Author Birdie Jaworski tries her hand at tap-dancing, only to discover she's twice the age of any other student... and the teacher!
The class schedule read Adult Intermediate Tap. I double-checked it, perched reading glasses on nose and ran my index finger along the paper taped to the wall. Adult. Check. Three other students, all teenagers, stood laughing, talking, warming up snapdragon feet on a scarred wooden floor. Our teacher, no older than nineteen, no taller than my shoulder, fiddled with the dials on a paint-splattered boombox.
I'm twice as old as any person here, I thought. Twice as old, and six times less hip. Twice as big, too.
The students wore low-slung pastel sweats cut off at the knee, boot-like shoes with no socks, tight cotton camisoles. I wore rainbow striped socks, tap heels with wing tips and big black bows, a white ruffled skirt with sensible sport shorts underneath and a pink tank-top. I sucked in my stomach and imitated the leg stretches of the tallest student, a girl with flat-ironed blonde hair and the word "DANCE" sewn in princess script across her butt.
"Excuse me, ma'am? The ballet students leave through the other room. You can pick up your daughter there."
Pixie Teacher pointed to the door across the hall. She wore her dark hair in a messy ballet bun and her baby blue bustier matched cut off sweats. A triangular blue stone adorned her exposed bellybutton.
"Oh, I'm a student. I'm here for the tap dancing. I took beginner lessons, oh, a few years ago."
I lifted my foot to show the shiny metal plates screwed to my toe and heels and then slammed it down with a satisfying clap. I didn't mention that "a few years" meant two-and-a-half decades. She shrugged her shoulders and bent low, clicked a button. The boombox sputtered, and The Pussycat Dolls assaulted my ears.
"Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?
Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?"
I almost tapped right out the door while the other students slid, shuffle, toe, toe, heel, toe, slid across the floor like Abercrombie and Fitch marionettes. I pressed my heels into the floorboards, attempted to keep the same time as my classmates, swung my hips fast, high, so that my skirt flared at my waist, revealing my gym shorts. Pixie stifled a giggle and I caught Blondie rolling her eyes. I lifted my arms in a graceful arc and flipped her the bird.
My body searched for sound waves, for muscle memory, for something to grab, to hold, to own. Nothing. The stark track lights tossed my shadow against the floor. My heart couldn't slow, couldn't melt the steps into my blood. I sounded old. My breath filled the room with a phantom echo. Pixie threw me a worried look. She didn't know the essence that orders the universe decided to slice me into one thousand slivers of Birdie and pass around the plate.
Everyone gets a piece. I felt sweat drip between my breasts as I caught my breath. Everyone gets to scarf me down, burp, live on my calories. I'm not making a decent living. I'm not organizing my potential into darts, letting them fly, letting them hit some unknown rings with a big prize in the middle. I'm coasting, and it's all flashy silver streaks beneath my feet, an echo of drum, I can't keep up, can't make feet match arms match anything, anything, anything, just a rim shot echo in my wake. I slipped off my tap shoes and stuffed them in my backpack.
Pixie began the next class by passing out CDs. She handed the Black Eyed Peas to a girl with an eyebrow piercing, Kanye West to a chubby brown-haired girl with a satin belly shirt, Beyonce to Blondie. Pixie explained that in eleven weeks we'd dance for our parents - Oh Sorry, she said, glancing in my direction - each of us, one by one, with our own choreography, our own song.
Oh great, I thought, who am I gonna get? Britney Spears?
"Ms. Jaworski? I picked something old-fashioned for you. I thought you'd be more comfortable with that."
I reached my hand out with a maniacal smile across my face, gimme, gimme, gimme! I'm getting something classic! Maybe the Maple Leaf Rag! Or maybe the Chattanooga Choo Choo! I stared at the splotchy scrawl of marker on the disk in my hand, my smile hardening like plaster. Donna Summer?! Hot Stuff?!
Eleven weeks of Donna Summer, of tap, tap, tap, tap through the kitchen, heel toe, heel toe, shuffle, toe, tap tap tap, change the movie from Star Trek to Japanese anime, then tap tap tap shuffle, toe, heel, shuffle, back to the kitchen, mix melted dark chocolate with butter and sugar and eggs and a splash of that good Mexican vanilla, flour, pinch of salt, handful of macadamia nuts from my backyard, shove it in the oven for a sweet treat. And, dammit, just dammit to hades and back, my dance skills needed serious improvement.
