How did you get into tap dancing?

After people meet me for the first time and then start to realize how much of a dork I am for dance and music, the next question is, "how DID you get into all of this?"

It's a long story, (3 decades plus now!), but I'll tell you the first part!

As the story goes, it was all me. I started in a baby ballet/tap combo class when I was three years old, because as my mother tells me, I came to her one day and said, "I want to dance." Now, I'm a mom who has parented three wild and goofy kids through toddlerhood, and based on my mom experiences, it seems crazy that I'd be so determined at such a young age. But I believe this story. Although my mother is a tremendous singer and loves music and musicals, maybe more than I do, my family is conservative, Catholic, immigrant-work-ethic-minded and decidedly blue-collar. Dancing would have been the last thing my parents would have chosen for me as an activity. My mother picked a dance studio for me based on its convenience: Northeast Dance Academy, which in 1983 was located about five blocks away from our house, in a strip mall at Rhawn Street and Dungan Road. It's funny how clearly I remember walking there, at age 3-4, crunching through leaves on the sidewalk, and eating a granola bar on the way. My mom liked the studio also, because it was next to a Rite Aid and a Thrift Way, and she could spend the hour I was in the studio, by getting some chores done. (Never was and never will be a "stage mom.") (Thank you, Mom.)

I hated the ballet section, but I loved tap. My mom recalls watching bits of the class and how "you were the only one who was ever on the correct foot." She has grainy photos of me at recitals, in patent leather white tap shoes, positively beaming, while everyone else on stage is crying or picking their nose. 

When I reached age six, I think everyone sort of realized, with confusion, that I had this odd talent for tap dancing. My parents might have been conservative, but they demanded excellence. If I was going to do this thing and they were going to pay money for it, then they were going to find the teacher who would make me work the hardest at it. Since most of the kids at Northeast Dance Academy were not quite as focused as I was, my mom started looking around for another studio to take me. A boy schoolmate of mine performed a tap solo at the St. Cecilia's annual talent show, and my mom asked his mom where he took class. That's how I ended up at the Joan Erwin School of Dance, which in the late 1980s was located at Cottman Avenue and Revere Street. At Miss Joan's, I did all forms of dance, but Miss Joan's specialty was definitely tap. I was way behind her other kids when she took me on, and she made sure I knew that at every class. I watched the kids do steps I couldn't do, and I was determined to learn them. I remember tap dancing everywhere, practicing all the time, so that by the time I got to the next class, I'd be able to keep up. At 6-7 years old. Miss Joan did not play! Again, now that I'm a mom and I teach kids, it's hard to believe I was so in it. Someone should have told me to run around and relax a little!

I'm in the middle - age 7! At some local dance competition with my trio partners, Allison and Laura. Check the shoes!

I'm in the middle - age 7! At some local dance competition with my trio partners, Allison and Laura. Check the shoes!

(And this period of time coincides with my other blog post, How the Police Athletic League Inspired a Generation of Dancers.

Miss Joan's studio closed when I was around 10 or 11, so my mom was on the hunt again for somewhere for me to tap dance. This was before the age of websites and social media, yet the next teacher my mom found to teach me was positively legendary for tap training in Philadelphia. Everyone knew who she was. And that person was Miss Rita Rue. Her linoleum-floored, low-ceilinged studio was located at Frankford Avenue and Longshore in the Mayfair section. Compared to my studio now, her space was TINY! No parking, teeny tiny dressing room, no amenities, no air conditioning. But she made it happen. Miss Rita's trademark was impeccable style, professional presentation, never a hair out of place, and clean, crisp, perfect technique. Miss Rita did not play either! The way she trained us would never fly in today's dance studio culture, where the kids are always right, (a blog post for another time :-)) Oh no. Miss Rita was always right. Period, the end. 

Miss Rita took me on when I was 12, slapped a pair of 2.5 inch tap heels on me, and put me in the group with the senior dancers. Again, I was in another situation where I had to work my butt off to keep up. As a result, my technique improved. I also got to wear the coolest costumes and learn how to perform like a pro, even though I hadn't hit the teen years yet. The years at Miss Rita's were some of the best dance years of my life.

