Schedule update: Jan.-June 2016

so far, so good: people keep on coming to try a step or two, and experience the JOY!

so far, so good: people keep on coming to try a step or two, and experience the JOY!

Hi Everybody!

Here’s a little schedule update, including my first two ‘home’ workshops in Liege at our Claquettes Club, a special May weekend with Guillem Alonso, and a few tap festivals where I join some ‘movers and shakers’ in the tap dance world….

Questions or suggestions? More information?

Claquettes Club Events Winter/Spring 2016

February 20-21: My first workshop in Liege!

Intermediate + level: new choreography

8 hours instruction

Price: 150 € (minimum 5 participants, maximum 20)

April 23-24: Advanced-Professional Composition weekend

First in a series of mentoring weekends for advanced dancers seeking input.

I am looking for 10 dancers interested in creating new works.

–8 hours in-studio work on improvisation and composition

–Showcase: an opportunity to present new ideas in a supportive environment, and receive critical feedback

Price: 175€ (registration limited to 10)

May 28-29 International Tap Day with Barcelona’s amazing Guillem Alonso!

Two-day workshop with classes for all levels.

Schedule and information coming soon at

Upcoming Festivals and Workshops

Jan. 2-5 TAPTASTIC! Wilhelmshaven, Germany

Europe’s first festival of the new year brings me together with a bunch of fantastic dancers– I love being the ‘old-timer’ in and among superlative dancers from the US, the UK, Spain, and Switzerland!

All information on the website:

January 16 Masterclasses in Antwerp, Belgium

Fun-filled day of classes for kids and all levels of adults, organized by Suzanna Pezo

email for schedule and pricing

May 10-16 Limoges Tap Festival

This bi-annual festival brings together exceptional faculty from the US, France, and Germany in a spirited celebration of tap dance in performance and in classes….

Come join the fun and work on your French!

For information check facebook or

August 1-7 Beantown Tap Festival

Save the dates for a fun summer tap dance week, organized by old friend and dance partner Julia Boynton, located in historic Somerville, MA!

Information coming:

Goin’ Viral with Michelle Dorrance

Anina Krüger, MIchelle Dorrance, Klaus Bleis, Rose Giovanetti, Kurt Albert, Jarkko Riihimäki, Stéphanie Detry, and me....

Anina Krüger, MIchelle Dorrance, Klaus Bleis, Rose Giovanetti, Kurt Albert, Jarkko Riihimäki, Stéphanie Detry, and me….

Since she was a 15 year-old prodigy making my choreography look much better than it actually was, Michelle Dorrance has been one of my favorite dancers on the planet. 20 years later, the imaginative, hilarious, technically limitless, award-winning dancer and artistic director of the highly-heralded company Dorrance Dance, is still just as fresh, funny, and brilliant as ever. After 5 days together inside her working brain, I conclude that Michelle is like a drug: you get a little bit of her, and you just end up craving more.

On Sunday afternoon, however, my collaborator is nowhere to be seen, having spent the last night of our project together in Berlin alternating biological explosions with sleeping in the bathtub. Wasn’t it enough that she hobbled off the airplane with a broken foot? It is 3:34 on a Sunday afternoon–one hour into what should be Michelle’s beginner class, 5 hours into my bizarre work day–and I am teaching a soft shoe while trying to figure out who can finish my class as there is not doubt that MY stomach is about to erupt again.

As a man dying of thirst in the desert will conjure an oasis, she appears like a mirage: Michelle staggers into the dimly-lit room at the very moment I know my teaching day must end. I thank the students for their patience, tell them Michelle will finish the class with the soft-shoe break they have requested (she, staring blankly, asking ‘What break? The Gregory break?’ I am already walking out of the studio saying, ‘Any break. Figure it out. You’re qualified’). On the 5-minute walk back to the apartment I scour the landscape for good places to puke publicly; thankfully the eruption comes only after I am up the stairs, through the door, into the bathroom.

