Colors Part 2: Gangsta Tap

When Natasha, Seamus, and I signed up for our first tap class, my goals were simple. I just wanted to improve my coordination, meet some new people, and someday earn the right to wear tights and a tuxedo jacket with tails. I never imagined that tap dance could drag me down a path of violence and destruction – that same path I fought so hard to avoid all these years.
Like any disease, this cancer started slowly, almost undetectably. Seamus was the first to exhibit symptoms. Before we became dancers, Seamus was a laid back, happy-go-lucky kind of person. He had big, crazy ideas, but they were always hypothetical.
“I’m thinking about going on a diet where I only eat round things.”
“I’m gonna write a Broadway musical called ‘Moving On Up,’ based on The Jeffersons.”
“I think I might get a tattoo on my arm of all the cities I’ve been to in the past year.”
See, it was always crazy stuff like that. No one ever believed he’d really do any of those things. So when Seamus showed up to class sporting a swollen tattoo that said, “Cleveland,” I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
As time passed and we moved on to Tap II, Seamus became more and more passionate about how great tap dancing was. How it was so much better than every other form of dance. He said that just because we didn’t wear ruffled shirts and tight black pants like the salsa dancers didn’t mean we weren’t as important.
In order to get the respect he felt tappers were due, he decided to get organized. That’s how Seamus started the gang. Natasha was his first recruit, mainly because she came up with their gang name: the Tap Dawgz.
I told Seamus and Nat that I thought that might be a copyright infringement on the movie,Tap Dogs, but Seamus said he didn’t care.
“Look, Jenny – I’m the leader of a gang now. I have a tattoo. I just got my hair buzzed short at Klassy Kuts. You think I give a crap about some stupid copyright law? Besides, my lawyer said we’re okay because of the different spelling.”
Nat chimed in, “Yeah, just let them try to file a suit against the Dawgz. Who are they gonna sue once I bust a tap in their ass?”
They started pressuring me to join their gang, but I resisted. At least at first I did. It was scary how easily I found myself falling back into my old routine. After initially dismissing the idea of joining their tap gang, I caught myself doodling out a few logos for the Dawgz. First, some tap shoes with a skull and crossbones on the side, and later, a Rottweiler wearing a top hat.
But Seamus wanted more than just a logo from me. He said if I wanted to be a T-Dawg, I had to prove my loyalty. In order to be initiated into the gang, Seamus said I would have to sneak into the ballet class that meets before tap and slice up some shoes. Slice them up real good.
I didn’t like the idea of hurting anyone, especially the slight ballerinas in the 2nd floor studio. But old habits die hard, and when I came to tap class with a pocket full of severed pink satin ribbons, Seamus knew I could be trusted. He said my gang name could be Cyrus.
The Tap Dawgz were tight – all three of us. We answered to no one but ourselves, so when a rival dance gang – The Damen Avenue Jazzies – started encroaching on our turf, Nat said we had to take a stand. She said we’d be nothing but punks if we let them hang out at our Starbucks. I didn’t want to get sucked into a violent situation, so I brought up the fact that there were four other Starbucks locations within a five block radius, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Seamus said we had to prove to them who owned these streets, so one Saturday morning we went to the Starbucks looking for them. Seamus sent me in first to check out the situation. A quick scan of the coffee shop revealed three Jazzies who were getting their morning coffee before heading off to the studio to practice. Two of them were sitting at a table by the window reading the Tribune. Their matching red legwarmers told me all I needed to know – these were old school gangbangers.
All the playground karate in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the massacre I was about to witness.
Seamus immediately walked toward the blonde one, who looked to be their leader, while she was at the counter asking for a little more honey in her Chai tea. As soon as he approached, the tall one at the table saw what was about to go down, so she tried to distract Seamus with a frenzied interpretive dance called Time Unbound. It was dizzying to behold – I felt her anguish as she jerked her body back and forth, shifting her arms mechanically like the hands of a watch, and ultimately falling to the ground in what I believe was a poignant reference to sand slipping through an hourglass.
As hypnotic as her dance was, Seamus wasn’t phased. He slammed his cane down on the counter, sending raw sugar and nutmeg flying into the eyes of the Jazzies’ leader.
Seeing her two fallen comrades, the third woman tried to grab her gym bag and sneak out the side door, but Nat saw her just in time. Nat bent down, unscrewed her tap, and whipped it at the woman, knocking over the Grande cup of coffee that she had been drinking. The woman ran out screaming, scalded by what was left of her Americano.
“I catch you on our turf again, and next time it’ll be a Venti mocha! Chocolate stains don’t come out, you know!”
Seamus looked on proudly.
As I looked down at the disaster we had created – a trail of coffee seeping toward my shoes, sugar crunching underneath my feet, Java jackets strewn all across the counter – I felt sick to my stomach.
“Oh god. God. What have I done?”
I looked up at Seamus and saw him helping Nat carve another notch in her tap as she screwed it back on.
I want out. I love the Tap Dawgz – I mean, they’re the only family I’ve got – but I can’t do this. I didn’t struggle for 20 years to stay on the straight and narrow just to allow some feud over the box step vs. the time step to drag me back into this violent cycle.
So I told them I was leaving the gang. They were free to use my logo if they wanted, but I was officially out. I handed Seamus the dog tags he had made for me with the name “Cyrus” on them, and turned to leave.
As I walked away, Seamus yelled, “You’ll be back! Where else are you gonna go? Once a T-Dawg, always a T-Dawg!”
Not if Mrs. Garcia has something to say about it.

