I probably wouldn’t have thought to blog about this for a while if it hadn’t suddenly decided to come back around in my life. I’m Facebook friends with two people from back in my tap days, and one of them was posting tap videos for the other, and naturally they were in my newsfeed and I saw them. They made me nostalgic, watching the big dance number from “Black and Blue” from the ’89 Tony awards, which I have on tape, but haven’t thought to watch in years. Then as I was searching the “Ts” in Newbury Comics for a joke gift for my sister’s bridal shower (the movie “Toy Soldiers”) I came across a DVD of “Tap” for seven bucks. That’s right there in my poor-girl price range, and I had to grab it. I haven’t seen it in years, but just looking at the cover made me miss it, and miss Gregory Hines in a way that it seems strange to miss a person you’ve never even met. Then a few nights after rewatching “Tap” (plus all the bonus features, which were so fantabulous because they featured all kinds of interviews with all the old hoofers), I am flipping channels, which means basically going back and forth between USA and Bravo, and there is Dule Hill tapping his ass off on “Psych.” Why? Because they have decided to take advantage of his talent and do a tap dance episode, which features a talent show of some sort with many other people tapping, as well as the fabulous Dule.
So that’s three things, and so I figured it was as good a time as any to delve into my tap years.
When I was 18 I went off to theater school in New York. I’d been a singer all my life, but discovered I had a powerful belt voice around twelve, when the “Annie” obsession kicked in. This led me to do musicals in high school and to change my starry-eyed course from film and television (my first loves) to musical theater as a career choice. I’d danced from the age of four through thirteen, so I had a strong dance background, and of course like any leading lady in any high school production of anything, the fact that I could “act” was a given. In my little pond I was what’s called a “triple threat” and I went off to school to learn how to be an even bigger threat and do it all professionally.
Before I left for New York I made regular trips into Harvard Square to the only newsstand around that carried any of the “trades” (like Backstage, THE source for Broadway show auditions and other professional theater jobs), and felt SO cool doing it. It was from Backstage that I learned the phrase “singers who move well,” which it turned out was the proper description of what I did. Having many friends who were “dancers,” and knowing that I couldn’t truly do half of what they did without even blinking, I never felt comfortable calling myself a dancer.
This changed while I was in theater school. Now older, and less worried about the catty gossip and bullying that had sadly driven me from continuing dance classes as a young teen, I found myself surrounded by serious dancers and dance instructors who were all invested in helping me grow. I used to dance in the hallway during one of the older group’s classes, because I’d been told there wasn’t room for me to audit the class from inside the classroom; it wasn’t fair to the people who were in that division, who were paying for that teacher’s attention, and I had my own classes where I could benefit from the teacher’s critical eye. Undeterred, I stood just outside the door, watching the class in the reflection of one of the mirrors, practicing my ballet barre (sans physical barre) as if I were in the class, while students passed me on their way to the vocal practice rooms, student lounge, or their own classes. I was that dedicated. It paid off as I lost weight, gained confidence, and became capable of things I’d never dreamed I’d be able to do. Suddenly I was chosen for the final demo numbers when midterms came around. Suddenly I was the one taking over the class when the teacher had to step out. Suddenly I was eligible for the “singers who dance” category.
While all of this revolution in dance was happening, I fell in love with one particular form of dance and that was tap.
I’d never really cared much about tap before, to be honest. I’d done it throughout my childhood, because in the early dancing school years it was always a split class that incorporated both ballet and tap. Later I continued simply because I already knew how to do it, so what was the point in stopping? I can’t say I ever had any particular love for it. As a kid (and frankly, even now) I always wanted the things I didn’t have, and so I pined to dance on pointe, and I wished I possessed the courage and flexibility for tumbling. I studied jazz and wanted desperately to be as good as the best dancers in the class, but I was far too inhibited. Too busy comparing my underdeveloped chest and pot belly to the skinny kids younger than me, and the blossoming girls my age who looked gorgeous in their leotards, and not like a sausage in lycra. I didn’t have much stretch, couldn’t do any kind of split leaps or tricks that would have really put me at the next level. What was worse, I didn’t even know yet that I was missing those things. In high school, when I met the kids who had trained at the other big dance studio in town (which was naturally not the one I went to—don’t get me started), I realized just how far behind I was, and I got over the notion of being a “dancer.” None of them could sing so it seemed pretty even.
At any rate, I caught up while in theater school, where we were exposed to everything—tap, jazz, ballet, theater dance (a category unto itself where we learned things like the original choreography to “One” from “A Chorus Line” or the big dance break in “Forty-Second Street”). Suddenly I was really good at all of it. It didn’t hurt that the classes were all mixed level, and there were kids in there who’d never danced a box step in their lives. It really boosted my confidence.
