je suis tarte au riz

Deep-dish rice pudding? But way so much better...

Deep-dish rice pudding? But way so much better…

Verviers (Ver-vee-ay), a town 20 minutes from where I live, is best known as the home of tarte au riz, (tart-o-ree) a traditional Belgian cake that combines rice pudding, a dash of cinnamon, and a delicious crust. You can get a tarte au riz in most every bakery; but locals will tell you there is something special about the proper tart, from Verviers. It’s a little bit moister, a little bit better: the real thing.

While I was teaching tap dance here in Liege on Thursday night, the police were working hard all over Belgium, and in Verviers apparently interrupted a major terrorist operation ready to explode at any minute. The cops killed two suspects, wounded and arrested a third, and by the time I was done with my tap classes I had three messages waiting for me, wanting to make sure that me and my family were OK.

Which came first?

Which came first?

I love hearing from my friends, for whatever the reason, but since the odds are way greater that I will perish in my car than at the hands of a terrorist, I wonder why no one calls or writes when I get home from my trips to tap class, or the grocery store, or most recently a school performance last Tuesday. Both Stephanie and I were sick, the show came early on a morning following two nights of horrible insomnia, and neither she nor I had any business driving. But drive we did, sleepy in the morning and sleepy in the mid-afternoon when we made it home. There were no messages congratulating us on being alive when we dragged ourselves back in the door.  (Thanks, Dad, for the reminder about auto-safety…)

After the horrible assassinations at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, the search for the killers recalled the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The day that greater Boston was ordered to ‘stay inside’ (thank goodness I have forgotten the official name for this) was terrifying, or at least extremely unsettling. I had a screaming fight on the phone with my best friend, who was determined to go about her business as usual. I called her every bad name in the book, convinced of my righteousness and my acting as a ‘good citizen’.

When it turned out that one gunman was dead and the other had spent his day hiding inside a boat, I felt stupid: we had all stopped everything so that millions of dollars in military and police equipment and personnel could be engaged. Even worse, the bomber got caught because we were all allowed to go outdoors again, and the guy whose boat he was in, saw the trail of blood, and called the cops.

A dreamy tart, indeed

A dreamy tart, indeed

So as the story in Paris was unfolding last week, I went off to Friday’s French class, and found myself having a little flashback to the Marathon bombing. Shockingly, my French teacher did not give a rat’s ass about two terrorists holed up in a printery in Paris. She dismissed the whole thing. ‘What?’ she asked with a little extra innocence, ‘some people with some ideology blew up some other people because of their ideology? And why am I supposed to care about that? ‘

I was horrified, righteously convinced that she was missing a big moment in history. But then the guys committed ‘suicide by cop’ and their accomplice got killed after taking his set of hostages, and the world began to mourn, grieve, and identify with Charlie Hebdo. Stories, testimonies, radio, TV, press galore, a world united by the unquestionable right of a free society to blaspheme.

First Bite

First Bite

Belgium, it turns out, has Europe’s highest proportion of radicalized citizenry; that is, Belgian citizens who have committed to wage jihad. The threat of imminent terrorist attacks is real. European countries have already begun to pass laws that recall the USA Patriot Act, which in the quest to ensure freedom completely trampled over the average citizen’s civil liberties. A free press is unquestionably vital to democracy.

But so far no one has come up with an organized plan to send 10 year-old girls into their tap classes in order to blow up atheist hoofers of Jewish origin.  I might live in the hotbed of radicalized Islam—the terrorists and I get great social services—but I am still a lot more likely to die en route to teach a time step, or to pick up a tarte au riz, than because I live 20 minutes from Verviers.

creamy goodness

creamy goodness

Disturbingly, I find myself on the wrong side of the free speech argument.

I believe deeply that people should be able to say, think, write, draw, and dance however they please. But I also know that inflammatory rhetoric and nasty words have consequences. Someone could have spared me a lot of pain and professional repercussions if they had just taped my mouth shut during my 20’s and taken away all my writing utensils. Should the consequence of free speech be death? Never.

