“September,” by Earth, Wind, and Fire
courtesy of Youtube.
The other members of my tap class range in age from the 40s to the 70s. I’m not the only “Newbie” in tap class. There’s Bill, a mid 40ish professor at a Little Rock community college, who teaches step aerobics somewhere at 6 a.m., and Susan, a bubbly, blonde, young-looking grandmother who knows Bill from aerobics class and instantly becomes his best friend. Fortunately, Bill and Susan and I are on the same learning curve, meaning I can take comfort in not being the only clumsy dancer on the floor. Robin, a woman whose daughter takes classes with, starts the class with us, but it’s obvious she’s danced before, though it’s probably been years. She picks up the steps easily, as does Rosella, a small, quiet woman with grown children. The one age exception is Antoine, who joins our class a couple of weeks after we begin. Antoine is a 20s something college student with natural ability. As we begin to learn our recital piece, a disco tap dance to Earth Wind and Fire’s “September,” Deede shows us a boogie move involving lots of hips and arms and pointed thumbs—something that seems vaguely familiar from Saturday Night Fever—but after she watches Antoine in the mirror, she says to just watch him and do what he does. We’ve started calling it the Antoine.
The newbies join several class old-timers, among them Roxie, an serious little woman in her early 60s who has danced with Deede for years and is probably the best dancer in the class. Randy, a wiry 8th grade math teacher and scratch golfer, and Clarence, my inspiration.
In 2008, both my daughters performed minor roles in the Arkansas Ballet Nutcracker. They had a dress rehearsal Friday night, prior to the two performances on the weekend, and my wife and I both went down to Little Rock for the evening. The professional dancers from the Arkansas Ballet company were rehearsing live with the Arkansas symphony, so after my daughters’ first act rehearsal, we sat on the front row of the Robinson Music hall, my daughters still wearing their leotards and tights, in front of the orchestra pit, and watched the professional dancers, their feet at our eye level, rehearse the second act to a live orchestra. There is something incredibly beautiful and moving about watching ballet up close. From deep in the auditorium, ballet appears to be a silent dance, but up close you can see the sheer athleticism required to dance at that level. The dancers’ feet thud against the hollow floor as they leap, and you can hear them breathe heavily as they spin and twirl. The vertical leap of a ballerina rivals anything you might see in NCAA gymnastics. The strength of the male dancers as they lift ballerinas, with seeming effortlessness, the grace of the dancers, the beauty of their artistic expression, is only achieved through hours of exhausting practice and exercise. This, accompanied with the power of the full orchestra, all moved me in a way that, to borrow from Milan Kundera, can best be described as the “incredible lightness of being.”
That was the mood I was in as the evening grew late and my wife and I decided to start the hour drive home. As we held our daughters’ hands and walked up the aisle of the Robinson, a tall, heavy black man sitting on the end of a row stopped me. He said, “I just have to tell you, I’ve been watching you and your daughters and just thinking back on all the hours I’ve spent with my daughter, taking her to practice, watching her rehearsals, watching her performances. This is a really special time for you and them, and it makes me sad that I won’t have it much longer. It all goes so fast.”
We talked for a few minutes, and I found out his name was Clarence, easy to remember because it was the same as my father. I recognized his daughter from evenings in the dance studio. She was a strikingly beautiful teenager, with a tall slim dancer’s body, and most evenings during my daughters’ dance lessons, she could be found stretching in the hallway outside the studios, her legs spread at improbable angles, hovering over a textbook, while she waited for her classes to begin. Over the next couple of years I would see Clarence occasionally, in the hallways outside of studios waiting for classes to begin or end. We always had an easy conversation. I was completely taken by surprise a couple of years later, in the 2011 spring recital, when Clarence stole the show.
The dance studio where my daughters have taken lessons for years is huge, with classes filling five studios non-stop from 3:30 til 8:30, five nights a week and all day Saturday. Classes start with 3-4year olds and run through Pre-Professional level III, where the better dancers top out in high school and practice five nights a week. These young dancers virtually live at the studio. Professional dancers from the Arkansas Ballet Company teach upper level classes in ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and hip hop. The yearend recital takes two performances that run non-stop for over three hours, with the upper level dancers performing both days. The recital is themed each year. One year it was the choreography of Bob Fosse, and another focused on Las Vegas lounge acts featuring performers dressed up like Sonny and Cher and the Rat Pack.
In 2011, the theme was Elvis, and Deede’s adult beginner tap class danced to “Polk Salad Annie,” featuring Clarence as black Elvis and Randy as white Elvis. Clarence came onstage in full “Fat Elvis” glory, wearing sideburns, a white spangley jumpsuit with garish bell bottoms trimmed in metallic red and blue, dark tinted glasses, and a silk scarf to soak up the copious sweat pouring off his face. I honestly feared he was going to die of a heart attack onstage. The women in the tap class camped it up, playing the swooning, screaming, fanatics fighting to touch Elvis’ garment, or better yet take home a piece of the sweaty King. Clarence’s face showed he was having the time of his life. As he told me later, when we were discussing what prompted us to take up tap, “I thought to myself, how many chances do you get to say you danced on Broadway (the street the Robinson is on) with really talented professional dancers in front of hundreds of people?”
Later, just before the finale, the owner of the dance studio, Jana, introduced the dancers who were graduating high school that spring, and who would be going on to colleges around the country. They came out in their college sweatshirts and performed a dance together. Clarence’s daughter was one of those seniors, and during the finale Clarence, as Elvis, got to dance with his daughter onstage. It was a beautiful moment, one that had me crying in the audience. It’s an emotion that can only, perhaps, be understood by fathers of daughters.