Best floor in town

Ten years ago, when I kept an office chair warm in corporate America, it wasn't all dreariness and spreadsheets. One day, while I was sleeping through a project management seminar, I was woken up by one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received.

NIHITO.

Nothing Important Happens In The Office.

And it's so true. Nothing important happens in front of a computer screen. Or hunched over a smartphone, typing out Instagram posts. The only way you can move your ideas forward is if get outside. You have to put yourself in the places where you have an outside chance or even a home run chance of meeting the right people. Or meeting people who know the right people. You get my drift. Nothing important happens in the office.

Which is why, every so often, I get out of Dodge and land myself in a place where I can get fed creatively, meet the people who are getting the shit done, observe trends and generally get lifted.

 Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Oberlin Dance Commons in San Francisco. If you've never been, it's a temple, a Garden of Eden, a Willy Wonka Factory of Dance. It features two buildings, 200 classes a week, a professional company, a theater, hardwood floored studios (more about that later), a robust adult and kids program with over 20 dance styles, it's unlike anything I've ever experienced. I was particularly interested in visiting and taking class there for a few days because ODC features a number of percussive, vernacular and world dance styles - tap, flamenco, Afro-Cuban, African, Samba, Jazz Blues....as well as one of the most virtuosic tap dance teachers in the world, Sam Weber.

And because they feature so many percussive dance styles and a good number of classes a week, the complex has several maple hardwood floors. HEAVEN!

After a few days of coming and going in the many studio spaces, I came away inspired, motivated and humbled.

It's not just having a maple hardwood floor, it's creating the right space, the right vibe, the right culture and mission that will attract the people who want to learn, thrive and build right along with you. It's about cultivating an environment where things can grow, where ideas spread. 

I have a lot of work to do to keep building the studio space(s) of my dreams, to live up to my goal of "the best floor in town." But after seeing ODC, it's all achievable.

And if there was a way I could teleport Sam Weber back to Philly with me every so often, I sure would! 

I'll knock you out

No, this is not another Rocky-inspired post!

But really, boxing and tap dancing aren't too far off from each other. Depending on the setting and what your mood is, there can be plenty of one-on-one sparring.

Tap dance was practiced on the streets and the tradition of tap dance is rooted in the challenge.  Much has been said about this subject in books and documentaries, but my favorite example comes from the movie, "No Maps on My Taps." Only a tiny clip exists on Youtube, but you can still catch a glimpse of how the lifelong competition between Sandman Sims, Chuck Green and Bunny Briggs pushed them to become the best individual musicians they could be. The challenge is how you make a living. The challenge is what fuels one's lifelong pursuit of the mastery of this art form. When you look at it this way, the parallels between tap dance and jazz music are crystal clear.

So, when people come to class and say, "I don't want to improvise," it's impossible to really teach the full scope of the art form, because the technique and timing that we practice in class is just one small slice of what it means to be a tap dancer. I'd say it's an 1/8th of this big tap-dancing pie. The other big slices of that pie are taken up by how YOU sound: how you keep time, how you swing, how you divide a beat, how you play with music, how you decide to take the floor. Even if you never challenge someone on a street corner, you have to use the shoes to contribute a sound that is uniquely your own. (In tap dance lore, Steve Condos used to say you had to "earn your shoes.")

Anyway, back to the boxing ring! Or street corner!

You could say that the street corner was today's version of Youtube or Instagram. It was one way to prove yourself and and get your name out there, through the most powerful form of advertising - word of mouth. It was instantaneous and in the moment. Youtube and Instagram allows for some serious editing and filtering, as we know.

In Philadelphia, we talk a lot about tap dancing on street corners, because the oral history indicates that Broad Street was the general place you wanted to be, if you were a tap dancer in the early part of the 20th century, and you wanted to test your skills. The common lore that's been passed down to me claims that Broad and South Streets was the corner you wanted to get to, because that's where the toughest challenges played themselves out.  You can watch this video of Philadelphia tap master, LaVaughn Robinson, to get a sense of how the street hoofin' tradition came to be.

