William Stanney, OFM 11 p.m., Dec. 17
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Adult(?) Tap Class in Balboa Park
Having finally retired two years ago from a long, dreadful career as an escrow officer, I found myself, after several attempts to stay in escrow as a freelancer and still hating it, with some free time on my hands. I had no idea what to do with myself after 22 years of working under unrealistic deadlines for unbelievably narcissistic mortgage brokers and real estate agents. They weren't all bad. I made some really good friends during my time served. I suppose the others, after seeing themselves on park benches and in newspaper ads and self-congratulatory stories in San Diego Magazine, written and paid for by themselves under the guise of actually being honest to God features the magazine covered, eventually start to believe their own hype.
I spent several hours a day poring over college class schedules, reading self-help books, and searching the internet for anything that might spark my interest, but I was reluctant to sign up for any sort of recreational activity. Let me explain. I am somewhat of a quitter. I have a tendency to sign up for things without thinking it through to its inevitable outcome, such as guitar lessons or Spanish class, the problem being that if I am not immediately proficient, I lose interest. Also, I never had much time. I'm being kind to myself. I have become somewhat lazy.
But one day, I received an e-mail from the San Diego Park and Recreation Department's Civic Dance Arts. I gave it a look see. Waaaait a minute. What was this?!? Adult Beginner Tap Lessons! I was in. Having taken tap as a kid for four years, I was sure I would blow away my fellow beginners with my shuffles off to Buffalo and my double pull backs with cross step. The lessons were in Balboa Park, a perfect setting for my foray into the spotlight. I giddily made my way to the classroom at the Casa del Prado building to sign-up. It was perfect, starting Thursday nights at 6:30, a week from the sign-up day.
The first thing I needed to do was, of course, to select my new tap shoes. I went to the Capezio store in the UTC mall for this, as I had a 25% off coupon given to me at the sign-up. For the uninitiated, there are two types of adult tap shoes. First are the low-heeled loafer style ones with laces. Yuck. On the other hand, there are the high-heeled Mary Jane-style ones that make your legs look long and are breathtakingly cute. When I was a wee young tapper, we were not allowed to wear these until we were in our teens. I used to watch the big girls dancing away in their high-heeled shoes and experience a jealousy that bordered on insanity. Now I had to have them at whatever the cost. Looking at the various styles, my gaze fell upon the tap shoe of my dreams - a two and three quarter inch heel with a rounded toe. Running to the sales girl with the floor sample in my hand, I inquired whether she had them in a size seven and a half. "Let me take look," she replied with just a hint of probably not in her voice. I started to panic. Nothing else would do. She came back with a size seven. "Do you want to try these? They're the last pair." I yanked them from her hands and proceeded to cram my foot into them, trying to convince myself that they would stretch after a few wearings. Dance shoes do not stretch, and they were already hurting my feet. I felt the tears well up when she suddenly asked "Would you like me to try our Grossmont store?" "Yes, please," I whispered, a little flame of hope kindling in my breast. They had one pair!!! "Put them on hold!" I bellowed at the sales girl. "I'm on my way!!" I thanked the helpful guardian angel of my shoe fantasy profusely, and raced to the Grossmont Center store. Waiting for me were the big-girl grownup tap shoes I had dreamed about since I was little. They fit perfectly. I was given the metal taps for them, which I took to my shoe guy in the Sports Arena Vons shopping center for professional application. He likes me, and when he saw the tap shoes, his eyes lit up. "Are you a dancer?" he asked. "Why, yes, I am a dancer!" was my delirious response.
After a week of daydreaming about my new career as a late in life discovery as the next Broadway superstar, Thursday finally arrived. The semester for our class fell during the last holiday season, and Balboa Park was all a-twinkle from the lights and decorations, with live musical concerts being held at the outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home of the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. The Pavilion was close to where I parked, so I was greeted with this lovely display as my introduction to what was sure to be a life altering event. I was excited beyond words. Finding my building, I bounded up the stairs and opened the door to my new classroom. Looking around, my first thought was "Oh, dear God, what have I done?" It looked like a rehearsal for "Bob Fosse Productions - The Mid-Life Years" or maybe a reality show "Cabaret Tryouts - The Rejects" with Liza Minelli playing the role of Simon Cowell. Well, if this was a contest of the best of the worst, I was going to be crowned the reigning queen, come hell or high water.
