Artrepreneurs in the age; or, how to survive idea theft

It’s the quote that spawned one thousand memes: Jim Jarmusch’s invective that, “nothing is original.” It’s true. Everything comes from somewhere.

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I tap dance and I create in the tradition of jazz music. I listen to a ton of jazz music and I like to watch a literal ton of archival tap dance footage, sure. Yet, in no particular order, I am inspired by all kinds of odd things seemingly unrelated to my art form: feminist theory, the life of Weldon Kees, all manners of twentieth century modernist poetry, people-watching, Janet Malcolm, Northeast Philly corner bars where I can sit and do said people-watching, Toynbee tiles, haute couture Instagram accounts, Bridget Everett, touring this old historic mansion near my house for the two-hundredth time….What inspires me out there in the world eventually moves me to go through the process of making my own art. What gets my creativity flowing is personal to me and doesn’t make a lot of sense, except to me.

I have never had a problem coming up with creative ideas. My mind is always going a mile a minute. My personal challenge for the last several years has been to pick one or two ideas, out of the hundred that might come to me, and focus on them to a high level of completion.

Even ten years ago, when I was working in sales, I had a lot of ideas. Speaking up in meetings was one way for me to stay awake in Cubicle Land. After these meetings, many people would take me aside and caution me to keep my ideas to myself. At first, I didn’t particularly care who knew my ideas, because I didn’t particularly care about the job. I was good at sales, but I had no intention of climbing a corporate ladder and kissing multiple behinds to land a director position. I was just keeping a seat warm. I legitimately felt this way until an elder colleague of mine stood up in a department meeting and word for word recited an idea and project proposal that I had tossed around in an earlier staff meeting catch-up. I was younger then and totally ill-equipped for how to respond. Inside, I was fuming; on the outside, I couldn’t form words. So, the incident happened, but I let it go.

By the time I directed all of my energy, effort and time into building my freelance life, and eventually, opening up my first studio, I had done about 8 years of time in a fairly high-pressure job in corporate America, and I felt like I had seen it all, especially working in sales: people back-stabbing each other to get promotions, people setting others up to fail, the meetings where your boss would throw your entire team under the bus, those wretched people who wrote passive aggressive group emails in red font, and folks who would do anything to “win.”

I naively didn’t think I’d encounter the same kind of environment in the arts. That was my primary mistake in my early days of freelancing and studio ownership. Not that I put stuff out there and had it stolen, but rather, not expecting it to be stolen, and spending too much time feeling like a victim—like I had lost valuable ground.

If you sit in the pain long enough, it’s a learning experience. If you take a look at those who copy your ideas or steal your priceless work, they aren’t your people. Your people are the ones with the ideas that grab you by the shorthairs, the ones who dominate your attention without even trying, the ones who inspire you to think bigger and be the best you can be.

It’s all about the long game. There are no shortcuts to the rewards. I’d rather do the work.

Grant writing

In the fall of 2012, I was in the beginning stages of preparing to quit my day job to pursue freelancing in dance.

I decided to apply for my first grant, because I had been led to believe that the process was something you had to do to be a real artist. I also decided to apply because I am me. Before I go any further with this post, it’s also important that you understand something about my personality and how I got that way.

I’m a Philly chick from a lower middle class family. The two main ways that we identify our people is by our nasal-ly accents and our big old chips on our shoulders. People often say to me, “Philadelphia is an angry town.” They aren’t wrong. We booed Santa.

I’m not an angry person. I do, however, have an edge. I inherited a big-ass attitude, a tireless work ethic, as well as an outsized ambition that comes from some past entrepreneurial ancestor in the universe.

Since I was a child, if I heard any version of the phrase, “we just don’t do it this way,” I would do everything I could to prove them wrong. Actually, I love proving people wrong. It is from this place where my creative fires start burning and I begin most of my ideas.

So, the first grant that I decided to tackle was the Pew Dance Advance grant. I really had no business applying for that Pew grant in the fall of 2012, but somehow, my letter of intent slipped through the first round. My project was based on bringing my mentor, Heather Cornell, to Philadelphia to re-stage repertory from Manhattan Tap on Philadelphia dancers (and lead workshops, panel discussions…basically the whole nine yards that Pew likes to see). From October of 2012 until February of 2013, I wrote draft after draft, had conference after conference at Pew, revised budgets a hundred times, chased people for their own letters of intent, committed multiple venues, and filmed work samples. Despite many people raising their eyebrows at me and subtly (or not) telling me I should throw in the towel, I saw that grant proposal to the bitter end. On the day it was due, I walked the package to the Pew offices in an stupor, and then I literally collapsed with a weeklong flu. (This is why people hire grant writers).

Oh, and I also lost. I tried to be cool and not show my disappointment to anyone I knew, but when I received that rejection email, I still recall the feeling of how it sliced open my chest and brought a flood of hot tears to my eyes.

Weeks later, though, I pulled myself together and decided to listen to the panel feedback. I only recall one quote: “we are amazed you made it as far as you did.”

Back-handed compliment? Maybe. I took it as a challenge.

I dove into business for myself in July of 2013. Once I did, I took this grant thing by the horns. I won two grants quickly and right around the same time. Small But Mighty Arts awarded me $500 to produce the 11th and final installment of Philly Tap Teaser. Then, the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts awarded me $1100 to work with Dorothy Wasserman, Jane Goldberg, Philadelphia dancers and a jazz quartet on new and re-staged tap dance choreography by Dorothy herself. It was just the right amount of beginner’s luck to make me grind on and keep logging projects, shows, collaborations and the inevitable failures.

From 2014-2018, I wrote and won the PA Council award three more times, and I also won three grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. My primary focus of the grant writing in these years was to support new choreography commissions for the swirling tentacles of this organization that eventually became The Philadelphia Community Tap Project. I commissioned choreography from Heather Cornell, (we finally did the project that was originally rejected by the Pew), Max Pollak and Ray Hesselink.

I don’t regret the process of writing those grants for community projects, because it was what I needed to do at the time to crystallize my vision and strategy for my multi-faceted interests in tap dance. I love community work, but I love other things, too, like choreography and performance. I also learned so much by writing these proposals all by myself. Up until five years ago, I took everything associated with my dancing so personally. When you write grants, you have to learn how to separate your passion for your art from the purpose of your art. I had never written previously about exactly what I did and why it should be important to others besides me. I had never had to evaluate my projects as profitable (and therefore, doable).

I learned how to apply my knowledge of business: sales, market analysis, P&Ls and features and benefits to my artistic projects. Similar to how you might launch a widget or a new fashion line, every project needs a budget and a timeline. It needs to have a market. It needs to show some kind of profit margin. And, if it doesn’t, you need to be prepared to write off the loss and have a plan for how you are going to do that.

OK, but here’s where it gets tricky. It is hard to propose a new idea in the field of tap dance, if the market you are in….isn’t even really considered a market.

I live in Philadelphia, where our tap dance scene has been under-funded and under-represented for at least the last twenty years. What that means is: any past market data is not currently co-signed by any major presenter, venue or institution. It’s grass-roots and self-reported. In other words, we are trying to obtain funding for a market that nobody (in a position of arts power, anyway) believes to exist.

Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:

1) none of our academic dance programs have a tap dance major, which means we don’t have any kids training to be professionals in this art form;

2) as a corollary to that, academic teaching positions in tap dance are almost non-existent;

3) a lack of local young choreographers means that no major venue regularly supports new works in tap dance,

4) and, there is no reliable institutional incubator for emerging and established tap dancers or their work,

5) since it’s hard to see new works in tap dance, I encounter local professional dancers who admit they’ve never even seen tap dance performed live,

6) and since we don’t have a professional society or department or standard in this city, I witness provincialism, lowering standards, and a real lack of interest in maintaining the integrity of the art form.