You Down With T.A.P.? Yeah, You Know Me!

New job.
New attitude.
New hair color.
New tap dance class.
My friend, Doubting Seamus, was eagerly anticipating the start of the next tap class so that he could ridicule Natasha and me when we didn’t sign up. After he dropped out, and Nat and I decided to take a brief hiatus from tapping, Seamus was positive that we would never return. He just didn’t believe in himself and his manliness enough to stick it out for another session, and he wanted to bring us down with him.
I’m not angry, though. I pity him. It saddens me to see such raw talent as his go untapped, so to speak. But as countless episodes of Dr. Phil have taught me, you have to want to be helped before you can accept assistance from anyone. Once he has seen the error of his ways, Nat and I will be there to help him with his Maxie Ford combinations.
But getting back to the first tap class – Nat and I were a little hesitant going in because we never told Teacher we were taking a break. We weren’t sure what kind of reception we would receive.
Would she snub us?
Would she welcome us?
Would she remember us?
As we cautiously entered the studio, dusty shoes in hand, we were pleased to see several familiar faces. And when Teacher came in, her usual fifteen minutes late, she greeted us both with a huge smile and a, “Hey! They’re back!”
Everything was going to be just fine.
In addition to the four or five “regulars,” there were also about five new students in the class. Gosh. It seems like just yesterday that I was one of those awkward, needy Tap I graduates, trying to keep time with all the Tap II pros.
We started out with the usual tap bar exercises to warm up our ankles. Then, Teacher surprised us by diving right into some much more advanced moves.
Single double time step.
Double triple time step.
Soft shoe essence with break.
Grapevine combination.
Nat and I actually surprised ourselves by effortlessly falling back into these routines we hadn’t practiced for two months. Hey! It really is just as easy as riding a log. Or falling off a bike.
Teacher could see that some of the newbies were struggling, so she asked Nat and me to switch places with them so they were closer to her. Then, Teacher asked me to step in front of the class and demonstrate a few different steps while she went to her car to get some more CD’s.
“See how Jenny does the military cramp rolls? She’s not dragging her feet – watch her ankles. Good! Good!”
This positive reinforcement and unexpected position of authority triggered something inside me. Suddenly, I was drunk with power. As soon as she walked out the door, I grabbed Teacher’s cane and started pounding out the rhythm on the floor.
“Come on people! With the beat! You sound like a herd of elephant right now!”
The newbies alternately stared at the floor, and at my feet, which were just a blaze of shuffles and flaps. They were intimidated and intrigued all at once.
“New girl! Yes, you in the back! Look. If you can’t tell the difference between a shim-sham and a flim-flam, I hear there’s still room in Tap I! This is embarrassing! The holiday pageant is coming up in less than eight weeks and not one of you knows the ‘Happy Feet’ routine yet! I hope you like disappointing orphans and senior citizens!”
Just as I was about to have them all drop and give me twenty, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror:
My knuckles, white from clenching Teacher’s cane.
Little spit bubbles forming in the corners of my mouth.
My eyes tightened and wrinkled with frustration.
The thick veins bulging from my forehead.
Oh god. I’m her. I’ve become that girl. I am Midge. The most hated of all tap students. What have I done?
So right there, in the middle of a flawless Cincinnati, I dropped the cane, grabbed my bag, and ran out of the studio. I’m not sure how Nat made it home that night since I drove, but I had to get out of there to collect my thoughts and lower my blood pressure.
I’m still planning on going back this week, but this time, I’m going to lay low. Teacher’s going to have to burden someone else with the job of demonstrating for the class. I clearly cannot be trusted with such a huge responsibility. At least not until I make it to Tap III.

