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