We have gathered in Berlin at Anina Krüger’s Blue Tap Studio for a first-time collaborative four day workshop, and the 4th incarnation of my All Tap Dancers Band. An amazing, skilled, lively, curious two dozen dancers from Germany, Romania, Canada, Sweden, Holland–and notably a raucous and patriotic Norwegian contingent–have signed on for the grand experiment.

What a lot of fun with this international group of tap dancing freaks!

What a lot of fun with this international group of tap dancing freaks!

Producer, dancer, friend and bass player Anina Krüger hosts the event at her inimitable studio Blue Tap; I cannot thank her enough for the opportunity, the support, the months of work and planning that lead up to the weekend. She supports tap dance in so many ways—especially by having one of the best floors and coolest working spaces anywhere, and as we approach 20 years of working together, I appreciate her–and her fantastic crew of dedicated volunteers–more and more.

Best friend and long-time collaborator Rose Giovanetti (taps/ukulele/vocals) comes from Boston; my German brothers Kurt Albert (taps/percussion) and Klaus Bleis (taps/drums) arrive with cars full of equipment; a special mention must be given Klaus, who has organized the music for the band and who drives all over Berlin upon arrival, gathering sound equipment and making a late-night trip to the airport to pick up the hobbling Dorrance.

My wife Stéphanie takes a few days off from her day job (playing piano in arenas packed with thousands of people) to play ukulele, including a beautiful solo; melody and improvisation on the violin; sing and arrange vocal harmony; tap dance; and oh, yes, play piano for me on Tea for Two. (Steph’s dizzying array of musical talents can sometimes induce a reaction much like the stomach flu.)

Dorks with skills...

Dorks with skills…

A year ago, when Michelle and I first hatched the plan to co-teach a workshop, we didn’t imagine injuries or viruses. We were looking for an excuse to spend some time together in the studio. We have known each other some 30 years, since Michelle was just the little girl whose mother taught me ballet and cast me in my first modern dance performance, back in Chapel Hill, NC. At the Ballet School, tap classes were taught by the guru Gene Medler; the rest, as far as Michelle’s career goes, is history.

At some point in my annual journeys back home to the NC Rhythm Tap Festival, I began bringing the teen-aged Michelle onstage for a duet. Hastily planned between classes and shows, usually in a parking lot, we would come up with a tune and a little arrangement, go on stage and play together. We staged a high-heel challenge, we sat on the edge of the stage and played a love song: we jammed, we danced, we laughed. In Dusseldorf in 2005 we worked out a ukulele/harmonica duo, and accompanied each other on a blues while the other tapped. Marginal music, exceptional tap dancing: a model for the All Tap Dancers Band.

The broken foot kind of spoils our plan to simply trot out Michelle–a singular artist in the history of the form–every few numbers in front of the band and wait for raucous applause. Even more painfully, she sits though hours of dance rehearsals of the aged hoofers: we her colleagues average now exactly 50 years old, and running through the dances takes longer and longer, with poorer results. Truly gracious, she sets about learning ukulele parts, working up vocals on Tonight You Belong to Me, resting her foot and wryly observing middle-age in process. She grunts some disapproval at a sloppy transition on my Capella Josh.

Dorrance and I agree that dancers learning tap dance today suffer from a real lack of diversity in training. So much work of the under-40 crowd remains derivative, and imitative; and while there are a great many dancers who can slide, hop up and make 14 sounds, and break the floor with powerful maneuvers, there are a relative few dancers with any stylistic range, and even fewer who understand the fundamentals of swing in music or technique. Day one, lesson one, I lead the dancers for 30 minutes of real soft-shoe, to orient our work immediately away from the overwhelming modern phenomenon of thoughtless floor-whacking.