Our art form needs true professionals who are committed to absolute excellence on a daily basis: people who teach at a high level, create at a high level and execute on an even higher level. Tap dance evolved alongside of live music accompaniment, and it will not persist into the future without it. If we can help it, we cannot accept any public, professional presentation of the art form to recorded music. We should not support any entity that allows the art form to be presented incorrectly. Tap dance will cease to exist, unless dancers train and perform and compose and play as strongly as musicians. In Philadelphia, especially, we have such a deep tradition of street hoofing and the artistry it takes to be able to execute at the highest level.

I wake up every day with the drive to preserve the art form of tap dance with honor, respect, and integrity. I received that drive from my mentors and teachers who taught me how to conduct myself as an artist. They gave me everything that they had. I have a deep responsibility to carry it forward. Since I was a child, I’ve given so much back to this city, and for free, because I love tap dance so much.

When I started out five years ago, I wrote grants because I believed I needed to state a case for tap dance. I wrote them because I believed I needed to legitimize the cause.

However, I have decided not to write grants for the foreseeable future, because when I look at how much time I have spent, and how much I’ve received from the city and the state in return, it’s pretty clear: I am wasting my time going this route.

(I am, however, NOT wasting my time continuing to build an infrastructure. Just Google me).

The applications are full of obstacles, hurdles, hoops, moving goal posts - you get the picture. I used to work in corporate America, and I am familiar with how frustrating it can be to follow every last regulation and rule to make that sale or win the customer. However, when I wrote the proposals back then, I was getting compensated for it. When I write grants, I lose money every minute I’m sitting at the computer, trying to write the perfect turn of phrase.

For example, here’s a feedback quote from an application I submitted this time last year:

“The panel felt that you needed to include more info about Philadelphia tap history and why it’s important to tap dance education.”

Where to begin?

Well, first, I focus on the word “more.” More implies that my response lacked information about Philadelphia tap dance history, and that the panel did not have enough information to understand why my organization’s programming is relevant today.

I re-read my response, which I felt included as much information and detail as I could provide in 750 words. Just to give you some context for my expertise in writing about this topic, I was interviewed on a nationally-syndicated public television program about Philadelphia tap dance history and I’ve also done numerous radio interviews on WRTI and G-Town Radio. I think I know my stuff, at least well enough for others to call upon me at times to be a credible source.

What did the panel feel was lacking in this one answer, where I explained the roots of Philadelphia tap dance, how I grew up as a part of the legacy, why I created my first community project in 2008 to preserve and promote the Philadelphia scene, how the project grew over ten years of time to spread the history to hundreds of people, and eventually, how the demand and growth for the educational programming was one of the factors behind my opening of the first dedicated percussive dance space in Philadelphia?

What does “more” mean?

What does “important” mean?

In short, the panel suggests that this project is obviously important to me, but they need some sort of tangible proof, besides audience and participation numbers, that it’s important to anyone besides me.

Remember - my community data and project participation history, while I think it’s impressive, is not blowing up the skirt of anyone else on the panel, and as of this writing, no established venue or presenter is co-signing it.

If it’s really a catch-22, then there is nothing I could write that would answer the question in the manner that the panel would like. See, that’s where the grant game begins - - where my job becomes a rabbit hole investigation of the panel’s current definition of the word “more,” “why,” and “important,” and I write myself into an endless editing corner….for a $700 check.

On top of all of this, there’s no guarantee that these definitions won’t change from year to year.

Which brings me to the numbers, the data, the profits, the proof that any arts project is viable.

Viability in the arts is a relative term, just like success is.

I define viability in the following ways:

- people liking what you do

- projects that contribute positively and necessarily to the field in which you practice.

What I’ve also realized about institutional viability is this: I’ve worked so hard and so consistently at building my own multi-faceted arts business that I’m not even working off the same financial playbook as the grant organizations.

If you want to make artists adopt good business practices, it’s bad business to take weeks of our lives to write grants and prove our worthiness via an online data portal.

I am a busy creative artist actively engaged in making, producing and presenting new projects in tap dance. In order to do that, I created and implemented my own scalable structure…that works. Here’s the proof:

www.soundspacephilly.net

www.takeitawaydance.com

www.phillytapproject.com

Grant organizations seem to be so afraid of giving artists autonomy over any amount of money that they require them to adopt revenue models that, as far as I can see, have no measurable impact on improving artists’ profitability. I would say they do a good job at decreasing artistic productivity, because now it’s become part of the standard practice to push applicants to watch webinars, set up frequent conference calls with administrators and hire professionals to make the models work the “right” way. The revenue models push us to pad budgets with ancillary professional services, in-kind donations, staff and perfunctory activities to improve the look of the overall yearly budget and therefore, the margin. I don’t understand why current best practices don’t encourage and reward true creative resourcefulness. My time is far better spent making fantastic art with brilliant people and then supporting it with a real donor base, audience sales and new revenue ideas.

Algorithms don’t support real, innovative, emerging and new projects in concert tap dance. What I do doesn’t fit neatly into a profit and loss model that will produce me a big fat check. And I’m totally OK with that.

I understand the need for the process, but I need to get myself out of this process, really, to grow. And, while I do that, I’m going to keep proving everyone wrong.

How did you get into tap dancing? (Part 6).

How do you build a tap dance community?

Do you schedule classes, jams, special workshops, shows, build a studio?

How do you mobilize people to dance? How do you get people to care about what you do?

Way before The Philadelphia Community Tap Project, I was confronted with those questions for the first time around 2003, when I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for graduate school. I ostensibly moved down there to get a Masters degree and study and write and maybe get a private school teaching certification, but no surprise, I ended up dancing the entire time I was there. In 2003, there was actually a very cool and high-quality modern dance scene in Charlottesville, and I jumped right in. One of the first places I found was McGuffey Art Center, where I started taking class with Miki Liszt, Dinah Gray and Ashley Thorndike. Also, at that time, Zen Monkey Dance Project was producing a lot of great work, under the direction of Katharine Birdsall. Eventually, I started rehearsing and performing with the Miki Liszt Dance Company and Prospect Dance Group, (directed by Dinah and Ashley). Oh, and yes, minor side note....I was also living in Charlottesville, when I got to perform a jazzy opening number with Tony Bennett at the Paramount Theater! (That's a blog post for another time).

 Tony Bennett is the man and he is also quite petite. :-)

Tony Bennett is the man and he is also quite petite. :-)

 

So, when was I tap dancing? I wasn't. I didn't tap dance for the first six months I was in Charlottesville. After a half-hearted attempt to find an existing class, I concluded that tap dance just wasn't happening there. There was definitely tap dance in Washington D.C., but that was about 2 hours away by train. I figured I wouldn't be in Charlottesville long enough to start something up. I didn't have the time to get around to scheduling my own class, (the whole graduate school thing).  

Then, as it always does, tap dance found me.

1) I answered an ad for a part-time summer dance instructor job through the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Department. After my interview, the director decided I should spearhead and run an entire tap dance program for kids and adults. From 2004-2006, I taught 3-4 classes a week around the city.

2) Word got out and I started teaching a weekly adult tap dance class at McGuffey Art Center, and the class got pretty popular.

3) I started meeting other tap dancers! This is one of my favorite tap dance stories, so get ready.

