Tap Extravaganza
August 21, 2006 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Fred Astaire said this five-minute sequence from Stormy Weather was the finest piece of tap dancing ever filmed. via
posted by cgc373 (75 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Fantastic. Thanks, cgc373.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:20 PM on August 21, 2006

Holy smokes!
posted by keswick at 10:23 PM on August 21, 2006

Wow. My crotch hurts just watching that.
posted by sbutler at 10:30 PM on August 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think Astaire might have been right.
posted by bunglin jones at 10:31 PM on August 21, 2006

The presence of Cab Calloway don't hurt either. And to think that their scenes in films were designed to be easily snipped out in the southern states.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:32 PM on August 21, 2006

They weren't designed to be snipped out in Stormy Weather, Astro Zombie.

Tap Dance in Films says: One of mainstream Hollywood's rare all-black musicals, showcasing Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's dancing and Lena Horne's singing and a romantic subplot. Also features Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, the Nicholas Brothers and Dooley Wilson ("Casablanca.") 77 mins. (1943)
posted by cgc373 at 10:36 PM on August 21, 2006

posted by blastrid at 10:37 PM on August 21, 2006

wow, I felt exhilarated after watching that! Cab Calloway was electric. Yeah, I can see how Astaire would have said that. Those guys and Astaire had similar timing, body movements...a kind of jazz balletic athleticism. That was fun! Thanks.

I always liked this routine with Mr. Bojangles.
posted by nickyskye at 10:44 PM on August 21, 2006

Astaire said that, yes, but the My Little Buttercup number in Three Amigos hadn't been shot yet.

Admitting for the first time in 34 years... the first thing I ever said when asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"... Tap Dancer.
posted by dobbs at 11:03 PM on August 21, 2006

Cab Calloway was a very dynamic performer, had an incredible set of pipes, and was surely one of the more unique, idiosyncratic musical figures of the "swing era". There's a bunch of clips at youtube if you search Cab Calloway: early "soundies" and such, that are lotsa fun to watch. He was also great and still going strong in his 70's. Remember his rendition of Minnie the Moocher (surely the umpteenth-gazillion time he'd done the song over the course of his long career, but not a hint of boredom or jaded-ness to be found) from the Blues Brothers movie? Cab totally rules.

Oh, and that Fred fellah, pretty good dancer.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:17 PM on August 21, 2006

And nickyskye, thanks for posting that Bojangles link. Fabulous!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:20 PM on August 21, 2006

Sweet-Seamsplitting-Christ, that was possibly one of the best things I have ever seen in my life.

Side note: What's the proper name for the "Do The Splits & Effortlessly Glide Back Up" maneuver?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:20 PM on August 21, 2006

It's worth noting that Robinson was sixty in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (nickyseye's clip) and sixty-five in Stormy Weather. It would be great to have seen him in his prime.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:20 PM on August 21, 2006

I get a video not available error message from Google. Is it dead for everyone else?
posted by mathowie at 11:26 PM on August 21, 2006

Wow. That was awesome. Thanks so much.
posted by MythMaker at 11:26 PM on August 21, 2006

Works fine here. Cab was one of the biggest there is.
posted by dominik at 11:30 PM on August 21, 2006

While touring with a swing band during the 90's revival I met and played for one of the Nicholas brothers. What do you say to the guy!? I just said something like, "Thanks for all of the great work."
posted by nonmyopicdave at 11:46 PM on August 21, 2006


posted by darkstar at 11:47 PM on August 21, 2006

I want to see the dancing, goddamit! It seems to have been removed.
posted by Justinian at 11:52 PM on August 21, 2006

Whoops, its back!
posted by Justinian at 11:52 PM on August 21, 2006

Unbelievable - particularly the ball-breaking multiple-splits sequence on the staircase at the end. Great post!
posted by greycap at 12:11 AM on August 22, 2006

Stormy Weather is a great film. Though there is some question about the sound. Was it real? or was it just lip-synch and folly work?

