I was in the front row, center stage, in my purple-and-black tap shoes, hands on hips and smiling.
All eyes were on us, my tap dance group, nine of us wearing the same glittery tank top and black leggings. The music started to play. The audience, all women, in hats and statement jewelry, turned their chairs to watch.
This was our last dance number, an upbeat number set to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Except for the butterfly feeling in my stomach; that had finally stopped.
I took a deep breath, grinned at my fellow dancers and started tapping.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A midlife crisis with rhythm
I started tap dancing at 8 and then again at 45. The first time, my mom made me go. The second time, I signed myself up.
I had been at the same company for 20 years. My hormones were all out of whack. My kid’s teachers, the dentist and my personal banker all looked like children to me.
I was due for a midlife crisis any day.
But with working full time, running a carpool, making dinner and walking the dog, I only had time for a small crisis.
I wasn’t interested in an affair or an overdose. There was no extra cash for a flashy new car, plastic surgery or even a weeklong spiritual retreat in Sedona. I couldn’t take a year off to eat, pray and love — I had to be at a PTA meeting on Thursday.
So many of the plans I had, like backpacking across Europe, moving to New York City, writing a best-selling book, hadn’t panned out.
Maybe they wouldn’t.
I didn’t want Botox, and clearly I didn’t need a divorce, but I did want something. Something new.
So I took up tap dancing.
I’ve written before about how I had seen “Stomp” at Gammage and was blown away by the dancing, and how there was one dancer, a woman, younger than me but about my size. I could practically feel her joy from my seat.
It took me months to find a tap dance class that didn’t entail me suiting up in a tutu with 6-year-olds.
(Although now I own three tutus, but that’s another story, never mind, anyway.)
But I found it. And Saturday mornings found me at the community center of a senior citizens’ manufactured home park near my house, tap dancing with a group of women who have turned into wonderful friends.
I don’t care if I look ridiculous. I love the sound of it. And it makes me happy, and not just for the hour and a half that I’m there. The feeling lasts through the weekend until the rush of Monday stamps it out of me.
(Plus have you seen my calf muscles? They’re like Fred Flinstone’s.)
It’s the ‘Lollipop’ all over again
Six months into it, I had learned exactly one dance well enough to be included in the annual recital.
I told hardly anyone. It wasn’t because I was in the beginner’s class or because I was worried I might forget the steps.
It wasn’t the fact that I would be wearing borrowed black jazz pants, or that the costume for our “Singing in the Rain” number made me feel like a duck.
OK, the truth was, I was worried about all of those things.
And about looking fat.
I hadn’t been in a recital since I tapped to “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” wearing a cardboard circle covered in red satin to look like a sucker.
With my second recital approaching, that was exactly what I was afraid of — looking like a sucker.
Why was I so nervous? I had been in front of bigger crowds. I routinely speak in front of groups. But while I was good at talking, I wasn’t so good at tapping.
I struggled to learn the steps and then to remember them in the proper sequence. Most of the time, I was half a beat behind everyone else.
And it goes against human nature to put on display the things we don’t do so well.
What if I froze?
What if I fell?
What if I gouged out my own eye with my umbrella?
But there I was, standing at the edge of the dance floor, spinning my umbrella as the music started. The steps kicked in. It was over before I knew it.
Yes, I messed up, but maybe no one noticed.
Because, at the end of the show, when we all held hands and took a collective bow, and the audience got to its feet for a standing ovation.
When you tap, your mind can’t wander
Seven years later, Saturday mornings still find me at tap class.
I get up early to go, even though I could do with the extra sleep.
Because when I spend so much time feeling harried, when the world seems too brash, too loud, it is where I find peace. Just the sound of it still makes me happy.
And it is there, on the parquet floor in the community center, where men play billiards and women in flowered bathing suits bob in the heated pool, that I have learned to live in the moment.
When I’m tap dancing, I can’t think about work or my mile-long to-do list.
Unlike jogging, which doesn’t require much thought, tapping doesn’t work that way. When you make a mistake in tap, everyone can hear it.