My champion though was my tap teacher, a woman named Carol Conway, who had the same red hair I had, a fantastic body that I was on the way to mirroring, and an approach to dance and movement unlike any I’d ever encountered. Carol had been our Movement teacher in our first semester, and I have to say I didn’t love her right off the bat. That class confounded me a bit. We learned about the Laban/Bartenieff technique, and it was kind of like, “I was told there would be no math…” It was all so clinical and bizarre (I eventually learned to love it and use it to this day). Even though she also taught our Ballet and Tap classes, my problems in Movement class made it hard for me to see her clearly, and her me. Of course, in my first semester of theater school I was still fat, still inhibited, still so out of my element I was of no use to anyone. Anyone who’s ever taken any kind of theater program can relate to the fact that the initial stages are all about breaking you of your bad habits, breaking down your weird protective walls, and getting you to a place where you can be a vessel for all the things they are trying to offer you to help you survive one of the craziest businesses out there.
By my second semester I was on my way, and it was then I discovered that I LOVED tap dancing. Carol and I started to bond as I really took to her techniques and she saw my potential. I had great fast feet, and I was a sponge when it came to remembering choreography. I totally idolized her and she encouraged me like there was no tomorrow. In February of 1989 the movie “Tap” with Gregory Hines was released, and that changed everything for me. I’d seen Gregory dance before, of course. I’d seen “White Nights” and I’d seen him on late-night television and the like. He was awesome, and an inspiration, but suddenly there was a new layer to my appreciation: I UNDERSTOOD WHAT HE WAS DOING. I could do it too. I could hear it, I could feel it, my feet were totally on board. It was heaven. With Carol’s blessing I bought a pair of flat tap shoes (goodbye character shoes!) and she challenged me every way she could.
My new obsession led me to the Henry LeTang studio. Here’s my journal entry of my first visit to the studio:
Friday, April 21, 1989
I should’ve been doing my Life Study.
The thought flicked across my mind briefly as I stepped out into the sunlight from the dark interior of the Beacon Hotel. I had approximately an hour-and-a-half between classes, which I could have well used to “polish” (read: make up) my Life Study before I had to show it to Randolf, Eliza and the rest of the class later that afternoon. Today was the final day, when all the stages would be combined to create a full, three-dimensional life—breath, body alignment, body in motion, and voice. Admittedly, the project hadn’t gotten even half the attention it deserved, demanded. But I wasn’t worried. What I was doing was far more important to me. I understood the process and the value of Life Study. Even if Randolf failed me today, I would still be able to use the technique to create characters—later. When I had more time. Right now I had a subway to catch.
Still, I decided to walk the rest of the way to the bank and the subway station as Alice Campagna. Or as near Alice as I could remember. Being technically incorrect didn’t bother me, as long as I didn’t look like myself. I had my priorities straight. I was prepared to wing it.
It had been a little over a month since Barry’s last class. Thanks to work, and Barry’s rule about limiting myself to three classes a week, it wasn’t the huge transition I’d expected it to be now that the academic part of fourth semester was over. If I had gone from nine extra classes a week to zero it would have been hard, but the difference between three and zero wasn’t that drastic. Still, I was feeling restless. And if I was nudgy now, what would I be like in another month with a seven-week vacation staring me in the face?
For a long time I’d been planning to check out the Henry LeTang School of Dance. I figured near the end of the semester I would scout around and find some classes to take during the break. But after watching the PBS special “Tap Dance in America,” and now that I had my flat shoes, I couldn’t wait.
The spark that had been flickering for the past couple months had finally exploded and my feet were burning the desire was so strong; the desire to be a part of the movement, and the spirit, and the rhythm, and the history. I needed it.
So there I was, boarding the Number One Broadway Local on my way to this mystical, awesome place that I wanted desperately to be the welcoming haven I needed for it to be. Just please don’t let it be like Steps, I prayed silently. If I get snubbed I’ll die…
The train reached the platform at the same time I did, so I was actually in transit by 12:45, and making good time. The ride seemed to take forever. Only five stops before the one I needed and no delays, but I felt like it had to be one-thirty already, so I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped off the train and the station clock said not-quite-12:55. Less than ten minutes for fifty blocks wasn’t bad. I made my way to the street and stood for a moment to get my bearings.
I’d never been so far Downtown before, and it hadn’t occurred to me that the scenery would be different.
The buildings were buildings, nothing remarkable. Not many apartment buildings, but no skyscrapers either. It felt lower, wider, if that makes sense. There weren’t one-third as many people walking the streets as I was accustomed to pushing through outside of Fairway or Pandemonium. It was eerie and I kept my guard up. It was like a whole different side of the world. A whole new social class.