Was this the birth of little-talents like Britny Spears who lip-synch their live performances?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:13 AM on August 22, 2006

*stunned silence*

I... I... think that clip just blew my fucking mind. Thank you so much, cgc373!
posted by brundlefly at 12:16 AM on August 22, 2006

What athleticism. This is a lost art.
posted by bukharin at 12:19 AM on August 22, 2006

lost art indeed.
mouth agape at the talent in that clip.

a thousand times thanks!
posted by Busithoth at 12:22 AM on August 22, 2006

Was this the birth of little-talents like Britny Spears who lip-synch their live performances?

No. The technical obstacles to producing a piece like that with ambient sound were immense in those days. (They're decidedly nontrivial even today.) The performers weren't doing anything on film that they hadn't done for a live audience, but the limitations of the medium undoubtedly forced them to put the piece together in multiple takes and with re-recorded sound. But you can hardly call it foley (NB correct spelling) work if the real performers re-performed it for the recording, as is almost certainly the case -- who else could possibly have synched to them?
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:34 AM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

*applauds wildly*
posted by Wolof at 12:42 AM on August 22, 2006

love the super mario bros level 2 piano break at 2:51 and 3:00.
posted by dminor at 12:44 AM on August 22, 2006

Good points there, George Spiggot. Note, however, that "foley work" refers specifically to the movie practice of making sound effects for films. For example, closing doors, footsteps, a million and one other things. But not to sound work like dialogue, singing, music, production music relating to lip synching, or whatever. Just sound effects. And I think it's named after Mr. Foley, who presumably sort of invented it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:50 AM on August 22, 2006

A gentle derail. Cab Calloway's Reefer Man and him doing his scat, head shaking thing in Jitterbug Party.

Joaquín Cortés is a contemporary tap dancer of another kind, flamenco. Can't find any video of his spectacular dancing though, drat.

And then there's Freddie baby dancing with the hat rack, one of my favs.
posted by nickyskye at 12:50 AM on August 22, 2006

Reminds me Connie Willis wrote a book called Remake where one of the characters insists Fred Astaire's dance work was superior to Gene Kelly's because Astaire's stuff was all done in one take in a continuous shot. I haven't seen any of their stuff until tonight, but now I've seen Kelly mirror-dancing and Astaire hat-dancing, I'd have to say Willis's character had it right. Woo, could Astaire dance!
posted by cgc373 at 1:03 AM on August 22, 2006

But you can hardly call it foley ... work if the real performers re-performed it for the recording

Yes you can call it foley work if all the sounds of the tapdancers is really somebody sitting in a studio striking a drumbstick against a coconut.

I don't begruge the lip-synching and foley work in this film. That helped to make it great in an effort to overcome the technical limitations.

In such middle films, synch and foley was a necessity to extend the illusion.

I just don't like how these techniques have morphed into Britney giving a live lip-synch concert.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 1:53 AM on August 22, 2006

Also, that second shot is great. No tapdancing. So fluid. Just the skill of the filmmakers. Bravos all around.
posted by brundlefly at 2:13 AM on August 22, 2006

Wow! That was fantastic.
posted by caddis at 2:29 AM on August 22, 2006

Alvy's question about the split+rebound led me to the noted dance journal, Entertainment Weekly. In this review, they poetically termed the move a "crotch bounce."
posted by rob511 at 3:05 AM on August 22, 2006

posted by squidfartz at 3:26 AM on August 22, 2006

Wow, seriously and totally, wow.

Hell, I'd give up my ability to swim for this talent

..truly I would, who do i talk to in that's in control of this whole "intelligent design thing"..anyone?... hello?
posted by erskelyne at 3:51 AM on August 22, 2006

Of course, Cab Calloway's performance in The Blues Brothers is on YouTube.
posted by mrbill at 4:57 AM on August 22, 2006

Man, Hollywood used to be so great. While the split-stair routine was awe-inspiring, I loved the little extra bits of panache they added. Like when they were up on the podiums for the first time jumping back and forth, at one point the guy on the right does a spin and drags is leg just over the head of the trombone player. Like, inches away. Considering the trombone guy is the only one visibly flinching in the shot, I'd guess that he probably got kicked a few times in rehearsal.

Solid one-linker, dude.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:14 AM on August 22, 2006

I love tap-dancing, but DAMN those Nicholas Brothers were talented human beings.

