My Wonderful Return to Tap Dancing

Five, six, seven, eight, AND ... let's go!

I recently decided to take tap dancing lessons after a break of about 25 years, and you should know that it's not like riding a bike. In fact, nothing is like riding a bike except riding a bike.

At one time, as an awkward kid with chubby thighs, I performed in a recital while wearing a sequin-bedecked leotard with about two inches of underwear peeking beneath. My tap shoes then were the standard black patent leather with grosgrain ribbons that were hard to keep tied.

As kids, my older sister and I took lessons from a guy who must've been in his forties. He had a fondness for classic tunes like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Honeysuckle Rose"— and also for his cute redheaded assistant. Jerry and Phyllis took us kids through our paces: shuffle one, shuffle two, shuffle three, step step. We learned some of the classic moves: the waltz clog, shuffle off to Buffalo, time step, flaps. Put them all together, add a cane, and there you have a dance routine.

The recitals were nerve-wracking events. Mothers fussing backstage, getting the girls lined up and making sure all the parts of our costumes made it on before our entrance cue. Five, six seven, eight, AND! We performed at the local community center before a crowd of devoted family members. I remember feeling a huge surge of relief when it was over.

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The nylon net sashes draped low across where our hips would've been if we'd developed hips yet, the sequined and feathered hats with uncomfortable elastic chin straps like the ones on cone-shaped birthday party hats, the satiny things that were not quite gloves that looped between our fingers and covered our forearms with more sequins—I couldn't wait to take them all off.

Maybe I was inspired by my son, who started tap lessons when he was in second grade, or maybe I just wanted to try an adult do-over with black leather shoes with high heels. Whatever it was, I started taking tap class 25 years ago. I was with a bunch of women who were beginners or refreshers like me. We danced, we performed, we had fun.

My kids' elementary school held a talent show every year, and my tap-dancing son was a regular performer, even serving as emcee for a few years. When he was in fifth grade, we decided to blow the roof off the cafetorium and do a surprise duet. He began dancing center stage and a few bars into his routine, I snuck out, upstaged him, and began making "I can do that" gestures to the audience.

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Then I started shadowing him, doing the classic shim sham shimmy until he turned around and in mock amazement and confusion, waved me forward. It turned into a little call-and-response bit, until he cut loose and did all kinds of crazy steps, leaving me in his dust. We wrapped it up in tandem with a big finish. The place went wild and we took several bows before he chased me off the stage. I haven't had many moments like that in my life. I loved it.

And then, I don't know, I stopped. Maybe the class ended and the teacher left—I really don't remember. All I can tell you is that my shoes were in for a very long rest.

Until last week, when I was invited to join a tap class—the same class my sister joined years ago. She was a regular at the Monday morning and Tuesday night sessions. Her shoes got a lot of use during those years, and she became close with the other "girls" in the class, many of whom were of retirement age and beyond. (In tap class, we are all "girls.")

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Many of the girls, and the teacher, were with me and my family at the celebration of my sister's life late last summer. They wore their tap T-shirts, and represented something they all love, something that was a huge part of my sister's life.

I'd been toying with the idea of joining the class, but I've been making decisions slowly the last few months, preferring to curl up on the couch and binge-watch escape TV. Then I got an email from the tap teacher, inviting me to come, saying that the girls thought it would be great to have me, and they think of my sister every time they dance. How could I say no?

I showed up for the first class and assessed the group. I'd met several of the girls and the teacher too. No real strangers, which made me feel welcome immediately. Even so, I began apologizing even before I got my shoes on. "It's been a long time," I said. "Don't worry," they told me. "It'll come back to you, like riding a bike."

If only. Brain to feet, feet to brain: the lines of communication were nearly disconnected. Right, left—I do know the difference. Though when the fast music starts, and I try to follow along and pick up a routine they'd been working on for months, all bets are off. Five, six, seven, eight, AND ... let's go! I kept apologizing throughout the hour-long class. But by the end, I felt great. I even nailed the waltz clog. I can do this, I said to myself. I can do this, feet and brain. We're dancing again.

Tags: lifestyle