In our tag-team workshop the dancers learn Paul Draper’s rigorous ‘Tea for Two’, a technically demanding soft-shoe with a one-tap-at-a-time aesthetic that no longer exists; some killer up-tempo swing material featuring ‘relaxed’ and ‘articulated’ technique as brilliantly explained by Michelle; and an excerpt of her choreography to Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place, a freaky tune in 10. I find her explanations of technique illuminating, and she learns most of Tea for Two as a chair dance. On the last day of the workshop, as Tea for Two, uptempo swing, and Radiohead 10/4 funk run through the feet and minds of the dancers, I think: that is as diverse a tap experience as you could ever ask for.

Dancers jump through hoops while I preach calm and Michelle actually sits still....

Dancers jump through hoops while I preach calm and Michelle actually sits still….

When the broken-footed Dorrance unleashes her swing material at tempo, the dizzying speed has us all shaking our heads. Is that where the nausea began? More than a few people consider break their own feet if the results could only be like that. It takes me back to my early days, when the young and still charming Savion Glover, aged 15 and broken-footed, was performing in my Cambridge series with his mother chiming in every so often, ‘Light tapping, sweetie. Light tapping.”

The All Tap Dancers Band will never win any prizes, but it sure is fun. We are joined for the 2015 Viral edition by an exceptional pianist, a Finn living in Berlin, Jarkko Riihimäki, who qualifies for the gig by performing a shuffle step that he learns about 20 minutes before showtime. So, we all tap dance, we all play music, and this edition features a lot of my own choreography: waltz to Tenderly, Cappella Josh, the quirky Limbo Jazz, and Walking My Baby Back Home.

We open the second set playing Watermelon Man for a quartet of improvising tap dancers. Jonas Nermyr, co-producer of the wild Stockholm Tap Festival; Janne Eraker, recently awarded a three-year artist’s grant from the Norwegian government; Avalon Rathgeb, the notable Brit who can seem to be in every European city at once; and home-girl Tina, capably representing Blue Tap. While the quartet works the floor, the All Tap Band destroys the tune: the rhythm section misses a few bars but plows ahead as the 4 ukuleles strumming madly get lost, have a discussion, drop out, and get ourselves back together. A band of tap dancers playing behind a group of tap dancers, one highlight only rivaled by the New Orleans-style simultaneous kazoo solos that punctuate Anina’s solo.

Rose spends a lot of time in the bathroom: before she gets violently ill, and before she spends the last day in Berlin tending to the weakened Dorrance, she spends three days in the shower room in Blue Tap, i-phone pressed to ear, memorizing/droning her harmony part on Tonight You Belong… Something about the sound of a woman seemingly trapped in a tile resonance chamber, coupled with intermittent and desperate three-part harmony rehearsals, makes the song our anthem, with endless variations: ‘I puked (I puked) and I flushed it a-all down, watched it swirl around, fell onto the ground….’

Michelle and I, in the Berlin apartment after the final viral day, can’t stop laughing. We sit in our reduced state eating crackers, sipping coke, and catching up on everything. It’s our longest uninterrupted conversation; neither of us has any place to go, any energy to do anything, any need but recovery. I tell her that at times in the stomach virus teaching session I found myself rubbing my body and head in odd unconscious ways; she confesses that during her last class she ended slumped in a frog-like lean against the mirror, encouraging people to answer their own damned questions.

Not fun, but totally funny

Not fun, but totally funny

Maladies notwithstanding, our first-time collaboration was a success, and a whole lot of fun: the students graciously accept the ’emergency’ situation of the last day’s teaching, and miraculously Michelle and I cover all the scheduled hours. We are already planning the next project, and hoping to make a dance together. Meanwhile we have a story of survival and triumph on the road that will never be forgotten. My next fix of Michelle Dorrance cannot come soon enough.

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

Tap Workshops, Dec. 2014-June 2015

Stockholm, a lovely place to teach and learn!  photo by I. Jansen

Stockholm, a lovely place to teach and learn! photo by I. Jansen

Hey Tap Dancers!  Very happy (and lucky) to announce workshops coming up in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and the US!  Please don’t hesitate to send an email/facebook message my way with questions (  Hope to see you at one of these fantastic workshops….