Human beings, hell. They were gods.
posted by grubi at 6:04 AM on August 22, 2006

In the future, I won't even need to borrow That's Entertainment! from the library, 'cos all the best bits are getting YouTubed!
posted by pax digita at 6:06 AM on August 22, 2006

I couldn't think of a better video to watch first thing in the morning. Totally invigorating!
posted by Dr-Baa at 6:08 AM on August 22, 2006

Gonna show it to my teenage sons (if they ever get up this morning).
Fabulous, thanks so much.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:34 AM on August 22, 2006

posted by slimepuppy at 6:45 AM on August 22, 2006

Cab Calloway gave one of the addresses at my college graduation. He sang "Minnie the Moocher" for us, a capella, and got the entire graduating class to respond to the call.

I used to live two blocks from "Cabel Calloway Park", a half-acre swathe of grass with a couple of benches, tucked into a little backwater in a declining neighborhood. Nice little place to escape to on a pleasant day, with a couple of friendly dogs (with considerate owners) and a little plaque honoring Cab, who was partly raised here in Rochester.
posted by lodurr at 7:03 AM on August 22, 2006

beautiful, thanks!
posted by owhydididoit at 7:44 AM on August 22, 2006

It was CG - people can't do that obviously.
posted by stbalbach at 7:52 AM on August 22, 2006


I bet if those two played Elder Scrolls: Oblivion their athleticism skill would sky-rocket to infinity.

Those men were tap-dancing samurai.

Thank you. Best of the web indeed.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 7:57 AM on August 22, 2006

Reminds me Connie Willis wrote a book called Remake where one of the characters insists Fred Astaire's dance work was superior to Gene Kelly's because Astaire's stuff was all done in one take in a continuous shot.

Very true, but of course Ginger Rogers was an even better dancer than Fred Astaire. She did everything he did, only backwards and in high heels.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:59 AM on August 22, 2006

So here's the obligatory 'Oh my God that's incredible,' and an extra '*swoon* I love Gene Kelly,' but now I've got a question for you tap freaks:

I saw Savion Glover a couple summers ago at Tanglewood, dancing to Coltrane (early-60's quartet) tunes performed by a pretty solid live band. Most of the performance was Glover dancing to improvised music, in other words, specifically my boy Trane's best stuff, and it was...holy. One of the handful of musical experiences I would cite as my ideals.

Glover is a pretty astonishing tap dancer (rent Bamboozled if you need evidence; actually rent it anway, underrated and intermittently brilliant film) but his particular off-the-cuff style is what most appeals to me - the freestyle vibe of it. The 'old guys just dancing' scene in Tap, as I recall, had the same flair.

So my questions are: how does Glover stack up to the all-time greats? I get the sense he can't do the unearthly acrobatics that these fellas do, but then I gotta say I found the leapfrog-to-splits stuff a hell of a lot less moving than impressive. And I wonder, could/would these guys have banged out a transporting improvised rhythm pattern to 'Afro Blue' or 'Giant Steps'? When did tap intersect with more free jazz forms, after the Swing Era's through-composed pop started to give way?
posted by waxbanks at 8:17 AM on August 22, 2006

This was awesome.

It also seemed to be more than a little gay. Lithe young men dancing together.. I don't think it really is gay, and certainly wasn't intended to be. Weird that it reads that way to me now.
posted by Nelson at 9:32 AM on August 22, 2006

I've watched that Stormy Weather sequence over and over again--just superb work.

I'm only a tap autodidact, but I know that Glover traces his own lineage back through rhythm tappers like Jimmy Slyde (scroll down for video). (I saw Jimmy Slyde performing live about eight years ago--terrific stuff, even in a cavern of a theater, and he brought the house down.) The pioneer of rhythm tap was John Bubbles (aka John Sublett), who can also be seen dancing on the page I just linked.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:42 AM on August 22, 2006

I had never heard of the Nicholas Brothers.
Now I have.

So effortless. Sign of the true masters.
posted by jouke at 9:45 AM on August 22, 2006

Considering the trombone guy is the only one visibly flinching in the shot, I'd guess that he probably got kicked a few times in rehearsal.