Street hoofin' is a technique, and the technique that we practice here at Sound Space, taught by Robert F. Burden, Jr., comes directly from the sounds and phrases created and passed on from LaVaughn Robinson. It requires a low-to-the-ground, dynamically powerful approach. The steps are quick, complex and polyrhythmic. But again, the steps are just tools. In order to pass this kind of "challenging" tradition on throughout time, it's more about passing on the kind of practicing and sharpening and crafting of your own particular sound. So that, if you were to hit a corner, people would be able to hear you, before they even saw you.

And how do you do that? You have to get in the center of the circle, take the gloves off, and throw out your best pocket step. 

 

What tap shoes should I buy?

If you're just starting to learn this art form or you're returning to it after a long time away, I can understand why you'd want advice on what shoe to buy. First of all, it's an investment. Second of all, of course, you want to get the most bang for your buck: best sound, most comfort, cutest appearance. (We have to sound good and look good!)

Tap shoes are an instrument. Just like any other instrument, you have to figure out a way to play them. While every shoe has a different sound, and some definitely have higher-quality leathers and construction that allow for a richer sound, you have to make the music. No pair of shoes out there will make you sound like anyone but yourself. 

Let's think about that. How DO we make sounds in tap shoes? The short answer is, we pick up our feet and touch the floor. (The old adage, "if you can walk, you can tap dance," is true at its core). The toe tap has a different sound than the heel tap. Some people refer to the toe tap as the snare and the heel tap as the bass. 

So, how do you touch the floor? Have you just begun exploring your own technique and understanding of music? Are you able to practice at a variety of speeds? Are you able to make your sounds softer or louder? 

How are you practicing? Do you practice consistently, or do you use weekly class as your practice time? Are you practicing how to improvise? Are you aiming to practice in heels?

How do you want to sound? The goal of playing music/tap dancing is that you sound like yourself. What kinds of music do you gravitate towards? Do you like sounding "heavier" or "lighter"? Do you want to dance and practice in a shoe with some weight to it? Do you know how to "play" a shoe that has a heavy build-up?

Don't feel like you are limited to what you see in dance shops or dance-wear websites. You CAN buy a nice leather shoe and put taps on them. Cobblers can always add an extra sole to your favorite pair of dress shoes. 

In most cases, a better-made shoe will produce a higher-quality sound. (Again, what kind of sound do you want?) But, depending on where you are in your training, most expensive doesn't always mean it's the best for you. The custom shoes are not going to make you sound like Savion Glover or make you magically do a 5-count wing. If you don't have the stamina or muscle training, a shoe with a triple build might slow you down. 

While I know everyone wants to get a good deal, you get what you pay for. The patent leather shoes with the ribbon ties might be the cheapest, but....yeah. You already know. If you wear split soled tap shoes, you are putting your joints and ligaments at risk. Just say no to split soles! And please don't buy any shoe with a metal heel. Please.

Gonna fly

If I had someone following me non-stop with a camera during late February-early March of 2017, the footage would feature a lot of crying, frantic phone calls and bourbon drinking. However, this is the  age of "reality-based living," so to my mind, those last weeks leading up to the studio opening looked more that famous training montage from Rocky 1.  Turn that music all the way up!

Leasing a new commercial space gets you way more press attention than I'd ever realized. That attention, however, seems to come right when you're getting punched in the stomach by your trainer (watch the montage, people). So, when my husband told me I was in Philadelphia Magazine, I was deep in my training montage mind: "sorry, dear. I'm real busy doing these one-handed push-ups."  (For real, it was more like, I'm going to blow a blood vessel in my eye trying to figure out how to hang 500-pound mirror panels on a wall).  When I finally saw the article, a few days later, YO I was feeling it! Philadelphia Magazine, y'all! I was jumping up and down on the top of those Art Museum steps (in my montage mind).

But somehow, the press got even better!