My son, age 10, poked his head out his bedroom door as I shuffle-ball-chained through the hallway in a pair of candy-striped shorts and a dingy wife beater. I tried to move my arms like Donna Summer, like a disco diva, raised them high over my head and gave a good bump-and-grind as I turned the corner to the living room.
"Geeze, mom. You look like Richard Simmons. Please, whatever you do, no 'jazz hands!'"
Rats. Jazz hands were my best move!
My gramma used to tell me there was no greater glory you could give to God than dancing, especially when you didn't feel like it, when the sun didn't shine and the money didn't arrive and the furnace broke down.
"You have to dance, Birdie, as long as your body works, and don't give two cents what anyone else says."
Gramma would sweep one arm around her old kitchen, point at her coffee percolator, twirl on one foot, let her big belly follow, and we'd laugh, laugh and twirl, just laugh.
Just be Gramma. Just be Gramma. I repeated my mantra as I hustled my boys into the car the night of the recital. I kept my costume hidden under a long chenille bathrobe. I didn't let my boys watch me sew in the late night hours, didn't give them an inch, a leg warmer, a reason to bail out my recital. I handed the camcorder to my older son, and laid down the law.
"Okay, boys. You're my 'parents' for the recital. I'm just warning you - everyone in my class is a lot younger, and their parents will be there. I don't know if people are going to laugh at me, so you're gonna hafta clap extra loud, okay? I worked hard on this routine."
I glanced at my boys in the rear-view mirror. They looked worried. 10 cleared his throat.
"Uh, mom? Tell us again why you're doing this?"
His brother poked him in the side and whispered sotto voce.
"Duh! She did it to lose weight. Haven't you noticed she's not as fat?"
The boys raced to the risers and jockeyed for position in the front row along with a handful of moms, dads, sisters and boyfriends. I stood in the corner of the room with my fellow students. Pixie pulled us together.
"We're going to do this by age. Youngest to oldest. While you're waiting for your turn, you can sit in the dressing room and work on your makeup. I have some bottled water in there. Stay hydrated! Don't be nervous!"
Easy for her to say. I slapped my purse on the dressing room table and got to work. The other girls wore store-bought dance costumes - brightly colored spun sugar fragments that flew around their nubile bodies. They wore their hair in dancer's buns, in a sheet of iron-flattened veil. They applied eyeliner, mascara, added tiny sparkles of gold glitter above their eyes. They looked like small town Broadway, an echo of New York separated by prairie grass, by experience. I kept my bathrobe tightly tied around my waist.
"C'mon Ms. Birdie. Show us your costume! Did you get it at Sara Dee's?"
Blondie referenced the local dance outfitter. I shook my head no and smiled. One after another, my three compadres filed into the hall. I heard Fergie rap and yowl, Kanye grunt and gripe, heard Beyonce rock the rafters with a power ballad. My heart matched the music in fear, beat much faster than it should. I stared at my face in the mirror, at the woman twice as old as the other dancers, at the mother, the woman with crow's feet around her green eyes, at the woman who knew only how to wrap children in love. She looked back at me and winked.
It's been a while since that recital. I don't remember dancing - the memory thankfully faded like childbirth pain. I have the video, though. It's become a family favorite. The camera pans across the audience, to three sweaty dancers frosted in pink and glitter sitting with their families, then focuses on stage right, on a middle-aged mom in neon legwarmers and a leotard to match, her hair in a side ponytail sticking straight out of her head, her bangs swept back with a matching neon sweatband.
The music starts - and this is where the camera work gets shaky due to the camera operator's serious case of the giggles - and she taps across the floor, giving her front row boys a perfect view of her best Jazz Hands move. She shuffles and taps and kicks and dances the hell out of Donna Summer, and as she turns, twirls, the old parents - the woman and men so old just like her - explode in laughter and wild applause as they get the first look at her backside, at the words Hot Stuff splashed across her butt.
Hot Stuff, indeed!