shoot Me While I’m Happy