North Philadelphia

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.

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