41 days into new parenthood, my wife and I find ourselves sitting under a taxidermy deer head—she pumping breast milk to relieve her engorged jugs while I hop up from time to time and shuffle. In the tiny German-speaking section of my adopted homeland–not far from where Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg intersect–we are waiting for a dessert-course appearance at Vincent’s surprise 60th birthday party. She pumps, and I jump, and I notice that the stuffed doe was bagged by the birthday boy, when he was 13 years old. Something about a hunting lodge, the fabulous catered dishes going upstairs to formally-attired guests, the collection of BMW’s parked outside, my wife’s constant reminders that it is VERY late at night, and the realization that we are perhaps just the latest in a long line of trophies makes me think: we should have charged more.
For my first gig as a resident of Belgium, all the usual hassles provide comfort: the tap mats are stuffed into the car along with red tuxedo, matching red tails, green kazoo, rhinestone-studded ukulele, vintage plastic bowler hat, flat tap shoes and heels, suspenders, bow tie, screwdriver, headlamp, sheet music, low-residue vinyl tape, and various other neuroses.
Discomfort comes from the unusual elements of packing-for-the-gig: our baby, Félix–snug in his car seat with chic Ikea blanket keeping him warm—as well as diapers, wipes, and the invaluable child-carrying device given to us by my sister Rachael. Most unusually my new in-laws have loaned us a plug-in car refrigerator to cooly transport the buckets of expressed milk for the 20 minute drive to their house, which makes me feel like I am couriering transplant organs. Only the next day, after mustard-colored slime explodes from his anus, will we realize: we forgot a change of clothes.
Being out of cellphone range the first time you leave your baby is tough, but our child is perhaps in better care than our own: Stephanie’s parents raised four kids, and have helped bring up 10 other grandchildren, and so between her mother’s lifelong expertise and her father’s MD there is nothing that can come up for young Félix that they are not equipped to handle. Stephanie’s main concern is that she has left enough milk—which arrives cool even though I forget to plug the organ-donor-fridge into the car outlet–for our little man is in his second official growth-spurt.
My infant in his 6-week growth spurt resembles some combination of a werewolf and the Incredible Hulk: a grunting, growling, snarling, wrathful milk-snorting beast whose bulging arms, head, hands, and legs expand so quickly that buttons seem to pop off his onesies in real time. For 36 hours he has been crying and demanding more, a savage little thing whose body has clearly kicked into cartoonish overdrive. Driving home after the gig we make an over-under wager on how much he has consumed in the 6 hours we’ve been gone.
Rehearsing with an infant: a new challenge indeed. On Monday we are able to get the kid to sleep all the way through our one-hour living-room rehearsal, Steph at her grand piano and me on my tap mat. On Wednesday we play a few tunes together before getting to the repertory, but when we begin the actual rehearsal it is over: the kid is up, and demanding contact, so I scat 20 minutes of choreography while Steph plays through the arrangements. By Friday when the kid won’t sleep at all we rehearse in shifts: I dance through all the material for an hour or so while the werewolf feeds, and then cradle the little beast in my arms while Steph works through the music one last time.
The 30-minute show consists of old, faithful, wonderful repertory. We open with Pete Nugent’s classic Breezin’–with eternal gratitude to Nancy Howell for remembering the dance for 50 years–chosen because it is the same age as the birthday man and also such a beauty. Add the chic plastique bowler—thank you Thelma Goldberg, I did actually ship the damned thing in a container to Belgium—for Doin’ the New Low Down, chosen because the guy loves tap dance and what is tap dance without the double salute of Honi Coles paying homage to Bojangles? Lose the bowler and add the red tails for Paul Draper’s Tea for Two—set on me 20 years ago by amazing mentor Dean Diggins—because it is the most beautiful dance I know.