But, just because you CAN say something, does that in any way mean that you SHOULD? I do not think that publishing images of Muhammad is a particularly meaningful way to spend one’s time. And, in the context of a war on terror and a jihadist movement, now featuring executions, beheadings, and death threats, what is the value of inflaming terrorists, or just insulting the great majority of plain-old Muslims who really don’t appreciate the imagery either?

Has our need to defend free speech come to mean, ‘Entitled wealthy people with advanced degrees have a responsibility to piss on people we don’t agree with?’ Where on earth is the humanity in that?

Not the first or the last, but the best bite, for overall form, taste, and relationship to coffee temperature.

Not the first or the last, but the best bite, for overall form, taste, and relationship to coffee temperature.

Anyway, just a week removed from the bloodshed, I was more excited than usual for tap classes. In the context of real tragedy, little things like a weekly tap class can really lift, focus, remind, and restart the soul. This week, a year into my career reset in Liege, 50 tap dancers came through the doors for classes. I found myself approaching my French teacher’s point of view more quickly than I could have imagined: what on earth am I supposed to do living in fear and worrying about my trip to the health food store? I’m swimming in a sea of bad time steps here, people.

While you may have never heard of Verviers until this week, I know it for two reasons: I taught a masterclass there last year on a floor so simultaneously hard and silent that it may rank as the single worst floor I have every tried to tap dance on; and if you want the best version of a tarte au riz, the closer you get to the town, the better they get.

And because I guess every American has internalized the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’: je suis tarte au riz!




Two articles really caught my eye this week, very thoughtful responses to the terror raids and the public response, and the links are included here. Especially illuminating is the first piece, from Australia, which makes the point I felt but could not articulate: the playing field–as far as social context and free speech– is not a level one by any means.

‘…the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.’
Corey Oakley,

The second piece cites a writer in the New York Times, Saldin Ahmed, whose op-ed came up with this gem:

‘In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful.”
Saldin Ahmed, New York Times

Great Feasts of Feet

Big, tasty, and served with an amazing vinaigrette.

Big, tasty, and served with an amazing vinaigrette.

On this eighth and last day of my summer teaching tour Gerard prepares steak frites a la maison—steak, french fries, and a tomato salad with sublime vinaigrette—and afterwards, sleeping seems the only option. Refreshed after a red-meat-and-red-wine induced blackout, I plan my last day’s classes; after classes tonight in Brussels I will hop the train at Bruxelles gare centrale back to Liege. It is a tossup at this point if I have spent more time tap dancing or eating grand meals in the last week, but the overwhelming hospitality of my hosts in Regensberg and Brussels has greatly enhanced my time in tap shoes–of that I am sure.

In historic Regensberg, Germany, the workshop weekend begins with saltimboca, prepared by Annette and Peter with gourmet simplicity gleaned from years of cooking and traveling in Italy. I am dispatched to the garden to pick one last sage leaf which sits atop the veal cutlets and prosciutto; served with roasted potatoes and a simple salad, the elegant meal sets a fine standard for the week to come. A single class on Friday night with the intermediate group is a good way to ease back into the classroom after a few months without teaching; Annette has asked me to teach this group Buster Brown’s Laura.

While the steps in Busters opus aren’t that hard, the tempo makes the dance difficult. Thanks to the ‘amazing slowdowner’ all tempo problems can be solved, and after some initial grunts and groans, the class takes to the challenge. Over the three days they learn half of the dance, I teach Annette the rest between sessions–and leave it for her on video–so she can finish the project with them in the fall months. It is a good feeling to leave a piece of classic repertory with a community, to know that small pockets of tap junkies will have such good food for their feet.