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A few weeks later, Sean Kearney interviewed me in the gleaming new studio for a recurring Spirit News feature which profiled new neighborhood businesses. His final article was titled "From the Ground Up," and I mean it when I say that he wrote the most accurate representation of who I am, why I expanded the studio and basically, why I get out of bed every morning. Why I let someone punch me in the stomach sometimes, or why I run 30+ miles to the Art Museum steps some days, (remember - this in my reality-based mind; in truth, I do zero athletic activity) - - because the exhaustion and sweat and crying and long-ass nights of hanging 500 pound mirrors, it's totally worth it. You get that view of the city from all sides. If you look real hard, you'll see 2511 West Girard.

How the Police Athletic League inspired a generation of Philadelphia dancers

Before Starquest, Starpower, Starbound, Starsystems, Beyond the Stars, (did I miss any other "star" competitions?), Dance Moms, SYTYCD, and all of that, Philadelphia had its own way of judging kids talent, and it was the Police Athletic League, or PAL, Competition. For decades, it functioned as a Philadelphia dance school version of March Madness, with kids from all over the city competing at their local recreation centers, the local winners battling it out at bigger regional events, and then, all of those winners fighting for the top prizes at the coveted FINALS. The local competitions included dance and music, and the finals only divided kids by age, thus pitting dancers, vocalists and musicians against each other. My pianist brother made it the finals in 1986, and he lost to a young singer, I believe. I didn't start competing with a small tap group until I was eight, so around 1988, I entered the fray. 

Remember, this was WAY before the age of social media, yet the turnout for the local rounds was enormous. I can distinctly recall standing in line for over two hours to perform in the 1992 "solo tap" category round at the Lawncrest Recreation Center. The line of competitors went around the entire gymnasium. And you didn't want to lose your place in line. Nobody would have come looking for you, when it was your turn, and good luck trying to cut back into the same spot. I laugh to myself when I hear parents or kids describing "tough" competitions in today's circuit. Young whippersnappers, we were competing for first, second and third place. The proverbial gloves were off, and the talent was fierce. The judges were even fiercer. In tap, your technique, timing, personality, and speed had to be professional-grade. Your nerves had to be made of steel.

Getting to the finals was the ultimate goal. In the 1990 battle Royale, I made the finals in my ten-year-old tap solo category. None of this history is written down, so I can't check, but I believe that by the time I was standing in line at Lawncrest Rec, it was the last PAL competition of its kind, (although it lived on in other ways, which I will describe). 

In addition to the PAL competition, energetic Philadelphia dance kids could join another project, a traveling talent troupe, that performed in shows all around Philadelphia. Note well: this opportunity was completely and totally free. This is so important, because I feel strongly that there are so many financial barriers today to arts education and performance, and we are leaving many, many kids behind. My brother and I performed with the troupe throughout our childhoods. I'm not exactly sure how we both got pulled in. My mom is NOT a stage mom, so likely, someone told her about it, or I recall her saying that they contacted winners from the competitions or maybe, they called our dance teachers. Regardless, the gigs kept us busy. Every week or weekend from about 1988-1997, I was dancing somewhere: JCCs, nursing homes, retirement villages, hospitals. (Talk about linoleum floors, ha!) Bigger events included Philadelphia outdoor festivals with massive performance stages, the Robin Hood Dell, the Adams Mark hotel, (now long gone), Phillies games, PAL Christmas events, and fancy banquets. More than competitions ever did, these experiences helped me grow and learn and also, see the city. It was just really, really cool. I have no other way of explaining it to people who weren't there, but as a 10-year-old aspiring dancer, there's not much that can compare to stepping out on a big stage in the middle of the Ben Franklin Parkway and doing a tap solo, while hundreds of people watched. (I will find that photo....TK!)

But what I find most special about the traveling talent troupe is many of the people who danced with me then are still dancing now! Some of us own our own studios, and I see many of us teaching 7 days a week. Some of us are still performing and touring around the world. I believe that PAL inspired a generation of Philadelphia dancers to keep creating, performing and teaching. It certainly did for me.