I went the wrong way before I found the right way and again I wondered what time it was and if the studio would make me feel that the commute was worthwhile. One-oh-nine was past the middle of the street, closer to Sixth Avenue. West Twenty-Seventh was even more deserted than Seventh Avenue, with closed up freight entrances and dark, empty spaces-for-rent. I hated feeling like I didn’t know where I was. I wasn’t even sure if I was in the Village or not; I couldn’t remember what numbered street was the boundary.
One-seventeen, one-fifteen, getting close. I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled open the door at one-oh-nine/one-eleven—the few men on the street (there were no women, I wonder why that is?) had leered at me obscenely and I was only too happy to put some distance between myself and them.
The school was on the eighth floor, and I’m convinced the elevator was one of the oldest in Manhattan. It was slower even than the one above Andy’s Deli. Which gave me plenty of time to get good and nervous. I don’t know what I had to be so antsy about, but a butterfly was doing a samba in my stomach, and no matter how deeply I breathed it didn’t stop. The fact that I knew the elevator cables were going to snap any moment and send me plunging to my death probably didn’t help matters.
By the seventh floor I could hear the sounds of tapping feet which grew louder as the elevator climbed. When the car reach the eighth floor, making three or four false stops before the door opened, the butterfly gave one more panicky flutter, then landed. I stepped out quickly. I was in the studio.
Large, gold script letters proclaiming “LeTang” hanging on the wall directly in front of me clued me in. Another sign reading “Henry LeTang School of Dance” dangling slightly cock-eyed from a pipe at the entrance of a hallway on my left reiterated it.
A middle-aged woman with short blond hair was sitting at a desk to the right. On a couch beneath the script “LeTang” was a younger girl, perhaps my age, with the same shade of blond hair hanging to her shoulders. They both looked up briefly as I entered, and I half-smiled timidly at them. The older woman was on the phone and the younger one was watching her expectantly, as if she couldn’t wait for her to be finished.
I shifted my bag on my shoulder and glanced around uncertainly. The younger blond looked over at me. I seized the opportunity. “Do you have a class schedule?”
“Yeah. On the table.” She pointed to the dark cavern of hallway where I could make out the beginning of a black table, rimmed with silver. The other end of it was lost in the shadows. On the visible end was a stack of white paper printed with the schedule. I took one, but I didn’t look at it right way. I was staring down the hall.
Twenty feet down the darkened hallway was an entrance-way shining with sunlight. On the other side, inside the room, were people tapping. Hesitantly, I walked ‘til I was within five feet of the door, always expecting to hear someone calling me back, telling me I had no business there. No one said a word. I watched. A thirties-ish woman with a frizzy blond ponytail perched absurdly in the middle of her head was showing a step to a man about her age. Farther into the room two black kids, a boy and a girl about ten or eleven, were practicing together. Between and behind the rest was another teenager meticulously trying to work through a complex step. They all took turns glancing curiously over at me, but their gazes returned to the mirror and their dancing when they saw that I was no one they knew.
Remembering the schedule in my hand, I looked down. Under bold black letters declaring the name and address of the school was the schedule of classes. Monday to Friday – 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm. Seven o’clock was perfect for me if I wasn’t working; it was the only class I’d be able to make. There was a special note about Saturday classes, but Mythology took up the greater part of my Saturdays so I brushed it aside without a second thought. Taught by Henry, Ellie LeTang, & Louid Baldonieri. That’s exactly what it said. I grinned at the typographical error wondering whether the correct name was Louis or Louie. Since “D” is under “E” on a typewriter keyboard, and directly to the right of ”S,” a slip of the finger was conceivable in either case. At any rate, I knew Louid was a man, as was Henry. I’d also gotten the impression that the woman behind the desk was Ellie. So who was teaching this class?
I went back down the hallway to the front room. In front of the couch was a low piece of furniture with a hardwood square table between two cushions, matching those on the couch and loveseat. I wasn’t sure if it was a coffee table or bench of some sort, so I stood staring at it for a minute before I sat gingerly on the cushion opposite the younger girl: “Which of these times is an intermediate class—and how do you differentiate between the levels?”
She began, “Well, what my father tries to do is—“ and she continued with a detailed explanation of how the classes were run, but I only half heard her. My mind had wandered at “my father.” I was sitting there talking to Henry LeTang’s daughter. Immediately I was lost in a fantasy of becoming best friends with her—eating and spending nights at the LeTang house, rubbing elbows with people like Gregory Hines, maybe even being cast in the next movie. I couldn’t help myself. I was star-struck.
“How did you hear about my father?” she asked.
I described how I’d repeatedly seen the LeTang name connected with all the best tap shows I’d come in contact with and come to the conclusion that this was the man to learn from.
“Would you like to watch a class for a few minutes?”