December 27-30, 2014 Barcelona, Spain

Workshop at Escola Luthier Dansa—a GREAT WAY TO FINISH THE YEAR!

4-days of tap dance, body percussion and much more…many excellent teachers, fantastic studios, tap jams…


telephone: 0034 93 451 31 38

January 30-Feb. 1, 2015 Hamburg, Germany

Always a fun, crowded workshop (and this time a party/showcase as well!) at Hoofer’s Studio.

Details to be announced…

For info:

February 27-March 1, 2015 Rennes, France

After some years, happy to return to Tap Breizh, along with Sharon Lavy, and Ruben Sanchez!

March 14-15, 2015 Nurnberg, Germany

Two-day workshop in my German ‘home away from home…’

Info: Klaus Bleis 0049-911-329681

The beginning is the most by I. Jansen

The beginning is the most fun…photo by I. Jansen

April 2-6, 2015 Stockholm, Sweden

a return to the planet’s wildest tap fest, the Stockholm Tap Festival, with incredible students and professionals from this galaxy and beyond. THE place to network, jam, and party with other tap dancers…

May 14-17, 2015 Berlin, Germany—Blue Tap Studio

Creating and teaching a 4-day workshop for advanced dancers with Michelle Dorrance! We will be spending 16 hours in the studio working on technique, composition, improvisation, and concepts in tap dance. What fun to be sharing a workshop with one of the great tap artists on the planet, who happens to be someone I have known since she was a kid in Chapel Hill, NC (‘birthplace of rhythm dance’).

May 15: The All-Tap Dancer’s Band: Michelle’s debut in this hilarious ongoing project, joined by Little Rose (Boston, MA) on vocals; Anina Krüger, bass; Klaus Bleis, drums; Kurt Albert, percussion; Stephanie Detry, everything else. Live from Bluetap!

Details to be announced…

June 5-7, 2015 St. Remy de Provence, France

very excited to make my first visit to the ‘crêpe meets cramp roll’ weekend, where dancing, jazz, and traditional crêpes all become one… two days of classes, jam session, ‘extra’ class on Friday night…

June 22-28 Kittery, ME

The 20th anniversary Portsmouth/Portside Percussive Dance Festival, a week-long edition of one of the best festivals anywhere. Wonderful teachers, small classes, personal attention… in historic and delicious Kittery, ME. Come join the fun….

The 20th anniversary Portsmouth/Portside Percussive Dance Festival, a week-long edition of one of the best festivals anywhere. Wonderful teachers, small classes, personal attention… in historic and delicious Kittery, ME. Come join the fun….

London Tap Jam: Happy 8th Birthday!

Young, exciting, exploring, spirited, and crisp:  a super lineup of dancers at the London Tap V. Annand

Young, exciting, exploring, spirited, and crisp: a super lineup of dancers at the London Tap Jam….photo V. Annand

I am waiting for a discrete moment to say a quick hello to my dear friend—and tap legend–James ‘Buster’ Brown, at his tap jam at NYC’s Swing 46, when he runs across the dance floor and jumps on me. I hadn’t seen Buster in quite a while, and the pure spontaneous joy of hugs, tears, and laughter from an 80-plus year old sitting on my lap is an image I will carry to my grave. OK, so in later years he began to call me ‘Jeff’, but no matter: he was as loving a spirit as I have ever encountered in the world, and his genuine love for anyone in tap shoes–regardless of ability—was a signature of those weekly tap jams.

A rare and very intelligent panel discussion among the faculty at last summer’s Tap on Barcelona festival revived my interest in tap jams. A question was asked about how to build community, and the discussion led to the brilliant Guillem Alonso talking at length about his two decades of putting tap on the map in his hometown, with the tap jam as the focal point. Gathering place, networking, performance opportunity, visibility: for Guillem and the other dancers on the panel there was no doubt, the tap jams had been the spiritual center of the incredible rise of tap in Catalunya.