For the last twenty years, since I stopped dancing with PAL and went off to college, I have had this itch to create my own traveling youth dance group, and recreate the experiences that I had as a child. It wasn't until April of this year, when the studio expanded to 2511 West Girard, that I was finally able to realize that dream and start "The Philly Clicks." I have fulfilled so many dreams over the last several years, but living this one is the sweetest. Just a few months in, and these kids have done something that I had never been able to do at their age - perform at the Mann Music Center! 

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I know these experiences will stick with them for many years, and even better, I get to re-live so many happy memories along the way.

Keep up with The Philly Clicks this fall as we travel to all different corners of the city. By this time next year, I hope to realize another dream - making the ensemble 100% free for all participants. Thanks once more to our first corporate sponsor, MMPartners, for helping make dance accessible to as many kids as possible.

My call from Dance Magazine

A phone call from the most recognizable dance publication in this country? It's a rare occurrence. And the first time that an editor called me, I missed it. (I changed my phone number).

A private message from the same editor, to a Facebook business page inbox that I rarely check? Almost missed that one, too! After I answered all of her questions about The Philadelphia Community Tap Project and my knowledge of the background story of Philadelphia tap history, I told her, "email me at my company address, it's much easier to reach me there!"

But then, the life hurricane - trying to open a new studio by yourself - happened. I went from one email account to five. (Five!) Somehow, in a perfect example of Murphy's law or mercury retrograde, I failed to turn on the notifications for the one email account at which I told the editor to contact me. I almost missed the chance to answer the follow-up queries from this same editor. Apologizing profusely, I explained that Sound Space was re-opening in less than two weeks, and I hadn't slept properly in twice that amount of time. But, I wrote, when the studio did re-open, you better believe that the fourth year of The Philadelphia Community Tap Project would happen on its brand-spanking-new floor.

And it did! In mid-March 2017, over forty-five people packed the studio for a class and choreography intensive with Ray Hesselink. In my ten or more years of organizing tap events, I never dreamed that I'd see this day - when almost fifty people, many of whom I had never met before, would stream through the doors, put on shoes, and make the loudest, most glorious volume of noise I'd ever witnessed. Ray had visited my Bailey Street studio the previous Spring, and I think even he was flabbergasted at what had just happened on that snowy cold March afternoon. PHILADELPHIA! COMMUNITY! TAP! JOY!

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Even better - the moment when I saw the final article in Dance Teacher Magazine. (As the story made its way through the pipeline of editors at the DanceMedia publications, it ended up there). Despite the miscommunications, the article rang out loud and clear. :-)

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The story of Sound Space

For a long time, I just made it work. The floor situation: Marley, carpet, linoleum, cement tile, slippery laminate, you name it, I've tap danced on it. The studio situation: carpeted hallways, apartment lobbies, friends' houses, my kitchen, church basements, rec centers. If you know me, you know I am that kind of "make it work" person. You got tap shoes? Let's go.

And tap dancers are nothing if not adaptable. If I was renting a studio space and the owner would say, no tap shoes allowed, I'd just find another one. Or I'd say, can I bring my board? And I'd eke out a private lesson on two tiny tap boards on a Marley floor. 

Resourcefulness, relationships and my natural ability to hustle helped me maintain my roster of students and schedule pick-up rehearsals whenever I found a gig. I had a little black book of tap-friendly contacts at a small handful of spaces. But eventually, it got old. I was competing for space, and trying to schedule my students was exhausting - for both myself and them. I got sick of dancing on Marley. I was frustrated that I couldn't really create or hear what I wanted to, when I gathered people for rehearsals. I realized that perhaps our constant struggle for legitimacy as tap dancers has so much to do with the fact that we don't have a home: a place where we can come and make as much noise as we want; a place where we can actually hear our instrument properly, a place that is dedicated to keeping all kinds of percussive and world dance alive. Really, why was it so hard to find a tap dance floor in Philadelphia?

So, I decided to make one.

In June of 2015, I applied for a business loan and received the grand sum of $5000. To me, this was a fortune. I searched for any kind of available space on Craigslist that was within my very small budget. As revenue sources, I counted my private lessons, my adult drop-in classes, and maybe a few renters, so I thought, I just need something small. Looking back, I see I was conditioned from decades of creating something out of nothing. I gravitated towards the spaces that nobody else wanted. I  looked at 400 square feet dank basements, and odd annexes in unheated warehouses, and old abandoned office spaces with low ceilings, and just about every strange (and cheap) commercial listing you could imagine.