I nodded eagerly and followed her back to the sunlit doorway. She pointed inside the room to a couple of metal folding chairs at the back, then left me.
I watched, inspired, as the teacher drifted back and forth, splitting time amongst her four students. When she stayed long enough with the older man to repeatedly break down an intricate series of steps, my feet began to move. I was hardly aware of it, my body just took off in its own direction. While he was still struggling with the rhythm, I already had it. It was jazzy and different, yet amazingly simple—the trick was in the coordination.
I got up and left the room. I didn’t need to watch anymore. I was hooked.
Back in the waiting room I asked Mr. LeTang’s daughter a few more questions about prices and stuff.
“How much are private lessons?”
I grimaced. I’d expected it to be out of my league, but that was phenomenal!
“For an hour?”
“And who teaches those?”
“That’s with Mr. LeTang.” It was the woman at the desk who spoke. She was still on the phone, but she’d turned away from the mouthpiece long enough to say that and smile at me.
“Wow,” I breathed. A private session with Henry LeTang HIMSELF! was worth seventy-five dollars. But I’d be too intimidated to tap!
"That’s Mrs. LeTang,” the daughter said conspiratorially, gesturing to her mother who’d returned to her call.
“I know,” I replied wide-eyed, although I hadn’t really been sure until she’d said that. Suddenly I realized I had no idea what her name was. I asked her.
“Trisha LeTang,” she answered. And instead of introducing myself I just grinned foolishly and nodded.
“I’ll be seeing you!” I sang out as I got on the elevator. Already I was praying that I wouldn’t be needed as an alternate at Mythology so I could return that night for a class. If it hadn’t been for Life Studies I probably would have skipped Acting and taken the three o’clock class. When I’d asked Trisha I found out the teacher I’d seen was Donna Bennett, formerly of the Hartford Ballet Company it said on the schedule. She also taught ballet classes at the studio, which I’d never expected them to have, and someone named Randy supposedly taught jazz. Donna certainly looked more like a ballet dancer, but her tap was good enough for me, so I wasn’t going to type her out.
The first person I saw when I got back to AMDA was Carol Conway. She was thrilled that I’d finally gone, and even more thrilled that I’d liked it. But she was absolutely baffled by the idea of one class containing all levels of experience. “There’s a reason they’re doing that,” she mused, but she didn’t know what it was.
I didn’t care. All I knew was I was in love with the place. It had seemed so familiar! Now that I’d had time to think about it, I realized that I’d had absolutely no pre-conceived notions of what the place would look like. I was going to just wait and see. And what it had reminded me of was the studio in “Tap.” Not so much as to make me wonder if they’d shot the movie there, but enough to make me feel like it wasn’t a coincidence.
I was still reflecting on my discovery, and trying to figure out when would be the first possible opportunity to take a class, when I saw Francoise in the hallway. On the subway ride home I’d made up my mind not to mention it to her. I don’t know why, but I just felt like it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell her about it. Now that she was right in front of my face, however, I couldn’t stop myself from saying: “I just went down to the Henry LeTang School.”
Her eyes gleamed anxiously, “And?”
“I loved it!”
I nodded emphatically, too caught up in my own excitement to worry about the fallout of sparking her interest. I told her all about it.
Okay, can I just say: that entry was ten pages, BOTH SIDES, of black composition notebook paper, written in long-hand. I went to school in the morning, went to the studio in the afternoon, went back to school (aced my Life Study), presumably went to work in the evening, did some homework, and then sat and wrote essentially twenty pages of long-hand journaling. Oh, to have my twenties (not even) back. Energy. I vaguely remember it.
I didn’t make very many changes to this, unbelievably enough (I expected to need to), and the ones I did make were very minimal changes of punctuation or the occasional word added or taken away for the sake of clarity. This is how I wrote over twenty years ago. It’s very interesting to reread something like this and discover that my journaling style and voice have not changed very much over time. Also, apparently I had my habit of starting sentences with “But” firmly in place even then. I’ve worked a bit lately on breaking that habit, mostly because nine times out of ten it’s better to keep the thoughts together in one sentence with “but” doing its job as a conjunction and not a sentence-starter. I still sometimes use it to start a sentence, but I’m trying to limit myself to those times when it’s truly stylistically demanded and dynamic.
I loved rereading this entry because I could see everything again, and honestly without all that detailed writing I probably couldn’t have told you half of what the studio looked like at this point. Of course, I laughed at my reaction to Trisha (who is one of the Facebook friends mentioned above), and at all I know that is yet to come, which I will try to type out and share with you guys. It actually kills two birds because I’ve been wanting to digitize my old journals for years, and it will help me figure out what, if anything, might be good fodder for a full-length memoir. Honestly I might just call it “Crazy Lady.” Oh, you have no idea. Stick around.