My Short and Tragic Tap Dancing Career
At least I made it to the first class—a big deal when you’re three and hide in the folds of your mother’s dress a lot. Tap’s popularity had sagged by 1960, so I’ll never know why Mother carted me off to some auditorium near Hartford for lessons. The way the story goes, she and I sidled up onto the stage (no way I’d go by myself) and the instructor tried to coax me into the class. I’ve always imagined him putting on a sympathy face and cooing at me, “C’mon, little guy! C’mon!” It didn’t work. I sobbed and hid in my mother’s dress and refused to come out. After a while she gave up and escorted me off the stage. We never returned.
* * *
Mother’s way of telling that story always stung me. Oh, the fun I missed. I could have learned to dance, the way my parents waltzed with their friends on the stage of The Bushnell, Hartford’s pride and joy of a theater. (She told me that story too, a gauze that evoked ball gowns, white gloves, “Moonlight Serenade.”) Didn’t I want to be like that? Tap would have taught me to move with grace, a survival skill for the rough athletic neighborhood where I grew up and got bullied.
Instead, I threw it all away.
The retellings of this story—and they happened often—intensified my regret. And they leave me with a conundrum: 60 years later my life is none the worse for my three-year-old self’s refusal to tap. But every now and then the tale springs to mind and stabs me afresh.
* * *
Repeat a story often enough and it becomes received truth. There was little to stop the tap story from doing the same: I carried no memory of my own to disprove it, and I never thought to question my mother, not even decades later, as congestive heart failure carried her away. All I can do is hope my guesses answer the questions she left with me, questions like these:
What did my mother have in mind?
My sister asks me now, when I tell her the story, “Why on earth would she sign you up for lessons you didn’t want?”
My mother touched magic on the Bushnell stage, perhaps for the only time in her life. She wanted that magic for her youngest and last, the child who barely escaped her uterus before the whole reproductive system had to go. Any mother would feel the same. My heart softens when I hear the story this way.
Or: My mother wanted me to be the next Gene Kelly.
Or: She wanted to be the next Gene Kelly (or Ann Miller, maybe). As the youngest and last, I was not myself so much as a second her, extra weight attached to her skirt by tiny fingers. She didn’t have to speak the desire to tap: her heart wished it, and her second self absorbed the wish like blood through a placenta.
My heart recoils when I hear the story this way.
Or maybe—I’m going out on a limb here—I did want lessons, however momentarily. Could her three-year-old have sat mesmerized by the TV, Singin’ in the Rain on WTIC’s Big 3 Theater, and muttered something like “I want to do that . . .” while she ironed our bedsheets? Did she watch my eyes follow Gene Kelly’s moves and intuit what I was dreaming? Did she figure she was too busy for lessons, or too shy, or something, so her younger version had to stand in?
My sister, who was 16 at the time of the tap story, says, “I took tap with our sisters, but I was much older than three. I’m thinking at least seven or eight.” So maybe my mother acted on a half-remembered lesson: Her first three kids learned to tap, and it worked out well, so that’s what good parents do. My heart softens when I hear the story this way.
But at three?
That’s the half-remembered part. Maybe she recalled taking the girls but forgot how old they were at the time. Or maybe it’s just a mystery. Some questions never give up their answers.
* * *
How did she feel as we walked off the stage?
Several alternatives here. My mind’s eye floats to this one: her face tilted downward, a flush in her cheeks deepening from red to purple, the pressure of fury just behind her eyes, which is where I typically feel it too. She would have said nothing.
Upon further review, though, I don’t buy it. Much more likely she would have scooped up her youngest and last, cuddled him, maybe cried with him. Most mothers would do the same. I’ll go with that.
But there’s a caveat. My regret didn’t arise from nowhere—certainly not from my memory of the fiasco, because I had none. So maybe she hid her disappointment deep inside the story, with regret protruding just enough to prick me with every retelling.
* * *
Why didn’t she try again when I was older?
Inertia, maybe? Years of bookkeeping jobs and ironing and arguing with my father and raising four children drove tap straight out of her mind. I doubt I ever reminded her or asked for a second chance. Maybe even The Bushnell had faded from her memory—something to pull out of the closet only on special occasions—and tap went with it.
And this: She’d hit her late forties by the time I turned seven or eight. Whatever else my parents were, I’m certain they were weary.
* * *
Did this happen at all?
My sister says, “I’m sorry, but I have absolutely no recollection of such an incident.”
I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. She had a lot on her mind, as 16-year-olds tend to do. But now she’s got me wondering.
It didn’t happen. This one’s doubtful: My memory, faulty as it is, wants to say Mother didn’t make up stories out of whole cloth. Call it the least likely option.
Or: The story (or my remembrance of it) is more colorful than the facts. Perhaps the instructor never cooed at me to come dance. Or we made it on stage, but only to a place hidden in the curtain fabric, so the instructor never saw us. Or the instructor was a she. Or I kicked up a fuss in the anteroom and my mother (a) cuddled me back to the car or (b) dragged me off in a huff.
Or this: It happened just the way she said, and I was three, for God’s sake, so what else would you expect? That small person needs far more grace than I’ve ever given him. Maybe it’s not too late.
What do these examined questions tell me?
One: I’ve spent 60 years ruing an incident that could, to some extent, be fiction.
Two, Three, and Four: My mother never understood the difference between herself and me, and I am still recovering from that. Or she gave me her best flawed notion of love. Or she was too “all in” (her phrase for exhaustion) to raise a fourth child or do anything really. Or all three.
* * *
Do I want to tap now?
I can’t write about Gene Kelly and Ann Miller without watching them, so I turn to YouTube: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Too Darn Hot,” others. Kelly’s two-footed puddle stomp, Miller’s five-foot-seven (six feet in heels, she had to be) moving two ways at once: slow and sinuous on top, lightning feet at the bottom. Every time I watch them I forget to exhale.
And yet the answer to do I want to?—whispered, firm, from my center—is no, a no of release. You’re off the hook, little guy, at long last. Dry your tears. Take a breath. Go home and play.
John Backman (she/her) writes about gender identity, ancient spirituality, strange wrinkles in human behavior, and how they collide from time to time. This includes personal essays in Catapult, Pensive, Tiferet Journal, and Amethyst Review, among other places. John’s nonfiction book on bridging divides is titled Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012).