In 2004, I was setting up for one of my adult tap classes at Carver Recreation Center, when I hear these shuffle pullbacks of death, positively barreling down the wood stage. The feet were CR-ispy clean. When I heard these sounds, it was akin to hearing angels singing, "HALLELUJAH!" I look up, and I see this girl in tap shoes standing there. I'm thinking, "OK, feet of death, hello to you, too." Her name was Lauren Squires, and we struck up a tap dance friendship that exists to this day. Lauren now directs her own wildly successful tap dance company in Columbus, OH called Movement Afoot

And then after that first shuffle pullback meeting, Lauren and I made a couple of pieces for a show, and that was a lot of fun. So, yay?! I was in a new city, I thought I wouldn't even tap dance and I I ended up meeting tap dancers, I created some classes, I got a chance to perform a few times. End of story? 

Well, yes. That story ended when I moved back to Philadelphia in 2006. Lauren now lives in Columbus. The small community that we managed to build in a year in Charlottesville did not sustain itself, according to Google.

But, for both of us, I think it's always been: OK, THEN WHAT. How do you mobilize people to tap dance? How do you get people to care about what you do? How do you find others like you? 

For me, I definitely tried, but I couldn't answer any of these questions, until I figured out who I really was as a tap dancer. (Part 7).

Freelancing, Part 1

This post has a few parts and a lot of elements to it. I'm not even trying to pretend that I can wrap this one up in a nice, neat bow. 

It's about freelancing, mostly. And how freelancing can help you discover a lot of important things about yourself as an artist, navigating the world.

Being a freelance dance instructor and competing for jobs on the market is not for the weak. It means that you have to be prepared to drive long distances, cobble together multiple jobs, eat every meal out of your car, be ok with zero job security, chase paychecks from many different people, constantly dig for work and never get enough sleep.

I was a freelance dance instructor "on the side" for about 15 years. It was a pretty serious side hustle, though. From 2003-2006, for example, I was directing the entire tap dance program at the Charlottesville Department of Recreation, while I was going to graduate school. In 2013, before I quit my day job, I was teaching at three different studios at night, while I was also cranking out an 8-hour day at the office by day.

In July of 2013, after some encouragement from funders and presenters, a small but promising  list of private students, and some really wild signs from the universe, at the age of 32, I decided to quit my 9-5 office job and become 100% self-employed in the field of dance. 

What does that mean exactly, when you make such a decision and you have all these dreams of what you'd eventually like to accomplish, but in the short term, you still have to pay the bills and feed your kids? For most of us, it means freelance dance teaching at local pre-professional studios. Large studios all over the country hire specialized teachers to bring the latest technique to their kids. If you're really savvy at it, such instructors can worm their way into becoming "competition choreographers" and make more money at teaching winning routines. Being a tap dancer, I probably had an easier go of it getting jobs in studios than, say, a post-modern performance artist. And I did. For 3 solid years, from 2013-2016, I pounded the pavement and held down jobs at twenty-two dance instruction locations. (I have probably even missed a few).

 At the highest point of the dance season, I'd be double-dipping: teaching an early after-school class from 3-4 pm, and then hightailing it to another gig, in horrific traffic, 20 miles away, so I could teach for 3 more hours. And then, maybe, I'd do a late evening private lesson. Saturdays and Sundays, same thing. I'd be up at 7 am to drive to a distant suburb to teach class from 9 am - 12 pm, and then I'd come home and likely hit an afternoon workshop time from 2-5. When the calls came, I dropped everything, got in my car, and chased the money. I felt like I had to do this to prove to everyone that I could do it, to prove to my family that I would do anything to get it, and to prove to myself that I wanted it more than anything.

As insane of a schedule as it was, my deep dive into taking absolutely any job, anywhere, reactivated and sharpened my teaching skills pretty quickly. I worked at some really crazy jobs. (A separate post on how to choose a dance school is coming..!) For almost a year, I worked at a studio where the owner insisted the kids should wear character shoes instead of tap shoes, so that their sounds would be muffled and mistakes wouldn't be heard as easily. (?) Once, I spent an entire year teaching on a concrete floor with ripped marley on top, and the kids would say to me, "why do my hips hurt soooo bad?" I would drive 2 hours to a froufrou boarding school in Delaware to discover that their dance program organizer decided on a whim to cancel class and not notify me. Chasing down the paycheck for my missed time at that job was one of the worst forms of torture. That's what I mean, when I say, it's not for the weak.

In February 2014, I found out I was pregnant with my third child and that he would make his entrance in September of 2014. His introduction into my life was nothing less than mercurial. He is a rainbow baby. His growing presence came about, though, when I was at the supreme height of my insane dance freelancing juggling act. When I should have been sitting my butt down and resting, I prepared for each day as if it were a battle. Extreme nausea? No problem. Dizziness to the point where I had to lie on my side and breathe deep to get my bearings? No problem. Exhaustion to where I couldn't feel my legs? No F-ing problem. I didn't tell anyone I was pregnant, until the answer became obvious. Even then, when my situation was clear and it became harder to jump up and down, I still had my game face on. I was still taking any job, anywhere, anytime, because I had to prove to everyone that I could do it, I had to prove to my family that I would do anything to get it, and I had to prove to myself that I wanted it more than anything.  

In July of 2014, at 30 weeks pregnant, I was teaching at a summer day camp from 9-3, coming home, and then setting competition choreography at a dance school in a far western suburb about an hour drive from my house. It was the summer, a slow time for dance work, and I needed the money. I rationalized the night job in a couple of ways. Setting the choreography wasn't the most high-impact job. I could sit on a stool if I needed, and the kids were trained well enough that I didn't have to demonstrate everything. More money for baby things.

Until I got to this one particular studio on a hot and humid afternoon, and I was told two things: 1) I'd be in the upstairs studio, which was a non-sprung, concrete floor and 2) the air conditioning wasn't working. Oh, there was a third thing. The windows didn't open. The owner was nowhere to be found, so I dutifully completed my two hours of instruction in a hot, poorly ventilated room, without complaining, and I returned to my car. Once I finally sat down and started driving, I realized that I was contracting, and the contractions were coming about 5 minutes apart. Uh oh. Fast forward a couple of hours, and I was being admitted to the hospital for pre-term labor. 

(Side note: the response from the studio owner when I told her I was admitted to the hospital, due to the working conditions at the studio: "can you send me your cut music?")

My 2-day stay in the hospital won me 6.5 weeks of bedrest, during which time I couldn't teach at all. Dale Michael the IVth made his entrance tap-dancing. He broke my water feet first. He was breech and born via emergency c-section on August 21, 2014.

I already had five jobs lined up for the September 2014 opening of classes. As dramatic as his delivery was for me, Dale's entrance was perfectly timed, in that I could be available for the first month of classes. Every studio that was employing me at that time was owned by a woman, and not one of them was at all sympathetic to the fact that I'd just had emergency surgery.

(Another side note: when I went into the hospital for pre-term labor, a studio owner that had employed me for the following day for an intensive was more chuffed and annoyed than anything that they'd have to find a substitute on such short notice).

Good, trustworthy substitutes were impossible to find at the start of dance season, and none of the owners went out of their way to help me find covers. I was expected to be at class two weeks after I had my c-section. Or, if not, there were many other people who would have gladly taken those jobs. I sucked it up and arrived at my first hours back after having Dale, with a weeping wound in my lower belly, which was covered by several inches and layers of medical gauze and tape. I remember that first Saturday, holding my stitches as I carefully pretended to jump up and down, and then coming home, totally exhausted from the effort of looking like I hadn't just had major surgery.

I started to realize that freelancing, in Philadelphia at least, was a horizontal plane with no upward mobility. If I really wanted to do what I wanted to do, and create the environment for percussive dance of which I had dreamed, I had to open my own studio. I started that process before Dale Michael turned one year old, in June of 2015.

