What a great gift. I was deep into my thinks-he's-Gene-Kelly period, and having the astute, generous, creative wife that I have, she got me tap shoes. Learning to tap was on my short list of theater skills to polish. Not just the shoes, but when I opened the shoebox, she'd included a voucher for ten beginner tap lessons at a very popular professional dance studio down on 42nd Street & Broadway. How symbolic. Did I mention she was astute and creative?
This dovetailed nicely with my thinks-he-can-do-anything-if-he-takes-a-few-lessons period, which was fortuitous, since most of the other periods in my life intersected with the longest running period: thinks-he-can-already-do-any-damn-thing-he-wants-and-doesn't-need-someone-telling-him-what-he-already-knows-but-thanks-anyway.
After all, I am not without experience dancing for money.
Exhibits A and B in my threadbare defense:
To the left, Hacienda de Coop where I was a featured dancer in the role of Bad Rooster, a kind of Cousin Jethro among barnyard poultry and unsuitable suitor for the heroine hen. Hero is in the process of prevailing over me.
To the right, Dancing Sailor in the production of Anything Goes at the Apple Hill Playhouse. A few grapevines, a couple of quick trenches (that's dancer talk) and voilá - I'm a jazz dancing chorus boy. Don't tell me about dancing.
So what was that first clue I was in for one of those major life lessons that come without anesthetic? I laid down the voucher and said I was here for the beginner's tap class. The woman at the check-in desk asked me if I'd ever taken this instructor's class before? No, I said, it's a gift. I meant from my wife. She probably thought it was the usual actor arrogance. Yet one more fresh kid from the sticks with more confidence than sense. She shrugged and added me to a roster, then pointed to the floor above.
Up the rickety stairs to the studio. What a theatre dream. Like in the movies, right? I'm wearing my dance pants, tee shirt, and carrying my dance bag. Which didn't have a lot of dance stuff in it yet, but I know how important the accessories are if you want to be taken seriously.
A few students were already there. I'm not the gregarious type, so I usually smile and nod at anyone who makes eye contact. I kept looking, but no one did. Clue number two.
The instructor blew in, not like I'd imagined him to be. He was older, yes, but could have fit in with the construction crews who were, during that particular decade, crawling all over 42nd Street, tearing down the old buildings, putting up the new. For a moment, I thought maybe the adage was true – those who can't do, teach. He was medium sized, gnarly brown muscles, close cropped hair, in an untucked shirt and khakis.
The instructor approached me right off and asked if I was in the right class. Clue number three.
I showed him the voucher for the beginner's classes and told him, it's a gift. Still meaning from my wife. It got me the same look as the woman in the little registration office, and, I'm betting, the same conclusion in the instructor's mind.
He asked if I'd ever tapped before, and I said, a bit, which I had. There was that fifteen second dance routine I did in the back of the chorus in one musical one summer stock season. That counted. I had also learned that an actor never ever ever admits he can't do something. The instructor nodded, because I'm sure he knew that lesson as well as I did.
So he dragged a chair into the center of the small studio, told me to sit and watch. Join in if I think I'm ready. Clue number four.
The instructor popped an audio tape into his player and pressed play. The music was a piano version of a peppy little show tune that I have since forgotten. Purged. Eradicated. Flushed. Couldn't recall it if my life depended on it. Maybe with hypnosis if it's that important for you to know.
The dancers, about twenty or so, formed up, making a circle around my chair. The instructor gave the nod, and the dancers began tapping, moving around me, the routine obviously something they'd been working since they were all nine years old. Clue number five.
So I watched, my heels doing that little back-and-forth they do when I want to signal that I'm ready to dance, but am holding off.
I was nodding my head in time with the music and concentrating. Not on the pattern to see if I could, really, hop up and join in. I was concentrating on how I must look to all of those dancers, me sitting there in the middle, a total footless lump in a dance belt.
The instructor didn't call out any direction, any change in steps, or any correction. The routine went on and on, the dancers circling the room with me dead center.
Every now and then they'd stop circling, face in and perform an intricate series of tap steps, all of the dancers using me as their focal point. I'm sure you remember Busby Berkley's famous Franz Kafka number? Where the country boy, fresh from the southwest, is confronted by the chorus dancers strangling the competition with their feather boas, putting an end to the upstart who dares to poke his nose into their beloved show business?
Pride made me sit there, nodding my head and moving my feet, studying the dancers, my brow knotted in concentration.
The music ended, the dancers broke and went to dance bags, pulling out towels and wiping down.
I gave the instructor a wink and pointed toward the door, gesturing that I was going to hit the little boy's room and be right back. Honestly, my pride fully meant to. I wasn't going to be run out of some low rent New York dance studio by a bunch of tap-toed know-nothings who, just because they can dance, think they're the guardians of theater in this town.
I went back to the woman at the check-in desk and asked if the class was a beginner's class, saying the word slowly, in case it was a new concept to her. She said that it was a beginner's class, saying the word slowly, in case it was a new concept to me. This particular beginner's class, she said, had been meeting together for about a year. So, I asked her, what if you're a beginner beginner? Then you sign up for a new beginner's class, she said, pulling the registration book over in front of her.
I could see what she was doing. She was daring me to admit I was a beginner beginner. I nodded and headed for the stairs down to the street.
Not going to finish, she asked.
Close friend is having a medical emergency, I told her. See you next week, I said.
It wasn't a real, actual lie. My nearest and dearest friend, my pride, was in the hospital and not expected to live through the night.
Back on the street that night, the marquee lights of the old theaters and converted movie houses washing everything in a disagreeably cynical illumination, I was ready to be mad at somebody. But I couldn't fix on who deserved my unsweetened ire. My wife for signing me up to join a class that was way beyond my level? The woman at the check-in desk who could have given me a little hint of what was coming? The instructor for not being sharp enough to see through my braggadocio the minute he laid eyes on me and throw me out of class? The dancers who could have drawn straws and sent the winner to take me aside and set me straight?
Or me for thinking I could dance, for telling the instructor that slightly elastic bit of truth about having tapped a little, or for not realizing that being a triple threat performer required both time, talent, training, and tenacity? (Looking back on that sentence, I should add the ability to count.) None of which I cared to be bothered with, and none of which I already possessed. All of which was made painfully obvious to me that night, without benefit of Novocain.
Did I mention my wife was astute as well as creative?
The shoes weren't a total waste. I took the taps off and used them as character shoes for the remainder of my thinks-he's-God's-gift-to-theatre period. Because my pride, against all odds, made it through the night and rejoined me, full of piss and vinegar, like old times.
Until the next near-fatal encounter with reality.
Text (c) Scott Parson
Image 1: amabrao | www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography
Image 2: Hacienda de Coop production still, Scott Parson collection
Image 3: Anything Goes production still, Scott Parson collection
Image 4: Tap Dance -7 by You Belong in Longmont licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Image 5: No Tap Dancing by Oli Xilo licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0