Careless Whisper

I’m never gonna dance again. Guilty feet have got no rhythm. Though it’s easy to pretend, I know you’re not a fool. Should’ve known better than to cheat a friend, and waste the chance that I’ve been given. So I’m never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you.
As soon as Seamus reads this, my hypocrisy and betrayal will be revealed, but my conscience has been eating away at me too much to keep it a secret any longer. After relentlessly trying to guilt-trip him into sticking with tap class, Natasha and I have decided to take a break from tap as well. A short break, I swear! Just five weeks, until the next session begins, and the weather cools off, and we finish the 5K, and I find a job.
We’ve been taking tap lessons from Teacher for almost a year now, and Seamus’ departure made me question everything. Do I really have what it takes? Will I ever learn the full soft shoe essence combination? Why didn’t I know that there are several reality TV shows on Tuesday nights?
I just hope it’s not too awkward when Nat and I sneak back into class in five weeks. If we had planned ahead, we could have told Teacher that we had another class that conflicted with tap for the next month. But we didn’t. We just smiled at her and said, “See you next week!” And then we flapped right out of her life.
What if it’s like that time in 6th grade when my parents pulled me out of school for a two-week family vacation? When I came back to class, everyone had switched best friends. Kristy was my best friend when I left, but she told me that she was now best friends with Renee. And Julia, who used to be best friends with Renee, was now my designated best friend. But I didn’t want to be best friends with Julia. She was left-handed, and she never had gum.
So what if when class starts back up, Nat and I find out that we’ve been assigned new friends for the class? I might get stuck with Midge! My god, what have we done? I feel so sick right now. I just know they’re all talking about us behind our backs.
“Don’t worry, Teacher. We’ll never abandon you like those three did.”
“You mean they didn’t even have the courtesy to tell you they were dropping out? Now that’s just low class. Low class.”
“Oh, I just hope they show their faces here again some day. I’d like to give them a piece of my mind!”
Okay, so maybe I’m getting a little melodramatic. In reality, last week probably played out a little more like, “Did we have a Jenny in class? Oh yeah – was she that one lady with the nude high-heeled taps? No? Okay, then I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
I’m going to have to call on Natasha to help us out of this situation. When I first moved to Chicago, unbeknownst to Seamus and Natasha, I designated key roles to everyone in our group so we could function effectively as a team. I, of course, am the protagonist (it’s my story), Nat is the moral center, and Seamus, who was originally intended to be the foil, has proven himself to be the glue that binds us all together.
Having said that, I am supporting Nat in her desire to follow her conscience and contact Teacher to let her know that we will be re-joining the class next session. Through a believable set of half-truths, Natasha will ensure that Teacher doesn’t feel that we’ve completely abandoned her.
She’s going to tell Teacher that Seamus had a conflict with his (fictitious) ex-wife’s Lamaze classes, that I am currently working on getting my (fictitious) chauffeur’s license, and that she is taking a “How to Earn a Living on eBay” course. No, I didn’t forget a (fictitious) there. Nat’s really doing that. Back off people – let the girl live her dream!
I just hope that Teacher buys it. I can’t stand the thought of seeing her hurt face in five weeks. Now where the heck am I going to find a chauffeur’s hat before our next class?