Celebrating in the age of siloing

I am old enough to remember a time before the internet took over our lives. When I entered college in 1997, I didn't have my own computer, and when I did log on a computer, it was to type my papers from my handwritten notes into a word processing program. For at least the first month of my freshman year, I didn't even know I had a college email account. One day, I sat down in the computer lab in my dormitory, and I watched the kid next to me open up "Telnet." That was when I learned that I had this online depository for important messages, and that I should probably check it at least once a day. When I traveled the whole 8 miles home on holidays or breaks, I had no access to the internet, and *it didn't matter*. My interest/obsession in checking my email only changed, once I met my boyfriend-now-husband in 1999. Once he graduated from college and moved away in the Spring of 2000, we communicated primarily through email, because long distance calls were too expensive. Long distance calls! 

I think it's absolutely stunning how technology and smartphones have changed our entire existences. Our phones are the adult version of baby pacifiers. Even though my cell phone number is my business number, and I have five email accounts at the moment, and you know, I'm "busy," I'm embarrassed to say how much I check my phone during the day. It's too much. But I'm trapped into it. I spend so much time answering, posting, making these dumbass Instagram stories, and trying to "stay out there." If you exist in this world as an artist or in any kind of commercial capacity, social media is a game we all have to play, and some days it feels like a race to the bottom. 

Most interesting to me is how phones have become our primary way of documenting (and therefore promoting) GREAT THINGS THAT HAPPENED. If we don't post photos and videos or recaps of something we did, then there's no proof it occurred. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have created these ways to make us spend most of our days looking at screens. So, the general public is more likely to experience events and interact with people through their phones, instead of leaving their house and experiencing something in person. It's so much easier to do. You avoid parking, getting dressed, running into someone you don't particularly like, awkward small talk, the possibility that the event will suck and then you have no escape.....we all know the excuses. So, the videos and photos posted after the fact allow you to confirm for yourself if really you missed out, or if you made the right choice to stay home. We have definitely become a society in which we can easily convince ourselves that staying home was the right decision. It's easier to do nothing.

I don't think this is depressing news, or even news. The ubiquity of cell phones have only highlighted a universal truth about human behavior - we make selfish decisions based in our own best interests. The only difference now is it's easier to see, in real-time, who actually showed up, and then, who is supposedly "going" and who is "interested."

Over the ten years that I've produced community tap dance events in Philadelphia, from shows to jams to National Tap Dance Day, I've gotten to a very Zen state about all of it. Here's the thing. The only way you can produce community events like these is if you have zero expectations about absolutely all of it. Read that again. Maybe less than zero. There will be no recognition for the work, definitely no money made, no citation from Mayor Kenney (although that would be nice), no champagne toast (there's no budget for that). Along with the zero expectations is the understanding that the road to producing any kind of high-quality community event is lined with shit. I will spend a full year busting my ass and fighting the city and its robot-bureaucrats and doing a literal tap dance at Home Depot so I can explain to the store managers what tap dancing actually is, so I can get a plywood donation, and then people drop out (read above about self-interest) and there's also the possibility that nobody will even show up to the goddamn thing.

I do it anyway. I do it because I love tap dancing and I love Philadelphia and I love everything that tap dance has given me, such that I want to give something back to the city (that also wants to charge me $1200 for a 2 hour permit). I believe passionately in public art and public displays of art and accessibility to the arts and sharing joy and commemorating people and places that will absolutely disappear if one of us doesn't keep saying them out loud. Someone is listening. I have proof.

 Tap Dance Day 2016, Passyunk Square

Tap Dance Day 2016, Passyunk Square

 Tap Dance Day 2017, Headhouse Square. Phoyo by Toni Caldwell

Tap Dance Day 2017, Headhouse Square. Phoyo by Toni Caldwell

Tap Dance Day 2018, City Hall

All photos by Toni Caldwell

How did you get into tap dancing? (Part 5). Or, thoughts on recital season

If you've been following along with my blog posts, you'll recall that I spent my teenage years tap dancing at the Rita Rue School of Dance on Frankford Avenue. Miss Rita was a big influence on me. I learned how to perform, how to entertain a crowd, how to select the right costume, how to do stage hair and makeup, and how to carry myself offstage. I need to make a hashtag #whatwouldmissritado, because now that I run my own kids program and I encounter all kinds of situations, I think that question to myself at least once (<cough..a hundred times>) a day.

Yesterday was my first kids recital, and while I was running around like a crazy person, I flashback-ed to Miss Rita, circa 1997, and how she looked at my last recital. She looked like a queen. She was impeccably dressed in a cobalt blue pantsuit and heels, dripping in rhinestone jewelry, hair perfectly coiffed, sitting comfortably backstage, surveying her dancers on stage, her face relaxed. She was definitely NOT sweating and running around like a maniac. She had trained her kids well. None of us were afraid of her, (I loved her), but we knew the expectations, and they were high. In so many ways, even after all this time dancing, teaching, performing, working, I am such a beginner. I have MANY years to go before I'm chilling in my perfectly-pressed pantsuit at recital. 

I've been dancing for 35 years and teaching in dance studios for twenty years, so I've been involved in twenty years of recitals as a tap teacher. My first job was at Chestnut Street Dance Academy (now Urban Movement Arts) at 20th and Chestnut Streets. I was 18 years old, and I was taking modern class at this studio, for no other reason other than it worked with my college schedule. One day, I was telling the owner that tap dance was my thing, and just like that, she offered me a position as the kids' program tap instructor. I had no idea what I was doing, but I faked it well enough, I guess. Our recital that year was somewhere downtown, in a hotel ballroom, and I recall being amazed that the kids actually performed the routine we had practiced in class. So, this is how teaching works! Hard work pays off.

Even after all this time, I'm still amazed at how recital time works its magic on every single child. The anticipation, seeing the stage, having their families in the audience, waiting for their turn to perform - - it all sprinkles a kind of fairy dust over them. They get swept up in the backstage craziness, and they feel like they are a part of something big. They make sure their classmates all come on stage and that nobody is forgotten. If someone forgets a step, they help each other out. There are disasters, and missing costumes, and you can never predict what the baby class will actually do, :-), but the overall experience is priceless. That's why we do what we do - for these precious moments when every kid shines from within.

All of this is to say, I had no idea back in 1998 that I had all those years ahead of me, that one day, I'd be teaching a dozen classes a week, that I'd standing in front of a large crowd on a Sunday afternoon, about to present my first recital. It is amazing and overwhelming and still totally unbelievable. The only way I can explain it is, the world pushed me in this direction. Despite all of my doubts and fears about what I was capable of, the instability of an arts career, three small kids at home, I eventually got out of my own way. Every experience in my life, every dance teacher I encountered, every student I've ever taught in the studio, they all pointed me here. I am looking forward to everything that is to come.

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How did you get into tap dancing? (Part 4)

My husband bought me one of those 23andMe DNA tests for Christmas, so I joined the club and spit into a test tube a few months ago. After 38 years of being told I was mostly Polish-American, it turns out that's not the case. While a large majority of my family emigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 1900s, 14% of my ancestry is Swedish. (If you do a quick look at the geography, it makes sense, the Southern tip of Sweden is just across the Baltic Sea). Actually, most of my DNA is classified as Balkan. My maternal grandfather was 100% Albanian, and I suppose he came from a long line of pure Albanian stock. When I told my mother, who had grown up speaking Polish, carrying on Polish customs and going to Polish Mass at St. Ladislaus once a week, that she was actually Swedish and Albanian, you can imagine how that went over. All those Labor Day weekends spent at Our Lady Of Czestochowa, our love of Lawrence Welk and Port Richmond kielbasa, it all appears to be misplaced. 

