I was watching a clip of the Broadway cast rehearsing the title number from “Anything Goes”, and there was a huge tap dance number in it. And because my run this morning was particularly inspired, I looked at those actual dancers dancing and thought to myself, “Eh, I could do that.” Really, Laura? Could you? Because I’m thinking maybe not. Because last time you took tap dancing, the improv portion of the class made you want to fake a coughing fit and leave “for a drink of water.” The world’s longest drink of water.
When I was little, I had a failed ballet career. Probably no surprise to my mom, since all I really wanted out of it was a ballet tote bag, ballet stationary, and a New York Ballet poster once I got on point. Got on point? Is that even the correct phrase? So then I tried tap, which was much better because it was so much louder. Under the tutelage of Joan Welpot [best name ever!] I became an voracious practitioner. In her mid-forties, Joan Welpot had an amazing, long figure and hair that was bulletproof; it was a retro bouffant that arched high off her forehead and ended in a flip just above her shoulders. Even when executing the most difficult tap sequences such as the double-pull-back, her hair remained perfectly in place. Joan Welpot wore polyester bodysuits that flared slightly at the ankles, and around her waist was a four-inch elastic belt that fastened with a big, plastic button closure. These suits were one of three colors: navy, dark green, or maroon. We all knew it was a bad outfit, but somehow she carried it off. Such was the power of Joan Welpot. She always wore a full face of makeup, and when she told me I had beautiful eyes, I took it as a compliment from someone who knew these things. I’ll spare you the details of my riveting, enthusiastic performance at our recital to “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, which I can still basically perform, and instead say that whatever I lacked in grace and style, I made up for with my smile.
About ten years after my first lesson, I enrolled in tap again while in graduate school, and it all came rushing back. All the steps, all the noise, all the fun of just cutting loose and watching it happen in the mirror. Trying to make more sounds than the seconds allow. Finally mastering a pull-back, which seemed so impossibly hard that only Joan Welpot could do them. And then there you are one day, legs finally strong enough, and in an effortless motion, you are making six separate sound in less than two seconds. The first day I nailed it I had to stop and do a dance of joy. I had actually figured out how to do something new.
Since all the students were older, the teacher was beyond trying to cure us of our own personal styles. I definitely bore the mark of one who has watched too many musicals, with my head planning greater things than my feet could manage. One woman treated tap dancing like and Irish jig, her arms always against her sides, her posture stiff. Another woman was all hips and house-music, and modern style of tap I had never seen. But soaring above us all was Eleni. From day one, we knew she was what we wanted to be: tall, lithe, and with ten years of tap in her feet. She could do anything and make it look easy. She made us all feel like the popular girl was in our class, and by some magic of the transitive property, we were popular too. I had thought tap was for spazzy and loud girls, ones with too much energy. Eleni showed us that underneath all the bouncy smiles and enthusiasm was something subtle and quite possibly sexy. With a cock of the shoulder, a tilt of the hip, an extra pause (along with long, dark hair, perfect teeth, and lipliner) tap had something to offer the adult woman. Something we never fathomed in junior high.