We had a few minutes before class to get to know one another a bit. It was then I found out that some of the tappers were actually experienced, this being their second time taking the class. A do-over of sorts, because the intermediate teacher was apparently the tap equivalent of a gymnastics coach a la Bela Karolyi, and no one wanted to take his class. Damn! I was supposed to be the best. Oh, well. I had more know-how. But that was not the worst part. Some of these so called "experienced" tappers pooh-poohed my choice of tap shoes, saying they were "exhibition shoes". Well, duh, of course they were! Wasn't that the point? I would no sooner be caught wearing their ugly choice of shoes as I would Crocs. But I could tell they were really just secretly jealous of the leggy, Chicago-inspired look they provided to my smashing choice of wardrobe - black leggings and long, black v-neck top.
Our teacher corralled us together. Now, I honestly cannot say enough good things about this woman. Not only was she an incredibly nice person, she was also an astonishingly fit physical specimen. She taught the class before ours, our class, and the class after, and who knows how many countless others during the day, without breaking a sweat. She was compact, cute and displayed a consistently positive demeanor. She also seemed unfazed at the daunting task ahead of her, that being to turn this congregation of misfits into a fully functioning in-sync dance squad who could turn out a flawless replication of the routine she had planned out for us. She got us started out on the basic steps, and by the end of the first class we were shuffle ball-changing and flap, flap, flap toe stamping like pros.
After two weeks, I had made a friend, Judith. Judith and I were similar in that we both recognized how ridiculous we looked, and relished the opportunity to observe the traits of our fellow delusional and make-up new names for them. Some of them took this class so seriously it was as if they had a vision of the Second Coming of Cats. Here are a few of the stand-outs:
Igor. This guy must have been six-five, with a bald head and these really weird menacing eyes. He looked like the character actor you always see in creepy prison movies, except he was completely harmless. He was also quite unaware of his own obnoxiousness. We honestly thought he may have been "challenged" in some way. His signature method of tapping was in the fashion of the "Stomp" recitals some of you may have seen, preferably when the teacher was talking. Judith loved antagonizing him. She would "shush" him during his happy feet moments, and he would glare at her while she smirked and remarked that "some of us would like to hear our instructor". She also snitched on him after class, asking the teacher if she would have a "private" word with him. The teacher knew him because he took her Saturday class, the same class as ours (the reason he "practiced" all his steps on OUR time), just different students, and she must have said something because next week he made a point to stand right next to Judith and tap as loud as humanly possible during any break in the action. Much to the rest of the students' amusement, Judith made a point to move to the opposite end of the room.
Bride of Igor. What can I say? Close to six feet, with dark hair and, I'm serious here, sporting a shock of gray. Relishing lots of inappropriate tapping together with Igor, they must have thought themselves the Fred and Ginger of Beginner Adult Tap. Eventually, though, even she became embarrassed of Igor and would mutter to him to "keep it down."
Mean girl. This gal waltzed into class declaring that she was "fierce" or something to that effect and when I laughed in her face she instantly hated me from that point on. She was a little plump, and she always wore short shorts over pink tights and a leotard. Insisting every week on warming-up on the floor, she would do side leg lifts practically in my face while I was putting on my shoes. I'll never forget the image: legs together, leg up, crotch, leg down. Ugh. Why?!? It was beginner tap, for Pete's sake! Was she going to blow-out her ACL doing step-heels?!? Anyway, she never spoke to me again after my rejection of her "fierceness".