I was thinking about this today, because upon meeting me and discovering my obsession for all things dance, a question I get from a lot of people is, did anyone else in your family dance? No, but perhaps my obsession for dance is genetic, if scientists ever find a related gene. I imagine I might have had a few wildly dancing Albanians or Greeks in my family tree. Balkan music has incredibly complex rhythms. Who knows!

Another thing about me, that's just 'in my blood,' is I'm not as Type A as I appear. I have a serious Bohemian tendency that makes me apt to wander, hang out, sit and stare at trees for long periods of time and free spirit my way through a day's tasks. I remember a Saturday in my senior year of high school when I literally danced and traveled all over Philadelphia with Robert F. Burden, Jr. all day long. When I finally walked through the front door with my falling apart Mish bag, (you know you had one!), my mother sighed, "my daughter, the Gypsy." A little off in the geography, but she was right. If I could, I'd be a tap dancing Gypsy, a traveler, a seeker, meeting new people all the time who wanted to jam. Who's with me?

All of this is a lead-in for why I think I connected with Robert in 1996, and why I think we've gotten along to this day. My mom encountered Robert first, on her way to and from work, dancing on a tap board in the underground concourse at Suburban Station. He always drew a large crowd. She didn't make the connection about who he was, until I started taking the night classes he taught at the University of the Arts. Right before then, my mom and I saw him and his company perform at a show at the Drake Theater. It's kind of funny how, when you look back, that you see how there are no coincidences in life. 

Tap dancing outside is great publicity, because Robert's night classes around 1996 were always packed. It was the late summer of 1996, when Robert called me over after his class and asked me to come to a rehearsal for his company, Tap Team Two. At that time, Robert was rehearsing in New Jersey, but he could have asked me to travel to Newfoundland, I would have been there. One of my most favorite memories is riding home on the El that night, with my mom, and I was squirming in my seat, I was so excited and overwhelmed with glee. This invitation to the dance was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me.

Robert taught me a lot about improvising and dancing in the moment, because so many of our early performances were outside, amongst crowds, busking while people walked by. A crash course in straight-up, classic, Philadelphia street hoofing. You got to have something to say, because it's just you and the board holding someone's attention. My favorite memory is of us carrying our boards and dancing our way through every terminal in the Philadelphia airport.

Robert also has this way of changing the performance on a dime, be it the tempo, the actual order of what we had carefully planned to do, or even your part. If you aren't keeping an eye him, you'll be sorry. If you weren't minding the groove, you'd be even more sorry. You had to keep up your end of the conversation. I loved and still love dancing this way. I never found it terrifying, because I realized that there weren't any mistakes, if you just kept going and kept riding the wave of energy. Listen for a while and find the groove when you're ready. Or pick up your feet and keep moving, there was always a way back in. 

Birthdays

My oldest daughter turns twelve tomorrow. Shortly after I learned I was going to be a mother, I remember calling my own mother in a hormone-addled panic. "My life is over," I weeped. Give me a break: I was 25, and drama was still my defense mechanism. "Your life is just beginning," she said.

When Violet arrived on February 24, 2006, my husband and I were living in Charlottesville, Virginia with no other family around. My husband worked night shifts, and I worked a 9-5. I spent the first three months of her life, fumbling into my new role as a mother, alone. She was a terrible sleeper, and without me knowing any of the "sleep tricks" I know now, she woke up every two hours. I'd lie down with her at 6 pm, and by the time I'd have to get up for work at 6 am, in that 12-hour time span, I'd have logged about six hours of fragmented sleep. When Dale arrived back from work at 7 am, I'd hand her off to him, and I'd set off to do my eight hours of work. I'd take the baby from him as he walked out the door, and I'd do it all again, alone. Nothing or nobody could have prepared me for how hard this transition would be. Still, I gamely tried to find time for my dancing. One Saturday morning, when Violet was a month old and Dale was at work, I remember I hatched an escape plan. I'd pack a diaper bag, I'd bring her fold-up bouncy seat, I'd strap her into the baby carrier, and I'd lug all of the stuff and her to the bus stop so that we could get to my regular pre-baby dance class. Of course, we never made it out the door. But, just like all moms who dance, I came up with other plans that worked: you plan around naps, you multi-task, sometimes you just leave the baby with your partner and leave the house for two hours, no questions asked. In that regard, I've always been extremely lucky. 

My life had begun with the birth of my first daughter. Before she came along, I had no idea of my own strength, or how tough I really was, or what I was capable of accomplishing. My life in dance certainly might have been different and much more linear, if I hadn't become a mother, but being a mom and having only so much precious time to create and practice didn't deter me, it just made me that much more determined. 

I'm thinking about birthdays today, because this February also means I'm celebrating the tenth birthday of a community project that I birthed in February 2008 called "Philly Tap Teaser." I moved back to Philadelphia in June of 2006, and I was doing some dancing, but nothing really major. I put my choreography out in small showcases, and I was taking class. One night, I was knocking around some ideas with Jaye Allison for how to fundraise for her annual Philly Tap Festival, and I said, "how about we make a showcase?" It would be a "teaser" to get people excited for the summer festival. From February - April of 2008, I casually called people I knew, asked them to perform and I planned that first show to go off at the Community Education Center. Tap Teaser 1 premiered on Saturday, April 26, 2008. I wish I could find that first flyer I made or the first program. Well, maybe it's a good thing I can't. My first tries at promotional materials were HORRIBLE! And talk about low-budget: at one point during that show, I tiptoed to the side of the stage so that I could plug in a boom box and play a cassette tape of music for one of the performers. 

I don't even know what encouraged me to keep going after that. We did have a nice crowd at that first show. It felt like something that the audience enjoyed. It seemed like something that the dancers appreciated and wanted to keep doing. At the time, there was no showcase just for tap dancers who wanted to try out work or show a finished piece. I had long felt like Philadelphia needed something to jumpstart our tap dance scene, (I did a few interviews about this over the years, which you can read here). So, I thought, well, what if we do this show twice a year? In October of 2008, on the weekend of the Phillies World Series parade, (big mistake!), I put up Tap Teaser 2 at the CEC. Nobody came! But, for whatever reason - stubbornness, stupidity - I went on from there. From 2008-2014, I put up two shows a year around the city. Most of them were really, really small affairs, but then we'd have a barn-burner crowd, and I'd decide to keep organizing them. In 2010, I added a musician or even a jazz trio in every show, and when I put up the last show in November of 2014, every performer on that stage was performing to live music. I'm still really proud of that.

Show production is extremely hard, thankless and expensive. I put my own money into every one of those shows, and I lost money every single time. I rented the venue, I printed programs, I paid for musicians, I put in countless hours of admin time sending press releases, organizing dancers, putting out last-minute fires. Besides these shows, I was also producing master classes here and there, and tap jams when I could. Why on earth would I do all of this? Well, of course, I love tap dancing. I love Philadelphia. I have a freakonomics-sized skill at organizing. I loved giving people a chance to collaborate and be on stage. All of this. But upon many years of reflection, I think that all of this work was my long, convoluted way of finding my artistic voice, while also balancing the demands of motherhood. Since I directed the shows, I was able to try out my ideas in a low-key environment. I could try out musicians I liked, I could put pieces on stage that weren't fully formed, and I'd bomb many times over, but it was OK. Another thing that I'm really proud of about all of the shows is: the vibe was always friendly, fun and totally cool. Anyone could join, everyone was welcome, let's hang and learn from each other, let's build together.