At the end of June, I saw a listing for a $300/month, 300 square foot warehouse space on the "Bailey Street Arts Corridor," complete with a cool roll-up garage door, and I thought, hmm, that might work. (300 square feet!). I made an appointment to see the space at 1525 North Bailey Street. When I walked in, I saw it was just a tiny, windowless, garage, enough room for a few bikes and cans of paint. Even I couldn't see how it would work. But then, the landlord said, "well, I'm actually building out the whole first floor. Maybe you could take one of these back spaces? But they are twice the size." We walked down a narrow hallway, and he showed me the raw space with a crumbling brick wall, no interior wall, no ceiling, no electricity, and an uneven cement floor. However, it had three big windows and a side entrance to a cute garden courtyard. I could come and go as I pleased. I could build any floor I wanted. I also would have no worries about noise complaints. This was more than my wildest dreams. He made plans to finish up the space in late August, and I got the keys on September 1, 2015. The floor was down by September 14, 2015.

 

In those first few months at Soundspace 1525, I did a lot of dancing and creating and rehearsing, but the majority of my teaching focused on my private lessons. Honestly, it took my a while to figure out what I was doing there. Was this just a floor? Was it a practice space? Or was it a dance studio? Despite my many rookie mistakes and the impossible-to-find location, people did come by and dance. I made a ton of choreography. I organized a series of tap master classes with some of my most revered tap idols, from September - May 2016. (Unbelievably, they came!) We completed the third year of The Philadelphia Community Tap Project. By June of 2016, I got myself together enough to create a full summer series of weekly drop-in adult classes. It was working, but only because I was so determined. The main problem was: nobody could find the studio. And there were other issues that were clearly hindering my growth. I had to accept that I built an awesome floor, but it wasn't where I needed it to be. I was operating in the baby pool, and I needed to jump into the adult swim.

In early August 2016, I sent a short query about available commercial spaces to MMPartners. I was still operating with that same $5,000 loan, and I had no available capital, but I was at the point where I knew I had to grow or go. Very quickly, I heard back from one of the owners about a raw space on the second floor of 2511 West Girard Avenue. MMP had just bought the building, and my timing was perfect. On August 15, with my three kids in tow, I went by the building. We walked up the steep side stairs, and we were greeted with a large expanse of floor beams (no floor), windows busted out and vines growing through the floor. We couldn't even walk more than a few feet without fear of falling through the floor slats. However, I could see IT. This was the place where I needed to be. In late August, I signed the new lease, and I moved out of the Bailey Street studio on October 26, 2016.

 

While the building construction moved along, and with only $5,000 more in credit (the bank didn't have much confidence in tap dance :-) ), I searched and salvaged and borrowed and negotiated and drove all over the tri-state area to find mirrors, flooring, chairs, and a sound system. I built the website up and figured out schedules, instructors, programs, all with a pit in my stomach, because: what if this didn't work? I had no cushion, no rich relatives, three kids to clothe and feed, a mortgage, a car loan, I don't need to go on. The anxiety made the muscles in my chest tighten and burn for a good 3 months. I worked constantly on absolutely every aspect and then worked some more. 

On Friday, March 3, 2017, on quite possibly the most stressful day of my life, I re-opened the studio with a cheese tray, a lot of wine, and a tap jam. People actually came through the doors and danced! My biggest fear was that I'd be sitting there alone, and that didn't happen. It was a positive sign. 

At the six-month mark, I am working harder than I ever have in my life, but when I see people coming to tap class regularly, (around here, that's huge), or I am able to host tremendous master artists from around the world for guest classes, or renters come through and tell me it's the best floor they've ever danced on, I can drink another cup of coffee and motor through it.

I'm going to keep this bus rolling for as long as I can.

Still working off that same $10,000 loan! Grow or go. #bestfloorintown