Bright Lights, Big City

“Wednesday, August 11, 2004. 9:15am. We’ve already been to a casino, another state, and a police station today.”
The above is a quote from an email sent out yesterday by my friend Seamus. I’m not really sure where to begin, so I guess I’ll start with where the evening all went wrong.
Tuesday started out like any other Tuesday – 7:30pm, Seamus calls to say he’s going to pick me up for tap class. He arrives a little later than usual, and I immediately notice that Natasha is sitting in the front seat.
I remember thinking, “Huh. That’s odd. Seamus never picks up Natasha first.” It was clearly a sign of the topsy-turvy chain of events that would follow. Seamus seemed unusually chipper and talkative. I asked him if he had been drinking Red Bull, but he said no.
Then he smiled and said, “Today’s my last day of tap. I’m quitting.”
Natasha and I just sat there in stunned silence. I felt like someone had just hit me in the face with a frozen salmon. Once I had regained my senses, I grabbed his shoulder and said, “What in the name of Savion Glover are you talking about?”
“I’m quitting. I’m tired of getting frustrated every week, and feeling uncoordinated, and doing all this girly stuff all the time. I need to hang out with guys more, and do guy stuff like play poker and smoke. This class is holding me back from doing what I really need to do.”
Natasha and I really didn’t say much for the rest of the ride to class. I just kept thinking about what I was going to say to the teacher next week when she asked where Seamus was. Nat and I decided that we’d tell her that Seamus had severed his Achilles tendon in a freak farming accident. The truth would just hurt her too much.
So after a bittersweet class, Seamus suggested we go to a bar for a farewell beer. I should note here that Seamus only drinks non-alcoholic beer, since this will play an important role in the story later on. As Nat, Seamus, and I were nursing our drinks while watching the Cubs lose one more game, we somehow started talking about gambling. I jokingly asked when the three of us were finally going to go to the casino in Indiana, since we always talked about it.
Seamus took one last swig of his Sharp’s NA beer and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go right now.”
Before I knew it, the Chicago skyline was a blurry memory behind us, and we were on our way to Gary, Indiana to hit the riverboat casinos. It was 11:30pm by the time we got there, and Natasha and Seamus both had to work the next morning, but they didn’t seem to care.
Seamus headed off for the manly Blackjack table where people were chain smoking, drinking, and swearing a lot, while Natasha and I stuck with the girly slot machines where people were… chain smoking, drinking, and swearing a lot.
At around 2:00am, we decided to call it quits, cash in our winnings and head back home to Chicago. As Seamus was zipping down Lake Shore Drive, we saw a police squad car on the side of the road, but unfortunately noticed him just a little too late. Within seconds, the blue glow of the police lights hit me, and we heard the officer over the loudspeaker, ordering us to pull over.
The officer asked Seamus for his license, and then asked if he had been drinking. Of course, Seamus said no, but the officer asked him to get out of the car just to be sure. This is where things took a bad turn. It was 2:30am, we were exhausted, we had been tap dancing for an hour and a half, and had just spent the past two hours in a smoke-filled casino. These are not the best conditions under which to take a sobriety test.
“Okay son, I’d like you to start out by saying the alphabet backwards for me.”
When I heard him ask Seamus to do this, I thought – are you nuts? I couldn’t do that on my best day if you let me write it out! Is this to determine if he’s drunk or if he’s dyslexic? This was ridiculous! Seamus doesn’t even drink alcohol, but he’s going to fail this test due to sheer fatigue and smoke inhalation!
Seamus got hung up somewhere around the letter U, at which point the officer decided to try another test.
“All right. Now I’d like you to stand on one leg, put your other leg straight out, and count to 30 like this: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, and so on. Okay, go.”
Natasha and I just watched helplessly through the rear windshield as Seamus struggled to maintain his balance. This was about the point where Nat started to freak out. I don’t know – maybe it was the $100 in quarters that was weighing down her pockets, maybe it was the sugar high from her dinner of Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but she started to talk crazy.
She turned to me, clutched my hand tightly, pointed toward Lake Michigan and said, “Let’s just keep driving, Jenny. What if we just kept on driving?”
“You mean…?”
“Yeah, let’s just go. There’s nothing back there for us anyway!”
I threw the last of my Diet Coke in Nat’s face to snap her out of this and said, “Look – we can’t leave Seamus behind! Besides – neither of us knows how to drive stick!”
No, I knew that running wasn’t the answer. We’d been running from this for too long already.
“You know what we need to do, Nat, so let’s just do it.”
We both slid our tap shoes on and stepped out of the car, like two gunslingers at high noon. All you could hear were the waves of Lake Michigan gently lapping against the shore, and the steady click, click, clickety, click of our shoes on the pavement as we approached the officer.
Seamus was sweating as he valiantly tried to hold the swan pose and continue his countdown, but I could see in his eyes that he was a broken man.
Nat just started steadily snapping out a beat on her fingers, and I yelled, “Five – six. And five – six – seven – eight!
As Nat and I dove into the routine we had learned earlier today, Seamus slowly lifted his head, a look of fierce determination sweeping over him. He put his right leg down, turned to face the officer, and started to grin as I shouted, “Show me the Cincinnati, Seamus! Show me what you’ve got!”
The three of us pulled off the impossible: a flawless Cincinnati leading into the soft shoe essence with break, ending with a sugar combination. As Nat, Seamus, and I sidestepped and jazz-handed our way back to the car, the officer grabbed Seamus by the collar.
“Not so fast, son! I’m citing you for driving under the influence. Under the influence… of excessive rhythm! Ha ha ha! In all my years on the force… whew! That was really something. All right, all right. So you’re not drunk. But you were still going 15 miles over the speed limit, so you’ll have to follow me to the station to post your bond if you want to get your driver’s license back.”
So there we were: 2:45am. Sitting in a police station downtown waiting for Seamus’ paperwork to be completed so we could get back to some much needed sleep.
I’d like to have a happy ending to this story. I’d like to be able to say that Seamus saw the error of his ways, and realized that tap wasn’t holding him back, but in fact it was tap that had set him free. Unfortunately, as of this writing, he is still resolved to give up tap forever. I can only hang onto the thread of hope that he will realize that if he does that, he will regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of his life.