At last Sunday’s 8th birthday edition of the London Tap Jam, the evening was marked by joy, generosity, playfulness, and the sense that a community was growing up together. Like those jams at Swing 46, there were serious professionals, first-time improvisors, high-achieving amateurs, incredibly skilled teenagers learning the ins and outs of dancing to jazz standards, technical killers of the new generation, a random dancer from the Czech Republic who had heard about the jams and happened to be in town, lots of tight blue jeans and curly hairstyles to go along with the searching and exploring of the dancers. There are dancers who have tasted the quick celebrity of British television, dancers who have just finished runs in musicals, dancers who are going into major touring tap shows, and let’s not forget the ukulele moment!

The spirit reflects the founding trio’s mission of inclusiveness a la Buster Brown: my friend the long-time devotee and tireless organizer Dan Sheridan, super-talented and quick witted Junior Laniyan, and new friend (currently mending a broken ankle) Melody Lander from the beginning wanted to create a space where anyone could dance, everyone was welcome, and tap dance improvisation could flourish. My, oh my, how they have succeeded!

Thank you Melody, Junior, and Dan for creating a GREAT space for tap, month after month, all these 8 years. photo V. Annand

Thank you Melody, Junior, and Dan for creating a GREAT space for tap, month after month, all these 8 years.
photo V. Annand

Upstairs at the prestigious jazz club Ronnie Scotts, on the fourth Sunday of every month (except December) the trio sets up the room: they drag heavy bags from a rooftop shed, pull out the pieces, and assemble a stage. They spread blankets on the floor, set out cushions for the devotees who gather down front to most powerfully experience the blazing feet; they hang a banner above the bar, shove down some slices of pizza, open their box office, and let the public in. After the jam they even do some roof repairs on the leaking shed—not the kind of ‘shedding’ that a dancer dreams about.

I have never met a musician quite like bandleader Michéle Drees, a wonderful dreamer (thank you, autocorrect: I did write ‘drummer‘) who believes that for tap dance to succeed it is the musicians who must lead the way. Her Jazz Tap Project, with four dancers and four musicians, aims at getting tap dance to the premier jazz festivals of Europe. I have met musicians who loved tap dance, who were brilliant at making tap dance sound and feel as close to perfection as possible, who tolerated tap dance, who hated tap dance but liked the employment; I have worked for years with the finest jazz musicians from all over the world and met so many variations on the theme but never encountered a musical soul as deeply committed to bringing tap dance wherever she goes.

Especially as some of the younger dancers at the jam were not exactly sure where they were in the song forms, or how many bars had been exchanged with a musician, and there were some terribly ill-timed re-entries into choruses, or melodies:  none of that mattered to Michéle or her gifted pianist and bassist.  Oh, London bridges did occasionally fall down, but the trio provided nothing but outstanding support and guidance for the dancers, all night long.

Left the dress pants in the backpack, kept the glasses on:  how much more relaxed could a jam be? photo: H. Fujii

Left the dress pants in the backpack, kept the glasses on: how much more relaxed could a jam be? photo: H. Fujii

Back in 1988 when I was half the faculty at the prestigious Leon Collins Dance Studio (helping rebuild the spirit of the place after his passing) I began tap jams that quickly became a focal point for the New England tap community. A hundred or so people would crowd the basement studio for the jams, which were divided into three parts:  a beginner circle, a showcase for choreography, and an advanced jam. Those early xeroxed flyers looked like something produced by the criminally insane: copies of the front of Stearns’ Jazz Dance, or The Baby Laurence Album, cut and pasted onto a piece of white paper with the handwritten jam dates and times; dutifully copied and folded into triplicate, closed by a circular sticker, addresses handwritten and stamps actually licked one at a time, and mailed via U.S. Post.