It is, however, difficult to understand as a teacher why some people will pay good money for a workshop and then refuse help from the teacher with whom they have come to study. At one point I take a step toward the back of the room to help one of the group learning Laura–a woman I have seen a few times over the years–and she actually RUNS AWAY FROM ME. It is such a shocking disruption to the calm and sweet setting of the class that I pantomime an ‘escape route’ back to the front of the class, hugging the walls of the studio in order to stay as far away from her as possible. By the time I get back to the front of the room, we are all laughing.

My German skills having reignited pretty quickly, I spend a few minutes with the two teenagers in the group praising them for taking a workshop with only their second teacher, and impressing upon them the importance of having as many teachers as possible. It is fairly philosophical stuff, and inspirational, and I feel good that my language skills have enough nuance to be able to communicate deeply with the young people. As I finish my motivational discourse, one of the teens responds, in English: ‘Can we take a picture with you after the class?’ Later, Annette says, ‘that was the highest praise of all. Imagine if they didn’t want to take their picture with you?’

Annette and Peter cook incredible meals every day—including an authentic Italian eggplant parmigiano that really makes me regret everything about American parm as I have known it. Another meal includes enormous artichokes, and pasta with pesto fresh-made from garden basil. The food, always paired with spectacular wine. At some points over the weekend I wonder if I will be able to emerge from my ongoing food coma to teach any tap dance at all.

Annette has also requested that I create a fifth section of my waltz to the tune Tenderly, so in between luxury meals and the luxury accommodations of Regensberg’s nicest hotel, I also have the luxury of plenty of time in a studio with she and her two best dancers. Over two two-hour sessions we review the material she has taught to them, and I give them the new steps fresh-made on the train ride from Nürnberg. Feeling like a king with a pair of tap shoes is not really my normal working sensation, but I would say this: I don’t mind it at all!

It has been a while since I traveled in Europe in the summer. Trains are jammed, backpackers are sitting on the floor as nearly all seats are reserved, and on the first leg of my journey I couldn’t even board the car where my seat was reserved as piled luggage blocked the doorway. My 7-hour trip from Regensberg to Brussels turns into a 12-hour ordeal as I arrive on the platform in Frankfurt just in time to see a woman beating on the doors of the departing ICE train as it pulls away without us. The Deutsche Bahn employee behind counter number 12 doesn’t believe that my late train was late enough to cause me to miss the connection; this puts my German to a more serious test and I come up with, ‘Excuse me, but I am not an Olympic athlete.’ She reissues the ticket, huffing all the way, and I arrive in Brussels an hour before my first class begins.

Even gourmands have their limitations:  two words that should never be combined are 'fleisch' and 'salat'!

Even gourmands have their limitations: two words that should never be combined are ‘fleisch’ and ‘salat’!

Gregoire Vandersmissen has offered me his own summer workshop this year, as he knows I am looking for work and trying to establish myself in my new home. Gregoire could not be more generous, offering contacts and support and this much-needed week of work. His Fred Academy in Brussels is a bustling dance school with many teachers and styles of dance; he generously shares his space and his students with me and his years of knowledge about running a non-profit in Belgium with Stephanie. The workshop is a five day, three-level affair; from Monday-Friday, 3 one-hour classes each night back to back beginning at 6:30.

From Sunday in Germany to Monday in Belgium I find myself in tap classes speaking English, German, French, Dutch, and Spanish. On the second night in Brussels my beginners are bugging me; faced with a little difficulty and an awkward step, some of them are acting like babies. The dissent gets fiercer, until I have had enough. In French I manage to say, ‘I am not in agreement with your mentality at this moment.’ This breaks the tension, and I refocus the collective energy on the specific tasks needed to learn the simple step. By the next night, that step is a winner, and the energy in the class is fantastic.

There is a certain stiffness that will prevent an adult recreational dancer from ever moving beyond ‘beginner.’ Little lessons on bending the knees, animating the legs, and picking up the feet, pay huge dividends. After some basic work on time steps the beginners were grooving, musically and physically, and for some of them years of collected tap tension was released, at least for an evening. The pain of one bad tap sound so inhibits people from moving freely that they are unable to move at all, and the stiffness just makes the whole problem worse.

