- Illustration by Megan Mulholland
By Jacob Axelrad, Assistant Arts Editor
Published October 12, 2012
We are four friends, each no older than 12. We are on the street; tap shoes draped around our necks, black dance bags at our sides. We wear baggy clothes and scarf down the remnants from a bag of Cheetos. Streaks of orange dust coat our hands. Our feet jitter in anticipation as we wait outside the studio where we take classes every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
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I danced for five years, concluding the summer after sixth grade.
After my sister Gabri died on a family bike trip in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, my mother founded a dance program to honor Gabri’s love for dance. Though my mother had no dance background, she wanted people to remember my sister’s passion.
One afternoon, as I was hanging around the dance studio, watching a beginner's tap class, the teacher opened the door and asked if I wanted to join. I said yes.
That first class is sealed in my memory: no tap shoes, awkwardly kicking my bare feet against the ground, learning foreign words like shuffle, ball change, “over-the-top.” The thought of moving my feet in rhythmic patterns had me hooked. I asked my parents to enroll me in the class that same night.
For four days a week, my mom drove me across the city from one dance class to the next. She would work in a makeshift office converted from an old hotel basement until 9 p.m.; I would slip on my tap shoes and drum with metal on the floor.
While most kids I knew played sports, discussing their favorite basketball or baseball players at lunch, I became obsessed with different idols: people like Sammy Davis, Jr., Sandman Sims, Gregory Hines and Arthur Duncan; I watched videos of them performing over and over again in my bedroom, trying and failing to mimic their moves. I got a reputation in my class for imitating one famous tap dancer or another. My nickname was Funkadelic.
My hobby made it difficult to build friendships with other kids at school. I was essentially MIA after school and on weekends. I was also afraid what they might say if they found out. Would they think I was lame, girly, weird? I stayed silent. If it ever did come up, I’d sidestep the topic. In my mind, 12-year-old boys weren’t supposed to dance.
So I’d wait for school to end, anxious to be with others who shared my need to master a step or routine.
I had a home and a family. There was Andrés, a slacker who never practiced but surprised us all with his ability to memorize and perfect routines on the first try. There was Sandy, an improviser extraordinaire who specialized in spinning on her toes; when the choreography bored her she’d make up her own steps, which never failed to infuriate our instructor, Steve, who regularly quizzed us on our knowledge of tap greats such as Fred Astaire or Sammy Davis Jr. Just to make sure we were, you know, doing our homework.
And soon, it wasn’t just tap. Hesitant at first, I started ballet. Any misgivings I had about wearing tights were quickly assuaged by my teacher, Vera. Her dedication to her students made us all want to work harder, even if that meant staying at the studio until 10 on a weeknight.
Her wardrobe choices were casual: a faded black t-shirt with the word “Australia” sewn on, black dance pants and old white ballet slippers worn down to reveal skin underneath. “I’m a freak,” she would say, bottle of Evian water in hand. “I should be arrested. Why do any of you hang around with me? You should be at home.” We would smile, not caring our parents were waiting in the lobby to take us home because class should have ended over an hour ago.
“I can’t help it. I love what I do,” she once told me. “And I know how lucky I am to be doing what I love.”
But it didn’t last. I drifted away from dance. Maybe it was the pressure of starting a new school, knowing I wouldn’t have enough time to spend in the studio. Maybe it was my parents worrying that their son’s obsession was unrealistic — I wasn’t about to turn pro or earn a dance scholarship. Or maybe I just lost interest, unwilling to devote the kind of time and discipline necessary to actually be good.
Within weeks of stopping, my flexibility began to wane. My muscles atrophied. I could no longer leap and extend the way I once could. Over the next few months, I suppressed any thoughts of returning to dance. I’d have to start all over, regain my lost strength. My brother, who played water polo in high school and college, once explained to me how he felt after playing his last game.
“It’s tough to know that I was in the best shape I’ll ever be in and that I’ll never be in such good shape again,” he said. “I go to my buddies’ games who are still on the team. But it’s hard. To know they’re still in that shape, that they can still move like that … it’s hard.” I agreed.
Some years, my parents and I watch the dance program’s recitals in June. Watching the youngest kids I feel nothing. No envy. No resentment.