Will Tap for Food

Now that I no longer have to commute to the heinous suburbs of northern Illinois, I’ve been spending a lot more time using public transportation to get around the city. I just think it’s the best way to really get to know a city. Although still a relatively recent transplant to Chicago, I am proud to call this town my home. We may be known as the Second City to most people, but Chicago will always be first in my book. That is, of course, unless that book contains a chapter called “Street Performers.”
For all of Chicago’s rich history, diverse cultural venues, fine dining establishments, and almost-champion sports teams, the city is sorely lacking in high-caliber street entertainment. Sure, you’ll run into the occasional folk singer, and there’s that one guy who has a violin duct-taped to a guitar so he can play both at once, but these are simply rare shining stars in a galaxy of mediocrity.
The last time I was in New York, I saw a full barbershop quartet on the subway singing a version of Coney Island Baby that elicited a standing ovation from the otherwise disengaged commuter crowd. And when I lived in Paris, there was a guy who would string a curtain between the two poles on the subway train and hold a fully orchestrated puppet show, replete with sound effects and costume changes. Now that’s street entertainment! I was more than happy to drop 20 francs in his hat for that show of raw talent.
For a city of three million people, you would think that we’d be able to at least somewhat compete with the likes of Paris and New York, but I am consistently disappointed by Chicago’s rag-tag bunch of street performers. I guess the final straw for me, probably because it hit so close to home, was when I was on my way to the Harold Washington Library a few weeks ago. I walked up the stairs from the El stop and passed a man who was tap dancing. I absentmindedly tossed a quarter into the cardboard box where he had crudely scribbled the words “Tips for Taps.”
After I got about ten steps away, something made me turn back. Something just wasn’t right – wait a minute! He’s not really tap dancing! He’s just kind of scuffling his shoes on the pavement and flailing his arms around!
I went back to get a closer look, and he said, “Hey baby girl! How you doing?”
I cocked my head a little and said, “So… what exactly are you doing there?”
“Oh you like that, huh? I’m just doing a little something we call the time step.”
That’s when something snapped in me. Time step? He can’t possibly mean THE
time step. The same time step that is the rhythmic foundation of every major tap dance move ever created? Blasphemer – how dare he?!?
I tossed my backpack to the ground, slipped on my Capezio TeleTone II’s, stretched my calves a little, and:
STOMP – hop – step – fulap – step – STOMP – hop – step – fulap – step – STOMP (right hand juts out for the big finish)!
“Now that’s a time step. Give me back my quarter, you fraud!”
The small crowd that had gathered around us cheered, and applauded loudly. I eagerly collected their generous tips in my empty latte cup, until a police officer wandered over and asked to see my license for street performing. Of course, I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently my pal Gene Smelly did, because he whipped his out faster than I could say police brutality.
Without saying a word, I walked over to the cardboard box, dumped all my earnings into my competitor’s coffer, and walked away slowly, the sound of applause still softly ringing in my ears.

