My earliest memories are of me sitting on the bare wood steps that led down to my parents half basement and attempting to spy on my mom as she practiced her tap dancing routines. It would start out as me going all ninja, thinking I could somehow blend my stocky, big-boned 5-year old frame into the painted cement blocks behind me and pine steps that were under me. I’d watch from my aerial view from atop the stairs as my mom would tap dance over a repetitive voice that emanated from an old reel-to-reel recorder. Even at that age I imagined that voice belonged to someone that looked like a cross between Richard Simmons and Jonathan Harris from Lost In Space as the flamboyant voice repeated “shuffle-hop-shuffle-hop-shuffle-ball-change-turn-reverse” over and over to the accompaniment of a tinkling, chime-y piano. As I sat there thinking I was the sneakiest 5-year old around the sound of those taps as they hit the cement floor would begin to lull me. I don’t know what it was, but it was almost mesmerizing to sit and listen to. The rhythm of those hits, the distant, muffled sound coming from that old reel-to-reel, and the smell of laundry detergent in the air would put me in a daze. A “shuffle hop coma”, if you will. Soon enough my mom would turn around and see me sitting there and yell “Get back upstairs, John! I don’t want you playing on those steps!”
I never asked my mom why she started tap dancing. My mom, like a lot of moms back in the 70s, stayed home and was a “homemaker”. Now we know now that what that means is that she took care of everything. I mean everything. She wasn’t dusting in a dinner dress and pearls while watching soap operas and waiting at the door for pops to show up from work with his slippers and the evening paper. No, she was handling the down and dirty of home life. The cooking, cleaning, bill paying, grocery shopping, laundering, and making sure me and my brother were washed, clothed, and getting to where we needed to go. She also was the caregiver when we were sick. My brother wasn’t sick very often, but I was sick all the time. Ear infections, bronchitis, lots of fevers and vomiting, and did I mention bronchitis? I was the sickly kid that spent his 4th Christmas in the ICU with pneumonia. My mom was there by my bedside every night. This was back before hospital rooms were like studio apartments with pull out beds and comfy chairs for guests. In 1977 they were still white, cold, and unforgiving to the sleeping guest’s back. My doc when I was 5 years old thought I had Leukemia until my mom nearly strong armed him into testing me for allergies. She was right, I was just allergic to cats, dust, mold, and lima beans(okay, not lima beans.)
I love my dad. He worked his butt off for all of us so we could have a decent life and a roof over our heads. But if it weren’t for my mom we’d a been a bunch of wild animals roaming the Pines searching for food, water, and clean underwear.
So looking back at this whole tap dancing thing I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe this was an outlet for my mom. Some “me” time to get away from the insanity of domestication. I can remember going to the tennis courts near the Green Acres mobile home park with my mom and she’d play with her friend Shirley Bell. I’d play on the playground with Shirley’s daughter Sherry as mom and Shirley would do their best Billie Jean King. Later on my mom was on a bowling league. She played that for years. Every Thursday night she’d meet a couple friends and they’d bowl till 7 or 8pm, then have a few beers afterwards. But in-between the tennis and bowling was tap dance.
I went with my mom a few times to her tap class. It was in the basement of the dance instructor. She’d fashioned a dance studio down there, complete with mats and a wall covered in mirrors. In one of the corners there was a milk crate filled with various toys and puzzles for the brats of her students to play with while the women danced and joked about Dallas, The Stepford Wives, and key parties. The one thing that had always stayed with me over the years was a particular song they would dance to a lot. I never knew what it was called, but it was this pretty piano melody that built up to this classic 70s crescendo filled with orchestra, tight bass, and super compressed drums. I didn’t notice the drums and bass till years later. That piano melody always stuck with me. It was sweet and sad. Music always had an overwhelming affect on me(I can remember my eyes welling up whenever Paul McCartney got to the high notes in “My Love” as it played on the car radio.) There was even a recital that I remember going to. It was at the high school auditorium. I remember as soon as my mom coming out onto the stage to dance I started yelling “It’s mommy! It’s mommy!” to my dad’s chagrin. I couldn’t help it. My mom was up there on stage in front of a whole auditorium of people dancing to the piano song I loved so much.
My mom had all of her tap stuff set up downstairs. She had a few 45s that she would dance to down there. We had an old console stereo down there that used to be the main stereo upstairs. After dad went hi fi with the Pioneer receiver, turntable, 8-track, and speakers, the old Zenith console was delegated to the basement for pool parties and beer consumption. My mom would use it to play her 45s, one of which was Elvis Presley. The A-side was “Blue Suede Shoes”, while the b-side was ‘Tutti Frutti”. I never saw my mom tap dance to either of those songs, but I grew a great fondness for that 45. I was partial to “Tutti Frutti” myself. The line “Got a gal, named Sue/She know just what to do” always got me. I had no idea what Sue knew what to do, but I imagined it was pretty great.
It was years later, long after my mom had put the dance shoes away that I think I’d figured out why my mom took up the tap lessons. I think she wanted something to do outside of the house, for sure. Find an identity other than “homemaker”, yes. But she could’ve done anything out of the house. Hell, keep the tennis dreams going. Or maybe racquetball? But no, she chose tap. My grandma Ruth LOVED Shirley Temple. She had a bunch of Shirley Temple movies on video cassette when I was younger, and I remember my mom having a collection of Shirley Temple movies, too. Could my mom have taken up tap dance for my grandma? My mom and grandma were very close. Always were. My grandma was at the tap recital, too. I remember her clapping and clapping when my mom finished. Not the humoring kind of clapping, but the honest kind where maybe some tears might’ve been shed. Maybe. Anyways, I wouldn’t put it past my mom to do something like that. Take up a hobby because her mom would’ve gotten a kick out of it. When my grandma died a few years ago I remember one of the few things she wanted of my grandma’s was her Shirley Temple movies.
So why all this reminiscing about tap dancing and my mom? I don’t know, I guess because I think my mom is kind of a badass. Mother’s Day just passed and it felt like a good time to talk about her a bit. And besides, without her I’d probably be in some makeshift mud hut in an undisclosed northeastern Indiana woods, eating squirrel over an open fire in dirty underwear.