And if you didn't already know this, I have a pretty hard-core work ethic, and it only got sharper and more focused, as I got better at putting up shows. The experience I gained doing this on my own was invaluable. There was no problem I hadn't encountered and therefore, there was no problem I couldn't handle. For example, in May 2009, I was in early labor with my second daughter, when we put up Tap Teaser 3 at the Painted Bride. I was afraid of moving and breaking my water, so I perched my nine-months pregnant self on a chair at the "front of house" and took tickets, while I texted the saintly Charles Tyson multiple instructions for running the "back of the house." When the last show went up in November 2014, I had just sustained a super-dramatic delivery only 8 weeks earlier and I still had my c-section stitches. Can't stop, won't stop.

I loved this dance baby I had created. I had so many great memories. By the time it had turned 6, I kept getting hints that it was time to set it free. Thanks to these mini-incubators twice a year, I had artistic ideas of my own that I wanted to produce and I realized that I needed to let this project go, if I really wanted to make those ideas a success. November 2014 was the swan song, and what a swan song it was: standing-room only crowd, killer live band, people dancing in the aisles. It felt like the perfect going-away party.

But the universe had other plans. While I was going about my life doing ten thousand things, I had been working with Jane Goldberg and Dorothy Wasserman on a new artistic idea that would allow Dorothy to set some of her choreography on dancers in Philadelphia. In September of 2013, I got an email from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts that I had won the grant! I was really excited about this development, because it seemed to indicate that I was moving in the right direction, away from community organizing, and towards other kinds of concert work. Fast forward a few months into the residency, and Dorothy mentioned that she had this fun, beginner level tap piece that she could possibly teach during one of the community workshops we had planned for the project. The idea kept snowballing, and I think I said, "what if we put that piece in the show, too?" About 20 people from all over Philadelphia signed up for the workshop, practiced the piece, and performed it with live music at my concert "Meet Us At The Corner" in June 2014.

The next iteration of The Philadelphia Community Tap Project was born - a education and performance platform driven by some of the most influential folks on the scene. In 2015, I did the same thing. I put out a call for anyone who was interested to learn a piece by my mentor, Heather Cornell, and the work was featured on an episode of Articulate. In 2016, I finally had my first studio space at 1525 North Bailey Street, and I was able to hold rehearsals whenever I wanted! Max Pollak created a body percussion piece which sounded off the charts at Rittenhouse Soundworks. In 2017, I put out the call again, and almost 50 people showed up when Ray Hesselink came to my "new" studio at 2511 West Girard Avenue. His appearance and the opening of the new studio snagged me a nice mention in an article in Dance Teacher Magazine.  

Over these last four years, the project has grown up in ways I could have never imagined. As much as I try to get away from it sometimes, (FYI: grant writing is one of the worst forms of torture, as is asking people for money), I love this work. Community tap dance projects give people a chance to share themselves in all of their shining, beautiful glory. I firmly believe that sharing ourselves and our gorgeous music-making humanity is one of the most political things we can do with our bodies. Tap dance and music brings people together, across any divide. Just hearing the tap shoes outside, anywhere, draws an instant crowd. And, the process of learning new stuff with other people forms instant bonds - bonds that might never have been made outside of the studio. Through my own practice of teaching the art form to absolute beginners, I have witnessed that people learn a whole lot about themselves when they are presented with a challenging task. Learning how to move your body to make music opens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you confront fears. Through the learning, you communicate freedom and joy. Boundless joy. 

I have three kids of my own, now 12 (!), 8 and 3. Motherhood is my mantle for life, and I love every minute of it. So, is there a next ten years for my other tween-arts child? It looks like it! The adult performance group continues! I now have a traveling youth tap ensemble that is sponsored by businesses in Brewerytown! And then, as for what the future really holds, I get clues. 

A few months ago, I somehow won the good-karma lottery and struck up a collaboration with SpArc Philadelphia. Someone from their Westmoreland Street center called me out of nowhere and asked if I could host some of their adult clients at my studio, lead them in rhythmic exercises and guide them towards a movement practice that include tap dancing and body percussion. Now, once a month, (my favorite day of the month), a group of adult dancers pull up to my front door, bound up the stairs to my studio and fill the space with their generous, brilliant, colorful, fantastic spirits. Despite their visual impairments, their language deficiencies and their physical limitations, we stomp, play, hug and sing. We jam to Stevie Wonder. We play the cajon. We make music with whatever tools we have. Their presence gives me so much life that I can't even put the words to it. I see myself finding new avenues to bring the joy of tap dance to even more people, and that's super exciting. It doesn't get any better sometimes, watching my beautiful kids grow up.

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Watching this project grow has also been one of the greatest thrills of my life.

June 1, 1996

As I think back through time, my memory is both fuzzy and sharp. It's hard for me to remember important things, like names, but I'm keen on small details. Most people who meet me would likely describe me as introverted. That's true, but it's less about shyness and more about how I'm consistently lost in my own head...I'm a total space case...and while I'm in there, I'm gathering a multitude of particulars about the world around me. I can remember exactly what a friend was wearing at a house party twenty years ago, but I have a hard time remembering my middle daughter's 3rd grade teacher's name. (This just happened). 

So, when I sat down to write this post, I vividly remembered the showcase I went to on a Saturday afternoon in late May/early June 1996 at the Drake Theater. I even remembered what I was wearing (a late-90s trend: Gap short-sleeve Oxford in blue and green windowpane plaid). But I had to scroll back through my iPhone calendar to figure out the correct date. June 1, 1996.

On that day, my mom and I were downtown. Sixteen, a dancing queen, I was training often, and Saturdays meant that I was taking my weekly modern jazz class with Roni Koresh. After the class was over, I recall Roni saying to all of us, "come over to our show at the Drake." I wanted to be one of the cool kids, so I begged my mom to stay a little bit later in town, and my mom agreed to it, likely because the showcase was free.

It was a gorgeous, mild, early summer day - one of those rare days in the city when it's not too hot or crowded, when everyone is out shopping and staying on the streets a little longer than they'd planned, and I couldn't get enough of the vibe. In 1996, the Drake was still a hotel/low-rent apartment building and the black box theater could still be rented by anyone. It felt like a place where things happened. My eyes were glued to the stage.

At that showcase, I received my first introduction to post-modern dance and that was wild. I believe Karen Bamonte and Melanie Stewart were on the bill. I believe that Myra Bazell was in the show, but again, fuzzy memory. There was an early iteration of Koresh Dance Company. I also saw two performances that literally crashed into my skull and transformed my mind about what dance could be. I saw Rennie Harris leading one of his first crews in "Students of the Asphalt Jungle" and "Endangered Species." Twenty years later, I can still call up how I felt, watching these super-human creatures demolish the stage, and how my heart burst out my chest as I first encountered hip hop as story-telling. (BTW: Do other people have "a thing" in their life like dancing is for me? I hope so, because dance lights my whole body on fire, and if you don't have something similar in your life, go find it). Anyway, I had never seen a dance piece lit or staged or constructed in that way before. It opened up a door in my mind to seeing choreography as something that could touch people. As a medium for making people feel all of the same things I felt when I heard music. As a tool for me to use all of the details and pictures and colors and sounds and ideas I had long collected in my own head. Also, if could If I had to pick one person who continues to inspire me with his humility, drive, vision and plain old badass, MFing-next-level-s### dancing, (I'd add more curse words, but I'm trying to keep this PG-13), it would be Rennie Harris.

I also saw Robert F. Burden, Jr. leading Tap Team Two and Company through a set that included Robert singing, shouting, and leaping about ten feet in the air at various intervals....basically being Robert. I remember looking at my mom and saying "I want to do that." Little did I know that I would be, less than two months later.