Heh. I was picturing something more along the lines of the Spinal Tap drummer. "CUT! Alright, let's try it again, but this time without braining the trombonist! Send in a fresh one!"

Brilliant clip, though.
posted by Vervain at 10:18 AM on August 22, 2006

More from "Stormy Weather."

Awesome post, BTW.
posted by koeselitz at 10:31 AM on August 22, 2006

This tap sequence is fun. With a young Christopher Walken!
posted by painquale at 10:56 AM on August 22, 2006

That is the best OK Go video yet.
posted by dfan at 11:26 AM on August 22, 2006

Wow, this is so great - thanks so much. Since I'm going to time travel back to 1938 to see the Benny Goodman orchestra play Sing Sing Sing (favorite piece of music of all time) at Carnegie Hall, I think i'll drop in on 1943 on my way back just to see these amazing Nicholas brothers. And that kick over the tronbone player's head, that was really neat, only caught it on the 3rd viewing. Seriously, this made my morning.
posted by Gaius Gracchus at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2006

Thomas - Jimmy Slyde performed with Glover at the Tanglewood show I saw. They were wonderful together, but the most striking thing was how much more an entertainer Slyde was: delightfully hammy and expansive in his gestures, while Glover's movements were more genuinely shambolic, even consciously athletic (where Slyde was going for a long-lined grace). A lot more jazz musician in his style. They just moved differently, and gave evidence that walking down the street they'd look to be from different universes entirely.

Glover's respect for and appreciation of Jimmy Slyde was heartfelt and moving.
posted by waxbanks at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2006

FWIW, Fayard Nicholas' grand-daughters just performed a couple of their routines as the Nicholas Sisters this past weekend in Seattle.
posted by turbodog at 12:30 PM on August 22, 2006

... to see the Benny Goodman orchestra play Sing Sing Sing (favorite piece of music of all time) at Carnegie Hall ...

Best. Drum. Solo. Ever.

"Sing Sing Sing" is what you play for kids raised on pop music to prove to them that swingers could rock as hard as guitar heroes.
posted by lodurr at 12:34 PM on August 22, 2006

That was incredible! I just added Stormy Weather to my Netflix queue so I can get a closer look. The Nicholas brothers were phenomenal.
posted by LeeJay at 1:50 PM on August 22, 2006

The late, great Gregory Hines offers more history on about 20 of the tap greats in this video/flash presentation created for kids in middle school. (Go to the WHO section.) There's lots of video from old movies, plus Gregory talking about Savion Glover, who looked to Hines as a mentor, and gushing about the Nicholas Brothers and even attempting to imitate them (go to Nicholas Brothers --> Hines Demo).

Full disclosure: I produced this program a few years ago, but it was a work-for-hire - I don't own it or in any way benefit from you checking it out. And there's some incredibly cool video in it!
posted by hsoltz at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

This thread is why I love metafilter.

From The Nicholas Brothers to Cab Calloway, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, The Blues Brothers, Gregory Hines, Christopher Walken, Ginger Rogers, Dick Van Dyke, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and more...

Does it get any better than this? This is the best of the web.
posted by djeo at 3:08 PM on August 22, 2006

Did somebody say Benny Goodman? Did somebody say Gene Krupa? Did somebody say"Sing, Sing, Sing?"
posted by keswick at 4:02 PM on August 22, 2006

God bless the internets...I caught the tail end of this routine on tv about five years ago, on a program which didn't go on to identify who the performers were or which movie the performance took place in. I thought to myself, "That was amazing, but I guess I'll probably never see it again." Thanks, cgc373!
posted by you just lost the game at 4:50 PM on August 22, 2006

Mom made me watch this when I was a kid. I don't think I ever got over it. Thanks, Mom!

...and great post, cgc373!
posted by LinusMines at 7:03 PM on August 22, 2006

BEST POST OF THE WEEK! Absolutely amazing - thank for reminding me of Cab, too!
posted by davidmsc at 7:45 PM on August 22, 2006

Y'know it's absolutely rare to find a thread in which someone doesn't have something bad to say about the link in question. Either it's been done before, or it's too gay, or it's too banal, or it's derivative, or prosletyzing, or lame, or not funny enough or too funny, or it's yet another post about the war, or about how much politicians suck, or the post deteriorates into a flame war of dissenting opinions about why something doesn't suck enough or whether or not it's not quite green enough or why couldn't the link stand on one leg a bit more, or why is this link to a flash game it's not Friday yet and so on.

