It was 1978 and I was almost fifty. My daughter, Nancy, twenty- two. . I had a booking to do three early morning speeches in the grand ballroom of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago.
They would cram a couple of thousand people in that room for my sessions and I was dedicating every spare moment of my crowded life into preparation. As a professional speaker, I had become known for my unusual, memorable closes. I had planned to use my popular “people” close which I did with a musical background playing.
Then on the second day I planned to use a new verse I had written titled, My Brother’s Keeper. For the third day I had a wild idea. I wanted to learn a simple soft shoe dance to do to the music of Bye-bye Blues. I worked out words and the timing and in my mind I could see myself tap dancing onstage with my lovely daughter, Nancy at my side.
In my imagination it was spectacular. About a month before the booking, I took a deep breath and approached Nancy with the idea. To say that she gave a cool reception to the idea would be a real understatement. After a few days of coaxing plus the promise of a monstrous bribe, she consented to join me in the basement rec room together with a tape player on which I had our proposed music.
I explained that we’d need less than a minute of actual dancing in the arrangement I had written and I played the tape and did the go-in that I had prepared.
As we got to the point where I visualized the dancing, I cried out, “Now! This is where you come onstage in shorts and black tails, toss me a cane and a top-hat and together we go, ta ta ta ta – tata – ta-ta-ta – tatatata – ta ta-ta.”
“Dad,” she said in disgust, “do you mean ta ta ta ta – ta ta -tata?”
“Yeah!” I said. “Something like that. Just something that will look smart and absolutely show that I know how to do the soft shoe with you.”
Nancy told me to shut off the music. She hated that music. It was old fashioned. It was stupid and it just wouldn’t work.
“We’ll try to make it work for us.” I pleaded.
I won’t go into all of the gruesome details, but we struggled with it for a full hour and the next evening we struggled even harder and finally after another hour of struggle. I was awful. Nancy suggested that I sit down and listen to what she had to say.
“Dad, “she began. “I love you and I think you have a wonderful talent for giving speeches, but a dancer you are not and a tap dancer you will never be.”
Coaxing didn’t work. Bribes no longer had any effect on her. Her mind was made up. I was a klutz. I didn’t know my right foot from my left. I was positively hopeless. After two hours of struggle, I was not one bit better than I was to start with. She was right.
She finally summed up the situation by saying, “And not under any circumstances would I be caught dead dancing with you in front of two thousand people onstage at the Conrad Hilton Hotel.”
I got the point. I was heartbroken. My dream was fading. I tried half a dozen times to veto her edict without success. Eventually I gave up my dream and replaced the soft shoe idea with a wonderful story.
Nevertheless that old dream of tap dancing remained in the back of my mind and continued to haunt me. Every time I saw an old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movie, every video that shows Sammy Davis Jr., or Tommy Tune dancing brought back that dream and made me wish that I might have done that wonderful close.
The years passed, I got older and grew an enormous pot belly and the chances that I would ever fulfill my tap dancing dream diminished with each added pound and passing year.
My wife, Ruthie, contacted cancer and after a nine year battle, she died. At first, I mourned and found some solace in half gallon binges with ice cream.
Finally, I got sufficiently disgusted with my weight and physical unfitness, I went on a reconstruction program. In all, I guess I must have lost some fifty pounds or more and with it that ugly pot belly.
With that weight off, I felt so light that I felt like skipping. I felt like just flitting around. My feet were like feathers.
It took a while for the possibility to return to my mind, but one day, after my sixty fifth birthday, I joined a senior center and when I checked the list of programs they were offering, I spotted one that said, “Tap Dancing for Seniors.” The instructor was Sherri Rarick.
Imagine, Sherri Rarick, the same wonderful woman who had taught our Nancy to dance so many years before.
I called Sherri. “I see you are offering a tap class,” I said, “I was wondering if I could take your class?”
“Certainly!” she replied, “We’ll take anybody.”
Then for an hour each week I submitted myself to a session of complete humiliation. There were about twenty women in our class and me. The women were so cute flitting along so beautifully in time with the music and there I was stumbling around like a complete klutz.
If you are reasonably coordinated, then I’m sure it will be difficult for you to understand this, but my feet and my mind seem to have a broken connection.
I’d visualize a step and see my feet going in the right direction in the proper sequence. Then as I tried to do the step, my feet, as if they had a mind of their own, would go off in a completely different direction.
It made no sense at all to me and it was a source of great disappointment and frustration. At the end of the six week course, I did not sign up for another term.
I had gone to Chicago and purchased a pair of patent tap shoes. Then one afternoon, I was looking for something in the basement and I discovered a miniature plywood Ping-Pong table just 3’ x 4’ in size. On a whim, I took the fixtures off it and brought it upstairs for a minor experiment.
I placed it in front of my television in the den and put on my shoes. Then for about a half an hour I tried the steps I had learned. Then I tapped my way around the board searching for something that might work for me.
I’ve played at playing the drums since I was a kid thirteen years old and so rhythms are not something new for me. I tried out a couple of old beats and I soon discovered that if I did a step very much like running in place it sounded just great. In fact, the heel and toe taps seemed to magnify everything and with a little practice I found that I could do a whole series of variations on that one step.
Within a week I had located a CD of Louis Armstrong and his all-stars playing a blazing rendition of Tiger Rag. My original goal set over twenty years before was to do a slow soft shoe. But now that I had discovered this new step, I felt that instead of a sedate soft shoe, I could set my sights much higher and go for a higher goal.
I practiced with just the last one minute of Tiger Rag. Then I put it onto a cassette tape several times for practice sessions.
One minute might not seem like a whole lot of time, but as Mark Twain used to explain; time is relative. It depends on whether you are kissing a pretty girl or sitting on a hot coal stove. I soon discovered that you can deliver a whole lot of variations on a running step in just one minute.
Describing a tap dance is a little bit like trying to tell how a melody goes with just words, but I will try to put a picture in your mind of just how the dance goes now after a couple of months of daily effort.
While the music starts out fast and just gets wilder, I start out slow, just tapping around like I’ve just discovered the taps on my shoes.
Then I begin to experiment and try them out a bit. At the end of the first chorus I double the speed of my steps and it’s not bad. I do a couple of turns and then I put my hands in my pocket and kick my feet out to the sides just sort of enjoying the experience.
There is a certain jaunt to the theme of the music and I seem to be caught up in the music. There is a break, I stop for an instant, then that jaunt takes over and suddenly my feet are flying. My arms begin to swing in circles and I look a bit like a two bladed helicopter that is about to take off.
Again there is a two beat break and I stop as I holler out – “Big finish.”
I now double the steps of my flying feet and my arms are flying twice as fast now and as the song comes to an end, on the final five beats, I throw out exploding caps that accentuate the beats with Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow!
I guess you had to be there and I will never forget it because when I first did it in front of an audience of seniors, they went wild. Later I did it to close a presentation for the United States Air Force and they caught it on video. Now I know I still can’t tap dance. I remained a Klutz. But I was demonstrating how we should never quit trying new things. You can see it on Youtube by CLICKING ON THIS LINK.