Sam the Cooking Guy. Okay, while not technically in our class, one night they were having some soiree downstairs in the courtyard of our building and as we were waiting around outside for the previous class to be over, one of the ladies noticed Sam the Cooking Guy. She and the rest who were waiting went crazy, screaming "Sam, Sam, over here!!!" Apparently he was the quest of honor. I had no idea who he was, and when I said so, I had five pair of eyes on me that all said "your kidding." Then they owners of the eyes actually said "You're kidding." I'm like, no, really, I do not know who this guy is. But from the way they where acting I thought he must have been like David Cassidy. They could not wait for the class to be over, and sure enough, when they stampeded out of the class, he was still there and the squealing ensued anew. I went home that night and asked my husband, "Honey, do you know who Sam the Cooking Guy is?" He looked at me and said "You're kidding." Apparently the majority of the ladies in his office are equally enamored of this pizza-making Adonis.
There were many more, but I digress. Back to class. This was supposed to be a beginner class, and it started out that way. At first, I did okay. We practiced basic steps, and I was quite adept at my step jump hop steps. I'd come home and show off what I had learned, completely secure in the fact that I would ace this class and be scouted for a starring role in a new show built entirely around me, kind of like "Rhoda". But suddenly and seemingly without warning, it spun into this routine of complicated steps, segueing into a convoluted series of moving turns that I could neither keep up with or remember for the life of me. Everyone else was keeping up at record pace (I told you they already took the class - cheaters!). Mean Girl and some of the others who dissed my shoes would watch as they twirled by me going the wrong direction, their expressions barely disguising their glee over the discovery that I may be a hack. I kept telling myself "be patient, you will get it."
It was at this time that I learned that there was to be a recital. WHAT?!? Yes, you heard me. A real, honest to God recital with an audience of many, in Balboa Park, at the Casa del Prado Theatre. We needed to decide that night if we were going to be in the show. "Who is going to be in the recital? Please raise your hand." I suddenly started getting excited. My hand shot up of its own volition. I can do this! If I practice enough and really pay attention, I will be in the show! THE SHOW! A star is born!!! At the end of this particular class, our teacher asked us to all gather round in a circle on the floor. We needed to select our costumes. She produced a catalog, which already had sticky-notes on certain pages. Because our routine was to consist of a kind of swing dance number with us separating into couples toward the middle of the routine and dancing together until the end, we needed both boy's and girl's costumes. She showed us the costumes she had selected for us, the girl's being a cute, extremely short dress with a black, corset style top above a skirt of black with blue polka dots, and a headband that matched the skirt. We were to provide our own tights, and the teacher suggested pink dancer tights. I immediately countered with "How about black fishnets, maybe?" The boy's costume consisted of black pants, suspenders, a dancer provided white shirt, a tie that matched the polka dots on the girl's costume, and a bowler hat. Unfortunately, our ratio of girls to boys was ten to one, so it was necessary that some of the girls be boys. This was not a problem, because the majority of the women did not want to wear the skimpy dress that had been selected. In the interest of disclosure, I got the feeling that the teacher had picked out this costume far in advance of having actually seen her new group of students, therefore grossly misjudging not only the level of enthusiasm for the girl's costume, but the ability to fit into it. As a matter of fact, our teacher had to insist that some of the "boys" please reconsider, as we did not have enough girls. Not an issue for me, I was a girl all the way. A few reluctantly acquiesced, and we had our required equal number of sexes. At this time, we were also paired with our partner for the recital, and from here on out, the steps we had learned began to take shape into an actual dance number.
