Thursday, October 15, 2015

Playing Taps for Tap

Way back when my wife started talking about us taking dance classes…

Yes, I know, me not being the instigator of the idea must come as quite a shock…

Way back when my wife started talking about us taking dance classes, both tap and ballroom were discussed.  She’s always been a fan of tap, and since it’s what I pretend to do when I drop my juggling clubs anyway, a part of me has always felt I should know how.

Plus, while it is an artistic dance form, it has extremely strong vaudeville connections, as do I.

For me, it wasn’t inspiration from the likes of Fred Astaire or Gregory Hines, it came from elsewhere.

I always liked Cosmo Brown better than Donald Lockwood.

Dick Van Dyke can tap dance, Steve Martin can tap dance.

And in some weird “Distributive Property of Hoofing” way Dick Martin could tap dance.

I was excited about trying this, and I had no illusions of being able to impress anyone with footwork. The best I was hoping for was the ability to recreate the end of the drunk test scene in The Man with Two BrainsAnother reason for excitement was it meant learning at Danceworks, an institution I have nothing but respect for which fosters a visible camaraderie and feeling of belonging among its students.

As added inspiration for learning new skills at my age, a cousin who started ice skating about twenty years ago recently put on a skating show at his birthday party. I probably should mention it was his eighty-fifth birthday.  Therefore I figured if I got hurt, I could blame him.

First, of course, I had to buy shoes.  Since stores that sell dance shoes to the masses deal primarily with items in women’s sizes, the numbers had no relation to reality.  I ended up needing to special order a size fourteen wide. The clerk asked how they felt.  With zero basis for comparison in that type of soft bodied hard bottom shoe, all I could manage was, “Squishy but ok.”  Considering the first thing I said when I entered the store was, “I ain’t wearin’ a tutu.” I’m sure she was happy to have me there.

My sister (who is in the adult tap class) and my daughter and nieces all tried to give us some of the basics over the summer.  Since she carries my genes, my sister also made a spreadsheet of all the Time Steps for us, which the teacher refined a bit and then circulated to all her students. The Grid Building force runs strong in my family.

Thus armed we attended the first class.

Week One

There was only one adult class, beginners and advanced combined.  I’m pretty sure some of those women had skills that meant I shouldn’t be on the same planet with them, never mind the same classroom.  Since it was Danceworks, they were accepting and didn’t laugh me out of the room, for which I am immensely grateful.

The warm up consisted primarily of “step-touch” with variations of heel drops, shuffles and so on thrown in as it progressed. 

The standard white guy wedding dance! 
These are the moves of my people!!!!

Or they should have been.

I rolled my ankle four different times during warm up, nearly falling over on three of them.  These “wide” shoes were still narrower than anything else I’ve ever worn on my feet.

The Time Step portion followed, and all the experienced folks stayed in with the owner, Miss Chris.  Miss Luke (Luc?) took us newbies in the next room for the basics of Time Step.

Once again, the dancer’s secret number code baffled me. 
Why start counting at one?
That would be silly.

Time Steps start at eight, and then go back to one.  At least there was a five this time.

After a while of drilling, which filled out the advertised class time, we were brought back in to work on a routine as with the rest of the gang to “All About That Bass.”  I know my fencing was exponentially improved by matches against the advanced students when I was starting out, but the same thing didn’t happen this time.  Maybe I really do need someone chasing me with a sword when I dance?

If you were to design the perfect dance teacher for little kids from scratch, you’d get Miss Jill.  Beginners were told to stand behind her as she’d modify the steps for us.

I said, “Yay! I’m in Miss Jill’s class!
Where’s the mat so I can do a forward roll and put a giant penny in the jar?”

Alas, it was not to be.  Even with the “simplified steps” I was totally lost during the “bonus advanced routine” time.  This was due in a large part to my Plavix thinned blood stream amping up my dizziness whenever I tried the spin.

Miss Chris said she’d stay around afterwards if anyone had questions or wanted pointers.  At this stage of my life and career, if I’m out following a full day of work after nine PM, unless I’m in a movie theater watching things explode, I need to go home.

The warm ups started with “running flaps.”
Or “tippy toe walking while alternately tapping each foot” for the non-dancers out there.

The class ended with the advanced students doing a mess of varied, insane, backwards running tap moves…
And a few of us stuck with “running flaps.”

My sister complimented me on how much my form improved from the initial horrendous flappage to the final one.

I knew I was in big trouble as I could feel absolutely no difference between the two.

I met my goal for the first class of not ending up in a body cast.
I was also amazed that I wasn’t in any more pain than usual.

That lack of pain faded a bit overnight.

In the intervening week we both practiced Time Steps and the step touch warm up. Anabelle helped a great deal by explaining how and where the heel drops fit in and other details.  She also gave me some pointers on stance and form as my feet remaining on the correct legs was close to the only thing I was doing right.

It was then I took a serious look at the multiple pages of the Time Steps spread sheet my sister had made.  Each sheet had about eight sets with doubles and triples and other modifications.  We had done the first column out of the eight on the first page.  I like my Disney Spreadsheets better.

Week 2

The not so terrible amount of pain the first week lulled me into a false sense of security. Since I was standing more correctly, had a better understanding of what was going on, and wasn’t in perpetual danger of falling over I spent less time standing still staring blankly. (Truly my best dance move.)

Mid way through warm ups my back, hip, ankle and foot pain levels were appreciable, and my knees had already rocketed well past, “Dear Lord stop doing that to us!!”

