Stephan Love

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.

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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