This is where things got ugly. Our line-up was selected based entirely on our appearance. Mind you, I am fairly close to middle age, if not already there, so I am no Catherine Zeta Jones, but out of twenty or so students, I was among the four or five that could be described as passably presentable. Judith, one of the other presentables, wisely chose the "boy" role, and therefore avoided the front row, center stage selection. Anyway, I was lucky enough to be one of two "girls" selected as center, and this did not sit well with some of the other dancers who were actually much more qualified than me. Although I was able to remember the opening steps that got us to our positions on stage, I was consistently pushed out of the way by the dancer to my left, who, upon her queue, would shuffle ball change straight forward to my spot, leaving me two steps on a count of four to get to her less desirable place. This rude maneuver threw off the entire balance of my partner and mine's ability to smoothly move into our next step, not to mention her shamelessly stealing my front-row center-stage spotlight. I did not want to make a big deal about it lest I seem like a prima donna, but I quietly seethed every time she sashayed by me, a tight little smile on her round little face. Funny thing, though, my partner seemed okay with this, laughing and goofing around and not really getting the moves and apparently not caring. Suddenly, during one of the times we had to dance face to face, I noticed she gave off the faint scent of alcohol. I whispered "Are you drunk?" She admitted to having a few belts prior to the class. My envy was palpable.
I missed a couple classes, because like a fool I accepted a job in Solana Beach and could not get to class in time due to the traffic. The owners of the business also made it clear that "some" of the people that worked there stayed until 8:00 at night. As far as I was concerned, "some" of the people were just poor managers of their time. I showed up and within a few minutes the futility of trying to learn what I had missed came crashing in on me. Those two weeks must have been comprised of when the whole act came together. I was utterly clueless as to what was going on, and actually had to sit out to observe and hopefully pick-up some of the things that transpired during my absence. Instead of observing and picking-up, a voice in my head cried "It's over! You can’t get this in two weeks!" I tried to ignore it, but it was right. With our dress rehearsal coming up and knowing our teacher had little time to find a substitute for me, I called her to let her know I just could not do it. She called me back, leaving me a long message, asking me to please reconsider. She said I could make it up by coming to her Saturday class. I tried to drive to this class, thirty miles away in Rancho Bernardo. I got three miles and turned around. I have never felt such all-consuming guilt.
Judith tried to help me. She was actually not going to be in the show, and it was me who convinced her to do it. "If I can do it, you can do it!" was my reasoning. Turns out she was much better than me. She came to my house and we tried to rehearse out on my deck. After fifteen minutes we wound up drinking wine instead. We rented a rehearsal room at San Diego Dance Works in Mission Valley so we would have no distractions (wine). I could do the steps, but I just could not retain the order. We would practice the routine, and then when the music started, I drew a blank. I am surprised she is still my friend. She sent me this gem after the dress rehearsal (which I did not attend), and I quote "Our tap dress rehearsal was last night, and it was craptacular. Since I wasn't even sure if I was still in the show (since my partner had been absent the last few weeks), I didn't bother fixing up my costume until I got there. I had to stop at 7-11 on the way to the theater to pick up a sewing kit since I couldn't find a needle and thread at home, and after I checked in at the theater and learned Deanna (her partner) was in fact there, I ended up standing in the Historical Society bathroom with just my long white button-down shirt on, sewing the black elastic "suspenders" to my pants with red thread (since I couldn't get the black thread from the ultra-fancy 7-11 sewing kit off its spool). It took me a while, but I managed to tack on all four sides, and when I put on the pants, I realized I had twisted one suspender as I sewed it on. Nice! It turned out not to matter, though, because pretty much as soon as I started dancing, my hat fell off and my suspenders fell down on both sides, cameras flashing and video rolling the whole time. I still have no idea why I'm doing this. I feel like somebody tricked me, but I don't know who or how." I know who or how.
At this point I actually considered fudging my way through it, kind of making it up as I went along. Maybe my partner would share her flask with me. As our curtain call date edged closer, my realization that I would be getting up in front of hundreds of strangers in a little dress and trying to fake my way through a routine I was too inept to master, I knew I had to quit, this time for real. I made the final call to my beloved, completely unaware of my many faults, bless her heart instructor, and sounded the final death knell on my dancing career. I wanted so badly to hear the thunderous applause awaiting me as I took my fantasy inspired current call and picked up my unrelenting shower of roses, but, alas, it was not meant to be. I will have to console myself with my visions of what could have been, and resolve not to be so blind to my limitations. That is, until next time…….