Film Review: ‘Tap World’

And now for something completely different: Vet TV crime show producer Dean Hargrove turns documentarian for a spirited celebration of tap dancing.

'Tap World' Review: Dean Hargrove's Infectious Tap-Dancing Documentary
Courtesy of Tap World

Veteran TV crime show producer Dean Hargrove (“Columbo,” “Diagnosis: Murder”) finds a new groove and generously shares his enthusiasm in “Tap World,” an infectiously spirited and pleasingly celebratory documentary about the globe-spanning appeal of American-style tap dance. If the movie has any flaw worth noting, it’s a sin of omission: Although he presents several engaging mini-portraits of tap masters in locales ranging from Taipei to Tokyo, Hell’s Kitchen to Harrisburg, Penn., Hargrove offers only teasing snippets of rehearsals and performances. Even so, this slickly produced and briskly paced doc could find receptive audiences in a variety of platforms, and might even inspire some novices to put on their own dancing shoes.

Early on, historian Constance Valis Hill provides a Cliffs Notes guide to the African and Irish roots of tap, and influential hoofers such as Gregory Hines receive brief yet respectful acknowledgment. But once the zippy prologue is complete, Hargrove, making a creditable debut as director of a nonfiction feature, devotes most of his time and all of his zeal to profiling a series of contemporary tap artists driven by a passion to express themselves — and, in some cases, transcend themselves — through the tap-tap-tap of their terpsichorean activity. Indeed, some of the subjects are so appealing, and share such fascinating stories about personal histories and professional ambitions, you may occasionally find yourself resenting what feels like an all-too-soon segue to the next interview.

Among the standouts: Evan Ruggiero, a young New Jersey trouper who has kept dancing even after losing a leg to bone cancer; Luyz Baldijao, a Brazilian tap dancer who mentors underprivileged youngsters in Campinas; Joshua Johnson, who escaped the violence of his Harlem neighborhood and financed his college education by dancing for handouts aboard New York subways; Vicki Riordan, a Harrisburg dynamo who has dedicated herself to overseeing and encouraging adult tap dancers (many of them women who have survived abusive relationships) in her Vicki’s Tap Pups ensemble.

And then there’s Reona Otsuka, a Tokyo sprite who works at three part-time jobs while attending school to afford tap lessons. Why? “My love for tapping is higher than the mountains, deeper than the ocean,” she exuberantly explains.

Credit the cinematography team supervised by Steven Poster for enhancing “Tap World” with smooth and supple lensing throughout, and occasionally framing startlingly beautiful images — such as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Parisian Arthur Benhamou dancing near the Eiffel Tower — that will cause many home-screen viewers to hit the pause button and linger for maximum enjoyment. Again: The only thing to complain about here is, Hargrove doesn’t give us quite enough of a good thing.

At one point, Pandit Chitresh Das, the charismatic Calcutta-born choreographer-performer famed for his mastery and reinvigoration of the centuries-old Indian dance known as Kathak, teams with American tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith for a joint performance. Trouble is, we don’t get to see much of their collaboration here. (“Upaj: Improvise,” a 2013 documentary directed by Hoku Uchiyama, is devoted entirely to this unique meeting of the masters.) Still, “Tap World” deserves credit for helping to preserve the memory and honor the legacy of Das, who passed away in January at age 70.

Film Review: ‘Tap World’

Reviewed online, Houston, Aug. 5, 2015. Running time: 72 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Tap World production. Produced by Chloe Arnold, Maud Arnold, George Mandl, Steven Poster. Executive producers, Jeff Peters, Dean Hargrove.
  • Crew: Directed by Dean Hargrove. Camera (color), Steven Poster, Rohan Chitraker, Takeshi Fukushima, Logan Miller, Alicia Robbins; editor, George Mandl; music, Adam Samuel Goldman; graphic and visual artist, Jacob Scarpaci; sound supervisor/re-recording mixer, Matt Temple; associate producers, Kaleena Rallis, Doris Chinen Stockstill.
  • With: Alaman, Chloe Arnold, Luyz Baldijao, Arthur Benhamou, Pandit Chitresh Das, Joshua Johnson, Ted Louis Levy, Reona Otsuka, Vicki Riordan & Vicki’s Tap Pups, Evan Ruggiero, Jason Samuels Smith, Taiwan Danceworks, Ivery Wheeler. (English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Portuguese, Zulu dialogue)