It's awesome to see a thread that for once gets generally positive feedback. Has this thread won the thirty dollars yet? It should.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:17 PM on August 22, 2006

The beauty and grace and elegance and class and style of their dancing is just astonishing. I was especially impressed at how, while they're clearly dancing together, they're not exactly symmetrical. They both bring their own style and panache. They're so elegant in mid-air. I'm a little ashamed I hadn't heard of the Nicholas Brothers before, but I'm glad I have now.

Fred Astaire's comment reminds me of the respect that white baseball players showed towards Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and other Negro League stars during baseball's segregated era. Even though society had divided them, they paid homage to people's skill and talent. Their love for their sport or dance transcended society's (and possibly their own) biases.

I first heard this style of music in a Tom and Jerry cartoon that featured "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" Later I ran across a Joe Jackson cover of that song from his album Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive. "Jumpin' Jive," the titular song on that album, is the song in this video.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 PM on August 22, 2006

... their own style and panache...

I was thinking about that, w.r.t. dancers in general. Comparing the Nicholas brothers to Astaire to Gene Kelly is like comparing composers. They all have a different style, and they all get there differently. One of the elements the Nicholas brothers work is the idea of being just on the edge of being out of control -- the slide that gets turned into a move, the leap that's too far, but they make it anyway, "just barely" (yeah, right). And that's one of the key places you can see them being individuals-in-the-routine, in the "recovery".

Astaire could do that, but he seemed to favor a smoother, more polished look, where it might look impromptu but it always looked intentional. At his best, he was like silk whipping in the wind, and he practiced incessantly to make it look that way. Kelly had a lot of those accident-but-not-really moves, too, but they were more acterly, more clearly part of a script.

I can relate this to three different milieus. The Nicholas bros did mostly club work, dancing on a stage for an audience. The film work was not their biggest thing, though it's amazingly fortunate that they did it. Astaire didn't really develop his signature style until he was doing nothing but films. And Kelly developed his doing repetetive staged dance numbers, on Broadway, where he'd be trying to tell a story with his body. That's got to be where those big root-footed upper body movements come from.
posted by lodurr at 3:50 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

... also, to see a modern tribute to the Nicholas brothers, look to the otherwise kind of hard to watch Coppola picture The Cotton Club. He and his brother Maurice do some pretty good stuff together, and the best parts of the film are Gregory's solo numbers.
posted by lodurr at 3:53 AM on August 23, 2006

the single-take single-shot comparison isn't exactly true. Yes, Astaire often got things in a single take, after zillions of rehearsals, but the people he worked with often did not. There are some cuts in nearly all of those numbers. He did demand that there were as few cuts as possible, and that the dancers always be seen completely head-to-toe, but that was also the prevailing way of shooting dance at the time. kelly's numbers are largely shot the same way, until he started getting all camera-movement-happy, but even then, he is largely shot head-to-toe. the only person who regularly deviated from that was busby berkeley, but he was much more concerned with pattern than dance. (choreographer vs. drill sargent). I'm a little obsessed.
posted by HellKatonWheelz at 9:37 AM on August 23, 2006

What's as impressive as the dancing, is the editing. Sure the stuff by the Nicholas Brothers is great, but you gotta watch it again from the perspective of cuts. Every time it cuts it means there was a reason the editor couldn't stay with it. Either due to coverage and flow of the piece (what feels right to the editor as it spools and he's watching it all together) ...OR there was a mistake on the part of the talent. The areas where it goes several seconds without a cut? That's your magic. Each splice however, and the fact that with each splice you don't notice it on first viewing or even multiple viewings, THAT is the magic of the unsung heroes in the editing room with the director taping this monster together into the beautiful work of art that spools forth almost a century later and still speaks to our hearts.

To paraphrase from Lily Tomlin, the dance may not be soup, but the dance of the scissors that we will never see? THAT is art.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:14 AM on August 23, 2006

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