How did you get into tap dancing? (Part 3)

In 1995, I was 15 years old and obsessed with tap dancing. We didn't have the internet at my house until a few years later, so most of my teenage understanding of what was happening in tap dance came from old movie musicals on VHS and Dance Magazine. Not much has changed in Dance Magazine from then until now - they still rarely cover tap dance - but I remember tearing out a feature article about Manhattan Tap touring the world with a live jazz band, and I was blown away. I wanted to do THAT.

For my entire journey in tap dance, I have often felt like a wanderer in a foreign country, without a map, without much command of the language, seeking pieces for a puzzle, for which I don't even know what the final picture is supposed to look like.  In fact, the image is shifting all the time, and the idea of what it could be only comes into focus for brief split seconds, before I'm off to wandering, studying, listening and searching again. I've filled in the gaps with information I have stumbled upon, with names I have heard dropped, from my own reading of the few primary sources of merit, by traveling to meet masters, and much later, by shedding endlessly to find my own sound (And once I started exploring jazz music, the quest multiplied beyond comprehension). The search is definitely part of the process. So, in 1995, I was searching for a kind of tap dance that would feed my mind and challenge me to be like the dancers I'd heard about, and my mom found the University of the Arts. They had evening adult classes taught by LaVaughn Robinson, and in the summers, LaVaughn taught for the 2-week summer program.

I was always tall for my age, so I sneaked into the adult classes and grabbed what I could from the back of the room. Those evening classes were my scratch-the-surface introduction to LaVaughn's genius: an hour of us doing the same 8-bar phrase over and over. And, also new to me, the entire class was done without music. That was definitely cool and made me feel advanced, but to my teenaged mind, doing the same "simple" phrase dozens of times was "easy." Oh, how I had ZERO, ZIP, ZILCH conception of the education in timing, phrasing, accents and groove that LaVaughn was dishing out in front of me. Twenty plus years later, I'll teach a LaVaughn phrase to a class and I'll still find another new detail or nuance to it that I've never heard before. That's true musical mastery - when your material is so rich that you can listen to it hundreds of times and still find something new. 

I continued taking LaVaughn's weekly class into the summer time of that year. In the summer of 1995, my parents paid for me to take two weeks of all-day classes at the University of the Arts' "Summer World of Dance," and I was in heaven. I was in Center City, by myself, dancing all day, on a high. This was long before UArts had the fancy buildings with air-conditioning, and because of the heat, they suggested you only take four 90-minute classes a day. I didn't do that, because LaVaughn's classes were in the late afternoon and evening. I took 6 classes a day, so that I could do two tap classes in the evenings. Most of the people I was dancing with were nowhere near the level of diehard that I was, so those summer classes were empty. Did I have any idea how lucky I was? Not really. And still, LaVaughn taught that same "easy" 8-bar phrase, which I dutifully executed, "perfectly." To my teenaged mind, that's all tap dancing was - the perfect execution of steps. What else was there? I had no clue. One memory that I still return to, time and again, was LaVaughn, listening to his class practice his music, taking a beat, and then laughing to himself while telling us, "it's more than a notion." If I had to have one sentence inscribed on my tombstone about tap dancing, it would be: "it's not about steps."

In 1996, at the age of 16, Robert F. Burden, Jr. took over LaVaughn's evening classes at UArts, and meeting Robert started me on a 15-year journey with Tap Team Two and ultimately learning and performing a large body of LaVaughn's material all over Philadelphia and the East Coast. I thought I was on my way. But the journey wasn't even started yet.

The universe is indifferent

Dance, much like music, is more than a job or a career, it's a lifestyle. It's all-consuming. It's addictive. It decides why you do the things that you do during the day. It's personal and complicated and sometimes you hate it. Sometimes you love it. It's the medium for how you express who you are. It's nothing if not dramatic.

It's punishing, difficult, and disappointing.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. And we are not everyone. 

What is the tap dance lifestyle, then? It's really just a life-style. Practicing humility. Listening more than you speak. Acknowledging where you came from. Admitting that you don't know anything. Losing all fear to realize your full potential. Doing your best work.

As I reach more people through the studio, I realize that I have enough experience now, to become the person I needed when I was younger, when I was wound more tight, when I was too afraid to put myself out there. I've been through it. I can relate.

It's experience balanced with a healthy dash of coincidence and magic. The world put me in the same place with dance teachers who handed me lessons that I didn't even understand or reap the fruit of, until decades later, when I needed them most. Somehow, in their wisdom, they were the person I needed. They saw I needed the lesson then. Bugger for me, though, it took ME the decades of life and study to take the knowledge to heart. 

One of the most powerful lessons I ever received about dance and life came from Mr. Stephan, who I wrote about briefly in my introductory blog post about the Next Generation Dance Theater, and he also makes an appearance in my post about Maurice Hines

In those earlier posts, I wrote a little bit about how I didn't fit in with the kids at Next Generation. First of all, I was much younger than all of them. This meant that when they were talking about boys and parties and high school, all I could offer to the conversation was how much I liked Babysitters Club books. Second of all, I was a much worse dancer than all of them, years behind them in training. I've never been a super extroverted person to begin with, and at 11 years old, awkward, shy and hopelessly uncool, my defense mechanism was to hide. 

I guess Mr. Stephan noticed it long before I did, because when he finally said something about it, he was SUPER annoyed at me.

One Saturday afternoon, at the start of his jazz class, I creeped into the studio, shut the door quietly, and scurried to the back of the room. I wasn't doing a great job of disappearing, though. In true 90's dance fashion, I was wearing those enormous "garbage bag" pants that made 80-pound me look like I was encased in a powder-blue space suit. Plus, those pants squeaked! (So tragic!)

I hear a loud voice.

"WILL YOU *PLEASE* STOP TIPTOEING AROUND AND RUNNING TO THE BACK OF THE ROOM? I CAN'T STAND IT!"

Me?

Oh no, it's me.

Commence me trying to smile to hide the tears that were about to start falling.

"WHEN YOU WALK INTO A ROOM, WALK INTO A ROOM!" "WALK INTO A ROOM!"

"YOU SHOULD NEVER ENTER A ROOM LIKE A SILLY CHURCH MOUSE!" (yes, he said that...seared into my brain).

"AND WILL YOU PLEASE TAKE OFF THOSE PANTS THAT YOU'RE HIDING BEHIND!"

Mr. Stephan made me remove all my practice clothes and walk back into the room with confidence, some attitude. I think I did a sad jazz walk, while everyone stared. I was mortified. Everyone was snickering. It made the punishment even worse. The extra attention and his attempt to help me had no impact on me at all, then. I wanted to dance, sure, but I didn't want to be seen. I'm not sure I wanted to be seen for YEARS after that, although dancing was all I did.

It's a dance and life lesson: if you have something vital to say, you have to be 100% OK with being seen. Even more than that, you have to have a strong, passionate desire to WANT to be seen. It's not ego, it's survival. 

Why? Because the universe is indifferent.

Also?

The universe is competitive.

And it's brutal.

It's full of people who want to be seen. It's full of people who want to be seen but who have nothing to say. For that reason, they are also deeply afraid. If these outwardly-arrogant-but-inwardly-insecure people sense fear, they will take that opportunity to win, to take advantage of you, to take what you want to say and make it theirs. Why? It's easier than facing their own fears. No matter what you do in life, these rules are pretty consistent. 

(And now I know why LaVaughn Robinson only ever taught ONE combination in class. ONE. That's all he was giving up).

Anyway, scurrying to the back line like a church mouse isn't going to make anyone say, "aw, isn't that cute?" Even at 11 years old, it's a blaring signal that you don't believe in yourself.