Mind you, I wasn’t succeeding at the warm up even though I was briefed on the concept.  I had no hope of hitting the heel drops, and even trying to only do the patented “white guy” step-touch, I was still never on the same foot as the room full of tap dancers.  Again, they very graciously did not laugh me out of the joint. 

We headed back into the beginner’s room with Miss Luke (Luuk?) while the main class delved into the terrifying later pages of the Time Step spread sheet.

Our group went back to the page one, line one Time Step, and I quickly confirmed that not only did the Plavix mess with spins, but it also absconded with my ability to stand on one leg in anything but sneakers or bare feet.

I was quite thankful Danceworks features a comprehensive ballet program, and extensively sturdy construction.  That bar on the wall kept me from knocking down rows of beginners like tap dancing dominoes on several occasions.

Because I had practiced in the intervening week, I was actively worse…
More likely, because every place where two bones met each other below my waist was in agony, I was actively worse. 

After a bit of Time Step, we switched to Shim Sham.

Now I need to pause, as a vaudeville fan, and heap more praise on Danceworks. 

The Time Step, Shim Sham, and even the style of the “Bonus Time” despite being to a modern tune, all hearkened back to the way tap routines were performed on the circuits the Marx Brothers and my other heroes traveled on.  I would have been thrilled to be sharing a part of that history if my knees didn’t feel like they spent a weekend in a rock tumbler.

To help demonstrate the Shim Sham, Miss Luke (Looc?) brought in Miss Jill. 

Y’know, watching how awesome Miss Jill is training and demonstrating for the teeniest of dancers all that time made it easy to forget she’d been doing this stuff for twenty seven years.

Her first demo was a jaw droppingly rapid set of taps and flaps…all I could manage after that was some, “Holy crap”s.

After a bit of discussions and strategizing from the “Miss”es, we got through a couple Shim Shams before wandering back into “Bonus Time” in the main room to “pick up where we left off.”

Any time a dance routine starts with, “OK, now remember what we did last week…”  I’m screwed. 

I of course didn’t, meaning I faked it through the beginning…and then faked it through the new stuff, because after trying to work in the second spin, my main focus was not stumbling out the back window.

I had no idea that the least manly part of being the only guy in a dance class in a school with large amounts of little girls in ruffles and sequins would be whimpering in my sleep all night long after it was over.

Week Three:

The next class fell on our daughter’s birthday.  Therefore, instead of going to class we took her out to dinner.  First we did get to see Anabelle become “Miss Anabelle” as part of her first year of student teaching.  She helped Miss Jill with a group of teeny ballet dancers that all looked like how my rapidly growing up daughter still looks in my head sometimes.

To continue the “non manly” theme, I’m going to weep openly for a bit.
Move along, nothing to see.

The plan for the class was to sign up a month at a time. This was for two reasons. 
1) My wife knew she had sinus surgery due soon.
2) My wife had a much more realistic and intelligent view of my knees’ capacity to resist a pounding. 

The second item is one of the main reasons men get married.  Left to our own devices we hurt ourselves far too often.

We were fully intending to use the next week as a “make up” for skipping Week Three.

Week Four:

We didn’t.

Rosa started physical therapy on her shoulder from the fall on the way to see Aladdin on Broadway and was now facing that injury on top of the upcoming sinus surgery.

And I was facing the reality of what my joints could handle.

I still have great respect for both the history of Tap, and the institution of Danceworks, but learning the skill of this art form far beyond adapting to something outside of my comfort zone for several reasons:

A) It hurt.
It hurt a ridiculous amount.
I am not in a Cardiac Health locale that allows me to exercise one night that keeps me off the treadmill for the next three or four.  This is why I had to give up both fencing and running.

This was confirmed by my three year old nephew. He was supposed to start tumbling with Miss Jill but was reluctant to enter the room each week. I was talking to my nieces about their dance class, and asked him if he danced.  He stopped running around in circles for a second to say, “Nooooo.”  I answered, “Me neither, it hurts my knees.”  He paused again and yelled, “IT HURTS MY FACE!” 

Considering I had just seen him perform an accidental side roll into a back flip off the bed and land on his feet with an excited, “WHOAH!”  I’m sure he gave me an accurate assessment.

B)  I love the feeling of creative collaboration.  I remember how cool it was in band when all of our different parts would merge together into something greater than each of us.  Comedy writing in a team, where what starts as a simple gag suddenly builds into an entire routine than none of the individuals could have imagined on their own is one of the most uplifting feelings I’ve ever experienced.

I noticed how awesome it sounded, standing in the middle, when everyone was doing a tap routine together.  Even in the warm ups, once the heel drops, shuffles and such piled on, it rocked.

However, I believe I have embraced the Discordian’s viewpoint too heavily.  I was fighting against constant internal resistance to being in a room with an entire group of people doing the exact same thing all together.

C) I had no illusions of becoming “A Dancer.” But, it took very little time to realize that this undertaking would require a significant amount of attention, discipline and practice to do justice to becoming “a guy who dances.”  Due to work and other portions of my life (like writing these things) I knew full well I could not provide the time and focus that this art form, and more importantly Danceworks, deserves.

D) Did I mention, it freakin’ hurt?!


Kim Luer said...

I still think you both did good and we miss you at class. There might still be a way for you to participate. We're doing Hawaii 5-0 in the recital. Maybe you could be the surfboard guy, and carry it across stage in your gorilla suit (wearing a bathing suit of course.) and then again, maybe not.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx much. I miss the feeling of belonging and the Vaudeville connection, but I do not miss the crippling knee pain.

I would unworthy of being on stage in a gorilla suit without being able to do some impressive tapping.

thanx for the thought though!