Grab the uke and launch into my Ukulele-One-Man-Band. Funny, stupid, and swinging, with some whistling crowd participation, it is the off-beat in the middle of the set, and a piece I can always rely on. Take off my black knee socks, change into heels, and roll my red pants up for for High Heelberman, set to Stephanie’s gorgeous playing of the Mississippi Rag. Finish in the heels with a quick, flashy, buck and wing dance as taught all those years ago by the late, great Joe Stirling.
The set is designed to degrade slowly: elegant suit and styles at the beginning, with simple costume elements to keep a crowd’s attention. Moving into the ukulele piece which wavers in and out of control and finishes with a full minute of horrifying kazoo work. Getting into further disarray with pants and sleeves rolled up, sockless and in the character shoes for the ragtime, for my most relaxed and stylish dancing of the night—thanks to another amazing teacher, the late Boston legend Sue Ronson. As my appearance unravels, the dancing improves.
Now, for better or worse, I filter my gigs through Stephanie’s professional lens. Performing with the planet’s most popular orchestra in venues of 5,000 people or more for the past 16 years, she travels the world not only with three pianos but with her own piano tuner as well. In her world all elements of performance are carefully controlled, every detail from the touring set, lights, incredible soundscape, in-show live video crew.
In her world it is common for her to drive to nearby Maastricht at 8am on a Saturday, load into a bus which drives the orchestra to an airport, shuffle into a plane for a flight to England or Germany (or Manhattan), take a private bus to a television studio, play a few tunes for the lighting rehearsal, then again for the dress rehearsal, and later the actual recording, travel back to Maastricht, and drive home sometime around or after midnight. As she keeps reminding me all day long, she has never had a gig so late at night. And I keep saying, what about the 14 hour days where you play one tune?
In my world? Birthday man’s children deliver loving and rich appraisals of their wonderful father as we change into costumes onstage behind the flimsy curtain—while simultaneously a pair of DJ’s set up equipment for the after-party, the cocktail pianist breaks down her mic and amp and departs, a photographer snaps a quick shot of me with no pants on, and a drunk couple makes their way past us to exit for a smoke. With all the action in front of the curtain it is impossible to set up the tap mats and I will have to make friends with the very slippery floor. The tributes to the deer-slayer get longer and then comes an incredibly cute video of his children and grandchildren set to Singin’ in the Rain.
Feeling so clever, I grab the umbrella from my backpack—yes, I live in a rainy rainy place—and we make up a walk-on step. Which never happens because the tributes, including Vincent’s hilarious monologue about the decrepitude of aging—go on and on past midnight, when a very nice introduction from one of his son’s about the ‘rare treat you are about to see’ brings us on.
There was a time when a drunk guy whistling off-key for four minutes, then leading his drunk table-mates in a sing along to my kazoo piece so loud and random that I actually abandon my own act, would have ruined my night. But I have to give the birthday crowd a lot of credit: as the set goes on into the ragtime they are all telling the drinker to shut up—which he does—and by the end of the buck and wing they are on their feet and screaming for an encore.
Having slashed a number from the set as showtime kept getting later, we are ready. It is my first time ever attempting Carnell Lyon’s Kansas City Rhythm in high heels, and proudly I must say my legs look great, I don’t fall or even stumble, and I am pretty sure no one else noticed that little rhythmic spasm in the third step.
Mid-set, someone places a huge bottle of water on the stage, and thank god because I am sweating like a pig. We walk our stuff back around the building and settle in under the deer head, to change clothes before driving home. Load the car, pack the fresh bottle of lait maternel into the organ-cooler— and actually remember to plug it in. We laugh as Stephanie recalls telling the crowd that we wouldn’t go on too long, because we left the baby home alone. Someone in the crowd shouted back, ‘that’s horrible!’
Returning chez grandparents at 2am, grandmother Liliane looks fit and content, and most amazingly, Félix is sleeping like, well, a baby. I win the wager on how much milk the petite sasquatch has consumed, but even I am shocked at how little: after two days of steroidal binge-feeding, he took half a bottle and conked out. We trundle up to the guestroom, the little monkey wakes up for another round at the breast, and by 3am we, and our little trophy, are all asleep.