Then it seemed to me, and to many, in the tap revival, that improvisation was the only ‘real’ form of tap dance. We chucked Fred Astaire and everybody else who ever did the same step twice into the trash, and set about creating a tap dance of pure (narcissistic) self-expression. We taught and learned pieces of choreography, sure, but there was a sense that to really tap dance was to improvise. Now I am not so sure: improvisation is necessary, absolutely, but is it better than choreography? Does one need to be more valued than the other? Can either form actually exist without the other?

tap dancers always have a lot of hot air....

tap dancers always have a lot of hot air….

I had been broken in at the 1987 Colorado Tap Festival in an improv circle that included Fred Strickler, Barbara Duffy, Margaret Morrison, probably Leela Petronio, and the late, great, drunk tap legend Eddie Brown playing the tap dancer’s riff over and over on the piano, and slowing down more and more with each 8 bars. The only moment I really remember is my debut, sliding into the circle and landing flat on my back—a moment of shameful HORROR amplified by the contorted face of current Dance Magazine Award winner Tony Waag staring down pitifully at the heap of Josh lying on the green tiles.  (Thank god Tony doesn’t remember.  Give him another award for that.)

By 2001 and the first Tap City Festival, my obsession with all things improvisation was fading, and on the opening night tap jam attended by Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, and luminaries of the New York and International tap scene, I found myself heading for the exits as the jam began. On the way out I met a pianist I knew, heading in to play for the jam. He asked me where on earth I was going, and I said: “If there were 85 piano players in there, where would YOU be going?” And we laughed, and so  began my decade of fleeing any and every setting involving the words ‘tap’ and ‘jam’ in relation.

Cousin Jeremy and I, totally ignoring the action on stage, to get the shot...

Cousin Jeremy and I, totally ignoring the action on stage, to get the shot…

So middle age has its benefits, and as I head toward 50 everything gets less extreme. The Barcelona jam in July was really too sweet to be hateful, and this ongoing London Tap Jam confirms the great value and importance in community building via tap dance improvisation with live music. Nobody needs to choose between ‘this’ or ‘that’: we can have it all.

How cool to hang out at in London and have a drink--an actual DRINK!--with 84 year old guru Dean Diggins!  photo V. Annand

How cool to hang out at in London and have a drink–an actual DRINK!–with 84 year old guru Dean Diggins! photo V. Annand

My cousin Jeremy lives in London with his companion Julija, and they came out for the jam, and enjoyed their first experience of live tap dance. My great friend and tap guru Dean Diggins happened to be visiting from the US on his annual London theatre junket, and he totally enjoyed the energy of the event as well. I met Dean at his hotel the next morning before heading back through the ‘chunnel’ to Belgium, and when he was not downstairs I asked the front desk to call the room of Mr. Diggins.

“Sorry, Mr. Dickens?” asked the woman at the front desk: it is London, after all.

Not any more Dickens' London...

Not any more Dickens’ London…


Before you mock a disaffected teen girl throughout a 75-minute class for appearing lazy, it’s probably not a bad idea to find out in advance that she is the kickboxing champion of Belgium.

The kid had showed up for class with her arm in a sling. When I employed my bad French mid-class to inquire what had happened and how bad was the pain, the only thing I could understand was that she wasn’t in grave distress. She and the other kid stayed on the margins–horrified at the adults getting increasingly goofy and joyful–and kicking their soundless street shoes listlessly front and back. They could not have been more, well, teenager-ish, and I made a variety of jokes and comments in their direction in a failed effort to motivate them. I even had the whole class cracking up about the arm injury resulting from practicing the hop-steps in the break of the Shim Sham. (Only after class did I learn about the whole kickboxing champion thing…)

The lovely Ourthe River in Aywaille.  I was lucky not to end up floating there after mocking a kickboxing champion teenage girl in tap class.

The lovely Ourthe River in Aywaille. I was lucky not to end up floating there after mocking a kickboxing champion teenage girl in tap class.