(My tap teacher doesn’t even have to turn around to know it’s me.)
If I let my mind wander, even just to lament that my black yoga pants are too short, I will screw up and fall flat on my face.
Often I am everywhere but where I am.
When I’m on vacation, I worry about work. At work, I think about what needs doing at home. I can be sitting in the dark at the movies when I remember to fill out my annual health-care enrollment.
I feel like I’m always trying to get somewhere else.
Except when I am in tap. In tap, I’m in tap.
A dirty dog and a rainbow
So I began to apply what I do in tap to the rest of my life.
I left my cellphone in the other room when I ate dinner with my son, orange chicken and edamame, really listening as he tried to explain nuclear fusion to me.
When people stopped at my desk at work to talk, I looked at them instead of my computer, and the conversation was better because I was actually in it.
Instead of rushing by the dog, who stood hopeful, tail wagging, with a ball in his mouth, I threw it, and cheered when he brought it back.
And then when I had to soap down said dog after he rolled in the grass and cat poo, I spotted a rainbow in the spray of the hose.
I swear, a rainbow.
Look, I know it sounds metaphysical and hippie, kind of out there. But as I paid more attention to what I was doing and thinking, and what was going on around me, I savored those moments more.
I missed fewer freeway exits and burned dinner less often.
I was a better listener. A better writer. A better friend. A better mom.
Somehow, tap dancing made me realize this is life, these moments.
No midlife crisis required.
I wasn’t trying to get somewhere.
I was already here, and dancing.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Now here I was, at the Hilton Sedona Resort at Red Rock, at the monthly luncheon of the Sedona Welcomers, a group of about 150 or so women who socialize and do charitable works.
This was my third time speaking to them. But not just speaking this time.
Last year, when I was here, I had talked about how I had taken up tap dance, and one of the organizers had said it would be fun to see us perform. Maybe next time, I had said.
So when next time rolled around, I asked the women in my dance group if they would come. It would mean taking a day off work, but all eight of them said yes.
I rented a 15-passenger van for the road trip two hours north. Deb baked brownies. Judy made salsa. We arrived early enough to do a practice run through outside.
We had done our first number and then I spoke, about how it was important to try new things — like tap dancing — to keep making new trysts with life, and that we could even surprise ourselves.
Because what’s the worst that could happen?
Is that all? I got this
We were on our last dance. The speakers blared Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” Good beat, easy steps.
Changes in choreography took me from my usual spot in the back row, to the second, and then the front row, dead center.
Suddenly my right foot slid across a slick patch on the floor, and I was falling.
I didn’t go down quietly. There was a clatter of my taps on the floor, and then I landed on my bottom, hard, with a thump.
In that moment, which must have been only seconds but felt longer, because time seemed to slow down, so much went through my mind.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. Was I hurt? I didn’t think so.
It was like when I played softball in high school and slid into third base on a close play, burning a raspberry along the outside of my thigh. It only hurt if I was out. If I was safe, I was fine.
I thought I was fine. Nothing hurt anyway.
But I could feel my face grow hot, my cheeks turning red. Do not cry, I silently chided myself.
I had just told these women, and the ones in my dance group — and I had written before — that I didn’t care if I looked ridiculous, because tap dancing made me happy, that it was a promise to myself that I would keep trying new things, making new trysts with life, and that in the times that I fell, I would get back up.
So I did. I got back up. Not all that gracefully, mind you, bottom up, hands still on the floor until I was sure my tap shoes wouldn’t shoot out from under me again.
Because it wasn’t just talk. I meant it.
I got up just in time to do the flap-flap-spin on the next 8-count.
“You all right?” Rhonda mouthed at me. Flap-flap-spin.
I grinned, and nodded. I was fine. Flap-flap-spin in reverse.
The women in the audience were on their feet, dancing next to their chairs along with us. And then we were done, striking a final pose, breathing hard.
And the audience stayed on their feet, applauding, for a standing ovation.
Reach Bland at [email protected] or 602-444-8614.
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