I do not understand why people teach adults that a ‘step’ can only be done correctly on the ball of the foot. Everywhere I go I find adults falling all over themselves unable to balance on the balls of their feet, unable and unwilling to put their whole feet on the floor. In Brussels my beginners class looks at me like they are children, and I have just told them there is no Santa Claus, when I ask them to use their whole foot to stand rather than the toes. The goal with adult beginners is to get people comfortable moving, making sounds, and creating rhythms. None of these people walk around on their tiptoes all day long, so why should they have to do it in tap shoes after a long day at work, especially when it looks and feels so terribly awkward? Did I miss the memo that outlawed the flat foot on the floor?

My third day in Brussels, I walk in the heat for nearly two hours: after buying a train ticket at Central Station I pass through the Grand Place and over to the Brussels Canal, along an amazing row of ethnic food warehouses with enormous vats of olives and preserved lemons, and finally up the Boulevard d’Anvers where I score a newspaper. I have to walk, after Gerard’s fantastic lunch of roast pork and an eggplant-tomato-cheese casserole. It is my second fabulous eggplant dish in 5 days, and marks the midway point of this eating orgy occasionally spelled by hours in tap shoes.

The classes in Brussels are fun. The first two levels turn into technique-camps, with exercises and steps all geared toward swinging skill building. The third level works on the waltz, and is a mix of good amateur dancers and wonderful professionals. I am reminded, constantly, that a dance only looks as good as the people doing it, and several times over the week Gregoire and Sharon really make the dance look beautiful. It is a long dance, and rhythmically nuanced, and the brief moments of glory fade into the background as rhythm-fatigue plagues the group. By Thursday night both higher level classes have had enough, and unusually for a workshop setting, I simply review and review and review the material of the week, and teach nothing new.

Five days of the intensive turn out to be, well, intense. I see skills improve daily in the classes, but by the fifth night I also see brains swimming in too much rhythm, tap-overload-syndrome clearly an issue for people who normally dance once a week. With a soupçon of new material for each level, and a lot of gentle review, the week ends quietly and undramatically, classes end at 9:45 and I walk the 10 minutes to gare central.  Peanut butter on crackers, delicately prepared on board the 10:35 to Liege and served with a little bag of potato chips, ends the 8 days of feasting.  It is a sweet feeling just after midnight when I unlock the door to my new home.

Zuur Flees, Tortilla, Vollkornbrot and Frites

Rieu-KolnAfter two incredible Christmas celebrations, one in Belgium and one in Barcelona, and four wonderful days of teaching tap dance in Barcelona’s Escola Luthier, I found myself on the road as a ‘groupie’ with the most commercially successful orchestra in the world.  One of the major differences between being a world-famous rhythm tap dancer and a world-famous arena/stadium orchestra, is the catering.  I took a long walk on the second day in Cologne but made sure to be back in time for the fantastic meal:  traditional ‘zuur vlees’ with ‘frites’.  There were a lot of happy orchestra members spooning the yummy slow cooked beef over the fries, and at least one happy tap dancer.

The Cologne Cathedral is always an amazing sight, and twenty years ago in my first European workshop tour I walked all the way to the top.  Now I stopped at the base, took a photo, and went back to the Lanxess Arena to catch a meal and a fantastic show.  Of course, the traveling tap dancer is always thinking about his next meal, and being in the greatest bread-making country on earth I stopped for a loaf (ok, a loaf-and-a-half) of good German vollkornbrot before heading back inside.

This meant that my first ‘home-cooked’ meal of 2013 included imports from Barcelona– Spanish ham, manchego, wine, and very special pimientos de Padron (impossibly delicious miniature green peppers); Belgian eggs, onions, potatoes and spinach made into a tapas-style tortilla; German bread; and French mustard and sea-salt.  All devoured in the presence of a wonderful, food-loving companion.

The very next day the traveling tap dancer did, in fact, go out and buy a scale!