Years upon years of dance and life experiences later, I have to say that this is the lesson I've had to learn and re-learn the most. What I wouldn't have given to have learned it on that day when I was 11 years old! But, I think it's all part of the process, it's just the task of taking on the lifestyle and embodying the purpose that we are all individually given. You have to face the insecurities, come up against yourself, and take giant steps forward, all the time. It's not ego, it's survival.

And, if there's anything the universe is indifferent about, it's tap dance. Only a few of us do it, because, it's not easy. It's up to us to plant ourselves in the front line.

Build a tap floor, too, maybe.

All of it.

Baltimore, Maurice Hines and me

Do NOT read any further if you don't know who Maurice Hines is! Take a few valuable minutes of your life and learn about him on the interwebs. 

Ready now? Good!

In 1991, I was eleven years old and training at the Next Step studio with Mr. Leon, Mr. Stephan, Miss Delphine and Miss Jaye, and through their professional connections on Broadway and elsewhere, they were able to bring Maurice Hines to the studio for a jazz master class. All of us kids were all there, and we were all vey excited. 

(Yes, Maurice is a HOOFER with a capital H, just like his brother, but for whatever reason, this class was jazz.)

Mr. Stephan's studio wasn't terribly spacious, but we found a way to pack ourselves in and make it work, battements, pirouettes, layouts, and all. If you read my previous post, then you know that I was younger than most of Stephan's students by about 5-6 years, and I was nowhere NEAR as advanced as them in jazz, ballet or modern. So, Maurice is giving out this combination, and I'm definitely not getting it, but I'm trying like hell to keep up. I just keep going into every group and doing the dance as best I can. I'm pretty sure my coke-bottle glasses were steamed up from the effort.

At some point, I'm toiling away in the back of the room, and I hear this booming voice from Mr. Hines. "Baltimore!" 

(FYI, I'm wearing a light pink t-shirt from a trip my family took to Baltimore).

Is he talking to me?

Everyone turns around and stares at me. I'm adjusting my shirt. Oh crap. I knew I should have taken this shirt off. Mr. Stephan was adamant that we should only ever wear leotards and tights. But other people are wearing shirts, so....

He says it again, "Baltimore! Come up here."

Oh crap. I must have really screwed up. CRAP!

CRAP!

I scamper to the front and he grabs me into a side hug. What?

"Baltimore, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

I'm speechless. I can't say anything.

"Well, let me tell you. You're either going to be a dancer or the President of the United States, with that kind of determination! Keep going."

Everyone has a good laugh, he pats me on the back, and I move back to my place, in shock. Whew. He didn't talk about my shirt. The moment was over.

Did that just happen? He thinks I could be the President? 

After class, everyone said, wow, Pam! Maurice Hines talked to you! I couldn't believe it either. I was just glad he didn't yell at me because I sucked at jazz (I kind of did), or that he told me I didn't belong in the class (which I probably didn't, but I had teachers who believed in trial-by-fire).

I'm in tears writing this out now, because almost thirty years later, I've worked with so many kids myself, and I know how one simple word of encouragement can really inspire them to keep going. Teaching is one of the most important jobs on this planet. Clearly, I've never forgotten this encounter with greatness, and I will admit, during the low points of this dance life, sometimes I think about that time, and I use it to encourage myself, still. If there's one thing I do have, it's the love. You have to love dance so much that you'll do anything to get it. 

I had the chance to meet Maurice Hines a few times after that, through the Philly Tap Challenge events that Jaye Allison produced and spearheaded in our fantastic tap city. One time, I got up the courage to recount the story to him, (in the thirty seconds of face time I could grab), and he didn't remember me, but he lit up when I told him the story. He remembered it as something he might have said to an eager, awkward child, who had so much love and determination and passion spilling out, that I could be anything I wanted to be...even the first woman President.

How did you get into tap dancing? (Part 2)

I don't know how to explain how people found out about a good thing, before the age of the Internet or even email forwards, except that it was "in the air." 

Somewhere around 1990, I was ten years old, and a couple of the kids from my Police Athletic League talent troupe started going to jazz class at Joanne's Dance Studio at the intersection of Broad and Porter. Except Joanne wasn't the teacher - it was a man by the name of Stephan Love. 

Also "in the air" was my understanding that I didn't know much about dance except for tap. I wanted to do more. My mom and dad gamely went along. So, one Saturday afternoon, I ended up at Joanne's Dance Studio and quickly realized I didn't know shit! These kids in Stephan's class were AMAZING! I was also younger than most of them by about 5 years, and with my combination of glasses, braces and frizzy 90's hair, I know I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Stephan was a real force in the Philadelphia dance scene in the 80s and 90s. He was vibrant, fun, direct, exacting and off the charts talented. Around the time I encountered him, he was directing a youth dance ensemble called the Next Generation. He was also working on creating his own school. So, from the period of 1990-1991, I studied with him and other guest teachers that he brought in, until he opened a school at 2nd and Arch Streets called the Next Step. This was WAY before Old City was the affluent enclave it is now. Stephan was a real pioneer in that neighborhood. Once he opened his school, I was there every Saturday from 9-5. All of the kids under his tutelage danced ALL day long. I have another key story about Mr. Stephan that I'll share in a future blog post.

And, yes, I did tap there! Did we EVER! We had some of the most incredible tap teachers leading us. The first one I encountered was the late E. Leon Evans. Leon studied with LaVaughn Robinson, so that was my first exposure to Philadelphia street hoofin and jazz tap in general. I also studied with Delphine Mantz, who also studied with LaVaughn, danced in heels and still has one of the baddest performance styles of anyone I've yet to encounter, and Jaye Allison, another LaVaughn student. (Do you see a pattern?) Jaye now teaches at Sound Space and helps guide our community tap initiatives. I always say that she can't get rid of me.

Now, most of these kids I was dancing with, remember, were way older than me. Leon allowed me to hang out and tap with the big kids, learn their routines and get the same kind of corrections they were getting - which were not friendly. You either had it or you didn't. No in-between. We practiced for hours, sweated through multiple shirts, and we were on some level all trying to outdo each other. 

You know, as I go back and reflect and write out all of these stories, I become overwhelmed with gratitude for the fact that I had teachers who taught me early on how hard the journey would be. Dance REQUIRES commitment and hard work, over many, many years. These experiences taught me determination. And honesty.  And they prepared me for a lifetime of consistent practicing. Also, learning from these teachers demonstrated to me that opportunities were not just handed to you. If you learned a routine, there was no guarantee that you'd perform it. Performing was a privilege not granted to everyone.

Around the summer of 1991, the older kids were learning a routine to Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation," which they went on to perform at the Apollo Amateur Night. (Yes lawd!) I tuned my ears and got the routine and practiced it endlessly, and it's still one of my favorite childhood dance memories - learning this routine and dancing with the big kids. I didn't go to the Apollo, though, because I wasn't ready. It was just understood, I didn't even think twice about it. The respect level I had, and my parents had, for these teachers was immeasurable. It was an honor JUST to learn the dance. It was an honor just to be invited into the studio to learn.

I have a few more stories on Next Generation to come, but meanwhile, here's a photo of baby Pam performing with Next Generation in Slaves to the Rhythm, November 1991, at the old MTI, now Iron Gate Theater. Can you find me? (I'm the middle one on the right hand side of the stairs).

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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. During this period of time, see also my next post, How I Got Into Tap Dancing, Part 2! After Mr. Stephan's studio closed, 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. 

 

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!)

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Bigger events included Philadelphia outdoor festivals with massive performance stages, (see below), 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. 

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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