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Tapping the Source of Inspiration

June 26, 1988|JULIE WHEELOCK

On a crowded sound stage at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood three tap-dancers representing as many generations are gathered around a video monitor, watching the replay of a dance routine from their movie-in-progress, "Tap." They are choreographer/teacher Henry Le Tang, 73, "Tap" star and former Le Tang student Gregory Hines, 42, and Savion Glover, 14, current Le Tang protege and featured dancer in the routine.

After the tape rolls, Glover, who starred in "The Tap Dance Kid" on Broadway, pays attention as Le Tang makes a suggestion and Hines shows him a step variation. The take is reshot to everyone's satisfaction.

For years the art of tap has been passed down from veteran to newcomer in just this feet-on-the-floor way, with dancers trading steps. And for years Le Tang has been involved in the process, first as a student of tap great Buddy Bradley and later as teacher of such entertainers as Billie Holiday, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, Hinton Battle and Debbie Allen.

Le Tang, who began dancing at age 7 and first performed professionally as a teen-ager with Sophie Tucker and her son, notes the continuity of this coaching method. "John Bubbles was my idol, and if he'd see me doing something as a kid he'd come over and say, 'Hey, let me show you a different way,' like we do now with Savion."

With choreographic credits that include Broadway shows "Eubie" and "Sophisticated Ladies," the movie "Cotton Club" and the international revue "Black and Blue," Le Tang is excited about his current film project, which stars Sammy Davis Jr. as well as Hines. It is tentatively scheduled for release by Tri-Star in November.

Conceived and directed by Nick Castle Jr., whose father was a noted film choreographer, the film doesn't just include tap numbers--it's about tap-dancing, and Le Tang feels the art will finally be properly showcased.

"We show a completely different approach to tap because we're using all modern, original music instead of the old standards, and audiences will see tap as it is today. I definitely think this movie will bring back tap."

Le Tang has his own theories about why tap-dance diminished in popularity in the 1940s. "Times change and the business changed after Agnes de Mille choreographed 'Oklahoma!,' " he says.

"Commercial ballet became more prominent and at the same time nightclubs and theaters that used to book dance acts were closing. So you had no outlet for these performers and no audiences to see them. If you wanted to work, you took what you could find or you quit tapping and learned to do other kinds of dance."

Some of the problems of this tap demise are dealt with in "Tap," and intrinsic to the plot is the inclusion of "the hoofers," seven master dancers from tap's heyday: Bunny Briggs, Steve Condos, Arthur Duncan, Harold Nicholas, "Sandman" Sims, Jimmy Slyde and Pat Rico, plus Davis. Even with so many experts to choreograph for, Le Tang claims he encountered no temperament.

"We must have shot the hoofer's number in about 12 minutes," he says. "There was no attitude because this is maybe their last opportunity to really show their talent on the screen together and they wanted to look good. Most of it was improvisational and it was like a tap challenge, with everyone doing his best steps. I just made sure the contrast between the steps was great enough.

Speaking about this hoofers' screen reunion, Hines (a Le Tang student at 4) says: "I think maybe Henry is the only tap choreographer who could have worked on this movie. It's his image with the hoofers that lent this project credibility for them. They respect him and his ability to spot a person's strengths and choreograph to those strengths. Anybody who's put on tap shoes and been around Henry knows, he's The Man."

According to Le Tang, his choreographic method is always "off the top of my head. I never have a master plan, you have to be free to express yourself creatively. So each day on the set I decided what I wanted the dancers to be doing and I'd change things as I looked at the monitor. And there's a lot of improvisation, especially with Gregory."

Unlike some recent movie dance numbers that have been shortened and intercut with plot exposition, the dance sequences in "Taps" are intended to be seen in their entirety. Castle explains, "We rarely cut to feet or heads--we have such spectacular dancers the idea of cutting away is like cutting away from a magic trick."

Such respectful treatment of their art is rare for dancers, especially in this country, and Le Tang points out that artistic recognition is quite different abroad: "In Europe you're appreciated for what you do, not who you are or whether you're black or white."

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