Ugh – I Just Lost My Tappetite

A guy threw up in tap class last night. Not on the floor – he made it to the bathroom, thankfully. It was about 112 degrees in the studio and I guess all the shuffle/ball/changes finally got to him. Unfortunately for all of us, the fencing class is held in the studio right before our tap class, and let me tell you, those fencers sweat like pigs. It’s really kind of disgusting – they take off their masks to reveal purplish red faces, with their hair all matted down and stuck to their bloated heads. I hate fencers. I hate them so much. Why don’t they all go back to the Renaissance Faire where they belong?!
So about 30 minutes into the class, Gary shuffled his way out the door and ran to the bathroom to puke. After I got over my initial disgust, I admired his commitment. He actually came back into class, but just sat on the sidelines sipping water. The teacher offered him some cheddar flavored Goldfish. He wisely declined.
Gary’s kind of an odd duck. Nice enough guy, but he is a little spastic in his dance style. I’m always a little afraid to stand next to him, for fear of being clothes-lined. And he has this annoying habit of practicing while the teacher is trying to show us the moves. I’m learning that it’s so important to listen for the correct rhythm when you’re learning new steps, otherwise you just make a stream of nonsensical noises. So when this guy keeps tapping while the teacher is trying to teach us something new, it has the same effect on me as when my brother would tease me by repeating everything I said:
“Matt, did you take my dollar?”
“Matt, did you take my dollar?”
“Shut up! Give it back to me!”
“Shut up! Give it back to me!”
“Stop saying everything I say!”
“Stop saying everything I say!”
“Quit it – I mean it!”
“Quit it – I mean it!”
“Mommmmmm!!! Matt’s copying me!!!!!!”
“Mommmmmmm!!! Matt’s copying me!!!!!”
Well, at least my brother wasn’t into fencing…


My friends Natasha, Seamus, and I have been taking tap dance lessons for the past six months. None of us had ever taken tap before, and it was a choice between this and fencing. After a friend told me about her experience wearing a sweaty, smelly rented fencer’s mask, the choice was obvious.
We’ve finally moved up to Tap II where the range of skill levels is really broad. A few of the really good students occasionally help the instructor out with all of us remedial students. I’ve nicknamed one of these superstar students Midge. I feel kind of bad about that – I jokingly called her that once to Seamus and Nat because she’s really little, and the name just stuck. I think her real name is Kathy. Or Helen.
For some reason, I don’t like Midge. Maybe it’s because she’s so small. Maybe it’s because she gets a real smug look on her face when she tries to show me how to Buffalo. She’s not all that, with her size 5 1/2 tap shoes. I just don’t like her.
Or maybe it’s because she kind of looks like me. She wears similar glasses, and has brown curly hair. One day we were both wearing blue t-shirts and white pants, and when I looked at her in the mirror across the room, I felt like I was seeing a carnival funhouse version of myself. I had to move to the other side of the studio.
My friend Seamus has discovered that when he does certain steps, his right hand moves uncontrollably. We all believe this to be some strange neurological disorder. Whatever quadrant of the brain controls tapability obviously affects the other motor skills. We like to call it Jazz Hand Syndrome. On the complicated moves, his right hand just starts flapping back and forth involuntarily at his side, like he’s secretly waving from a parade float. Just when I had gotten used to this distraction, we learned a new side step move. Suddenly, Seamus’ thumb popped up like he was hitching a ride. Now we call him The Fonz. AAAAAYYYYY!!!!