Philadelphia

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?

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.

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.

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