dance

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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How the Police Athletic League inspired a generation of Philadelphia dancers

Before Starquest, Starpower, Starbound, Starsystems, Beyond the Stars, (did I miss any other "star" competitions?), Dance Moms, SYTYCD, and all of that, Philadelphia had its own way of judging kids talent, and it was the Police Athletic League, or PAL, Competition. For decades, it functioned as a Philadelphia dance school version of March Madness, with kids from all over the city competing at their local recreation centers, the local winners battling it out at bigger regional events, and then, all of those winners fighting for the top prizes at the coveted finals. The local competitions included dance and music, and the finals only divided kids by age, thus pitting dancers, vocalists and musicians against each other. My pianist brother made it the finals in 1986, and he lost to a young singer, I believe. I didn't start competing with a small tap group until I was eight, so around 1988, I entered the fray. 

Remember, this was WAY before the age of social media, yet the turnout for the local rounds was enormous. I can distinctly recall standing in line for over two hours to perform in the 1992 "solo tap" category round at the Lawncrest Recreation Center. The line of competitors went around the entire gymnasium. And you didn't want to lose your place in line. Nobody would have come looking for you, when it was your turn, and good luck trying to cut back into the same spot. I laugh to myself when I hear parents or kids describing "tough" competitions in today's circuit. Young whippersnappers, we were competing for first, second and third place. The proverbial gloves were off, and the talent was fierce. The judges were even fiercer. In tap, your technique, timing, personality, and speed had to be professional-grade. Your nerves had to be made of steel.

Getting to the finals was the ultimate goal. In the 1990 battle Royale, I made the finals in my ten-year-old tap solo category. None of this history is written down, so I can't check, but I believe that by the time I was standing in line at Lawncrest Rec, it was the last PAL competition of its kind, (although it lived on in other ways, which I will describe). 

In addition to the PAL competition, energetic Philadelphia dance kids could join another project, a traveling talent troupe, that performed in shows all around Philadelphia. Note well: this opportunity was completely and totally free. This is so important, because I feel strongly that there are so many financial barriers today to arts education and performance, and we are leaving many, many kids behind. My brother and I performed with the troupe throughout our childhoods. I'm not exactly sure how we both got pulled in. My mom is NOT a stage mom, so likely, someone told her about it, or I recall her saying that they contacted winners from the competitions or maybe, they called our dance teachers. Regardless, the gigs kept us busy. Every week or weekend from about 1988-1997, I was dancing somewhere: JCCs, nursing homes, retirement villages, hospitals. (Talk about linoleum floors, ha!)

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Bigger events included Philadelphia outdoor festivals with massive performance stages, (see below), the Robin Hood Dell, the Adams Mark hotel, (now long gone), Phillies games, PAL Christmas events, and fancy banquets. More than competitions ever did, these experiences helped me grow and learn and also, see the city. It was just really, really cool. I have no other way of explaining it to people who weren't there, but as a 10-year-old aspiring dancer, there's not much that can compare to stepping out on a big stage in the middle of the Ben Franklin Parkway and doing a tap solo, while hundreds of people watched. 

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But what I find most special about the traveling talent troupe is many of the people who danced with me then are still dancing now! Some of us own our own studios, and I see many of us teaching 7 days a week. Some of us are still performing and touring around the world. I believe that PAL inspired a generation of Philadelphia dancers to keep creating, performing and teaching. It certainly did for me.

For the last twenty years, since I stopped dancing with PAL and went off to college, I have had this itch to create my own traveling youth dance group, and recreate the experiences that I had as a child. It wasn't until April of this year, when the studio expanded to 2511 West Girard, that I was finally able to realize that dream and start "The Philly Clicks." I have fulfilled so many dreams over the last several years, but living this one is the sweetest. Just a few months in, and these kids have done something that I had never been able to do at their age - perform at the Mann Music Center! 

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I know these experiences will stick with them for many years, and even better, I get to re-live so many happy memories along the way.

Keep up with The Philly Clicks this fall as we travel to all different corners of the city. By this time next year, I hope to realize another dream - making the ensemble 100% free for all participants. Thanks once more to our first corporate sponsor, MMPartners, for helping make dance accessible to as many kids as possible.

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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