I'd always wanted to learn tap dance, but we were never in one place long enough for lessons. My family lived in 10 different countries within 10 years, so there was little continuity in our lives.
So, when I was in my 50s, two of my girlfriends, Nancy and Barb, and I signed up for tap lessons through the local community college. There was a fourth woman, Pam, also our age, who had been taking tap for over a year.
We met every Wednesday evening at the Swissvale Community Center and we weren't too bad. We learned to ball change, shuffle off to Buffalo and the triple-time step. We even learned a piece that Laurie, our 20-year-old instructor, choreographed for us.
Which, I'm happy to report, we performed at a recital. Wearing costumes with spangles and fringe. We were the only adults in the program, and on the night of the recital, we were knee-deep in squealing little girls in rainbow-colored tutus and pink tights and ballet slippers.
Between numbers, they were fussed over and primped by their frantic mothers who did their best to squeeze their squirming, sweaty daughters into costumes, a different one for each performance—expensive costumes that would never be worn again.
We ladies had made our costumes, sewing the embellishments on the cheapest black leotards we could get. We did spring for black faux rhinestone fedoras from Costume Gallery. We were dancing to "Secret Agent Man," and we felt the hats would bring the costume together.
I recognized some of the mothers at the recital. When Nancy, Barb, Pam and I arrived for our dance lesson, they'd be herding their girls out the door into the waiting cars that were still running, so they could get home with enough time to make dinner.
Pam dropped her empty Starbucks cup in the wastebasket and watched the mothers as they left. She shook her head.
"Why aren't any of them taking lessons?" Pam said. "Their whole lives revolve around their kids. They've got nothing left over for themselves. I'll bet they wish they could be part of our group, instead of shuttling their kids to and from different activities. I know I would."
We all agreed with Pam. Here we were, living life to the hilt. We were middle-aged women taking tap lessons. I hadn't had children, but the others had, and they didn't let that stop them. We felt strong, alive, powerful. We felt sorry for the mothers.
There was only one recital, which disappointed Pam.
"We spend so much time learning our steps and practicing, and all for one recital," she said. "I want to perform. I don't want to just learn how to tap for fun and exercise. I want to do it in front of an audience."
Pam impressed me. She was the oldest of us, in her late 50s, and she didn't hesitate to let people know it. It was her badge of honor.
When she was 45 and newly divorced, she met her future husband, Dwayne—six years younger and also divorced—in a ballroom dancing class. They were seamless partners, so they got married and began to enter dance competitions. Pam spent a lot of money on elaborate ballroom gowns and Dwayne wore tails. They even won trophies.
I really admired her. To me, she set the new standard for older women, those of us who are dismissed, ignored and otherwise overlooked based strictly on our age. I told Pam I wanted to be her when I grew up.
"Never stop moving," she told me.
"And that goes for sex, too," said Dwayne.
They both smiled at me and I smiled back. OK, I thought. Note to self.
Our dance was in the second half of the recital, which gave me plenty of time to have second thoughts. Contrary to Pam, I had only wanted to learn tap dancing. Getting up on stage and dancing around in black leotards had not been part of the plan.
I wondered if this anxiety was stage fright, or maybe just coming to my senses. But when Johnny Rivers' guitar in "Secret Agent Man" began, this group of middle age ladies came out on cue. We toe-heeled, shuffled, spanked and cramp rolled across the stage. Our line was straight, just like the Rockettes. We executed every step flawlessly. We did get a little over exuberant with the triple-time step at the end. Who wouldn't?
We stomped the floor and pumped our arms in synch with the pounding beat we made. We had no idea if we were on time—we couldn't hear the music. But who cared? As the curtain came down, small flashes from cell phone cameras lit up the auditorium, like fireflies. The audience clapped. When we went back onstage for our second bow, the applause was louder, more sustained.
OK, that's not what really happened. Although we danced well, our Rockettes line was a little wobbly. There was no enthusiastic applause. We didn't go back onstage for a second bow. Most of the parents, who constituted 99 percent of the audience, left while we danced—presumably to brag about their kids' performance to the other parents, to smoke or to take a break from the interminable parade of children arrayed in costumes that the parents most likely had to take second mortgages on their houses to pay for.
Nobody took our pictures, but at the end of the recital, my infinitely patient friends who had come for support stood and flicked their Bics in tribute.
"We're goddam saints, is all I can say," my friend Mark told me backstage. "After the first two hours, I wanted to drive a nail through my head."
Marlene, a neighbor in my apartment building—the kind of neighbor you could go to for a cup of scotch—ran down the aisle towards me. She grabbed my arm and pulled me aside.
"We have to talk about this," she said. "For a white person, you've really got rhythm."
"Oh, Marlene," I said. And I hugged her.
Yeah, I thought. What's up with this one performance shit?