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.