When the twenty-something dressed all in black with the nose ring rang up my shoes, I was expecting a comment or a raised eyebrow, but she acted like she sold tap shoes every day of the week to sixty-one year old grandmothers.
I kept the shoes hidden in the trunk of my car, not wanting my skeptical husband to see them, anticipating his annoying comments that they’d become part of the shoe collection of sports I tried but dropped, like the court shoes for my short-lived attempt at racquetball, and the jazz shoes from my failed step class when I tweaked my back. I decided to not even tell him I was going to check out the tap class.
The next morning I headed out for the 9 AM class at the Senior Center housed in a majestic historic building across from Lake Merritt, Oakland’s urban jewel. I had heard about this beginning tap class by chance from someone at my gym and jumped on the idea to take up tap dancing again. I went to check out the facility the prior week and was surprised by the number of inexpensive classes they offered, from salsa to bridge to ballroom dancing and creative writing for “seniors” though I don’t think of myself as one. How can someone who can still dance to the Bee Gees be a senior? Granted I saw elderly folks slowly making their way in and out of the building, so I felt like a “kid” when I looked around.
It has been fifty five years since I tapped at Miss Irene’s on Fulton Street in San Francisco. I remember being walked by my mother with my little sister in tow the three blocks to Miss Irene’s in the Richmond district, one mile from Ocean Beach and adjacent to the lush green belt of Golden Gate Park. Her studio was in the finished basement of her split level home. To get into the studio, we walked through the tunnel entrance, typical of homes in this neighborhood. Hers was lined with overgrown plants: an exotic jungle to my four year-old eyes. A black cat patrolled the walkway and roamed in and out through a cat door.
A little background... my mother was an immigrant, having fled Hitler’s Germany as a sixteen year old, as was my father though he was a few years older when he arrived joining his twin brother in Boston. They eventually met in San Francisco at a dance when he was in the US Army and married after a sweet courtship. My mother embraced American life and wanted her kids to be fully American which to her meant being well-rounded and taking up extracurricular activities and classes; dance, both tap and ballet, piano lessons, and I had a short stint in Brownies. My sister went to ice skating classes, and I tried the violin for a few miserable weeks, mercifully quitting before I ruined the family’s ears permanently. We were over-achievers in school, feeling an obligation to excel because of our parents’ hardships, often the case with “first generation” children.
I was tall for my age, a sturdy four year old with sandy blonde stick-straight hair. We wore pink tights and black leotards but the best part for me was the ritual of sitting on the wooden bench in the studio and putting on the shoes. There was something about those tap shoes, black and shiny with grosgrain ribbons. In our class we learned the basic steps and complete dances and several times a year prepared for shows. I have a couple of pictures of me in costumes, one a poofie white net tutu, my straight beribboned hair curled for the occasion. My mother had taken me to her distant relative, Loni a hairdresser, who set my hair in her kitchen with clippies. There’s another picture of me smiling in a bunny costume which I must have borrowed. I looked cute.
When my three daughters were small I dutifully took them to Miss Laverne’s studio in my Oakland Hills neighborhood for their tap classes. We had recitals every holiday season at old age homes and state fairs and never missed the big yearly show at Captain Anchovie’s, a stuffy pizza parlor jammed with families cheering on their kids and eating their fill of yucky pizzas, hold the anchovies.
I got to my new class early, paid the $4 and waited while the other women filed in and put on their shoes. The teacher is an Asian man, late fifties or early sixties, very chatty and I found out he teaches more than thirty dance classes of all types around the area. He introduced me to the other ladies. When he repeated the same story twice in the first fifteen minutes, I got why he is perfect for teaching seniors, and when he would occasionally screw up the steps, no one notices or cares.
The other seven women were all sizes and shapes from quite overweight, lumpy in street clothes, to cute and fashionable, dressed in sleek tight pants and sequined tee shirts and represented a variety of ethnic groups. Ages were sixty something like me to well over seventy, maybe even eighty. I looked around wondering why they were here. I pondered why I was here. Was I trying to re-claim my youth? Hell, I’m fighting getting old with everything I’ve got. I keep myself fit with regular walking and exercise and have been lifting weights for years. I heard that learning steps is good for the brain too. I have taken different dance classes over the years and have always loved to dance. In my teen years
., I was good at picking up the latest craze. When we danced in the gym on rainy days in junior high school, I was the leader teaching the “pony” or the “mashed potatoes” or whatever the popular dance was that month.
The teacher thankfully started with basic steps very slowly. I immediately picked them up: “shuffle, slap, kick ball change.” He saw I was catching on quickly and suggested I probably had “muscle memory,” that the basic steps were ingrained in me.
I’ve been going faithfully for the last three months, and I admit I still get a thrill putting on my black shoes every week. They’re not shiny but they are new and the taps sound just right on the slick floor. I’m hoping to move up to the intermediate class soon. I can’t say that Broadway is on the horizon but you never know what’s in store for tap dancing grandmothers.
published 3 March 2012