The kid, who most graciously did not run at me and sever my head from my body, must have really thought I was stupid with the bad Karate kicks I popped randomly throughout the class. My new beginner’s class in the local village of Aywaille (just say, ‘Hawaii’, and leave it at that) follows the local Karate club session, and this Monday followed the annual national meeting of all the Karate clubs in Wallonia. So excuse me for being distracted, but the sight of 50 grunting, sweating, punching machines of all ages was still with me as I faced my 12 beginners learning shuf-fle step.

A super-nice couple has organized the class–they run a theatre program in Aywaille, and have been hoping for a tap class forever. They both take the class, along with some actors and musicians, and random people who were just looking to try something fun. When we met in the summer to organize the class, and I saw the massive gym, my only real concern was sound. So they went out and bought the same fabulous Yamaha portable sound system that I use in my ‘home classes’ in Liege. I have been fortunate to have support from incredible friends and colleagues through the years, but let the record state: no one until now has gone out and purchased a sound system on my behalf.

In the last three weeks, I have taught more shuf-fle steps than in any month of my life. In Liege my program has doubled to two nights of classes, and somewhere around 15 beginners have come though in the last three weeks.

Sister-in-law, graphic designer, American exchange student, tech professional, high school musician, and more:  new beginners in the right place at the right time!

Sister-in-law, graphic designer, American exchange student, tech professional, high school musician, and more: new beginners in the right place at the right time!

My Advanced Beginners, a hilarious and slow-to-progress group of adults mostly in their late-50’s and older, began last spring, and don’t really deserve the term ‘advanced’; but they have learned some things, and I needed to distinguish them from the ‘beginners’. They freak out when a new step or exercise comes, they moan audibly, they whine: I whip them verbally now with the label ‘debutants AVANCES’, and they laugh. Anyway, they are working on shuf-fle-step-heel, so they are exactly one sound of the foot beyond true beginners, and suffering.

Last winter's beginners have returned in full force, flapping their way into 'debutants avancés'!

Last winter’s beginners have returned in full force, flapping their way into ‘debutants avancés’!

I also floated out an ‘all levels’ class—my little nod to the Henry Letang method of teaching all people different routines at the same time—and in that class I have one woman, super-motivated and hard-working, who started last March. She also takes class with the advanced beginners, and some private lessons, and at 62, Jacqueline has really earned my respect. Over the summer she learned a good chunk of material from one of my DVDs, has developed a vocabulary, knows her time steps, practices at home every day: she is a gamer, and an exceptional example of how great it can be to begin tap dance in your 60’s. (Back in Boston, dear Joan still plugs away: she opened my eyes a few years ago to what a retired woman with ambition and smarts could do in a pair of tap shoes, and now Jacqueline keeps me honest).

Have I mentioned the new guy, age 65, American, plays the harmonica, and has lived in Liege for more than 40 years? He immediately bought a bamboo mat for home practice, came to four classes in the first two weeks, always has his axe in his pocket and has already tapped and played at the same time. Or the super 22 year old university student/dancer/musician who showed up and learned shuffles, flaps, and half the shim-sham in 35 minutes last night? The absolute joy of tap dance at the beginning: that is easy to lose touch with after 30-plus years of dance, and such a privilege to light the spark, and watch the flame begin to burn.

Our teen program in Liege has begun with two sweet, charming 12 year-old girls. To their credit, they do not seem overly horrified by the bad-French speaking guy who teaches them tap; like all beginners there are quietly realizing that the thing about tap dance is it looks so easy, but it’s so hard. Neither kid is particularly musical, so getting a groove going has happened twice, for about a minute; mostly they fall in and out of steps, and time, and giggle. But as I am putting down long-term roots here, I am determined to bring them along, and so we shuf-fle step.

Toeing and heeling with two teens:  room for growth!

Toeing and heeling with two teens: room for growth!

Between three adult beginners classes, one class of teens, an advanced beginners class, and a private lesson with an ‘more advanced beginner,’ my shuf-fle step has probably never been better. Having started each group with the shim sham (first version: SHUF-FLE STEP), I have learned that to the Francophones whenever I say ‘shim sham’, they hear Chim Chim, begin singing ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ and thinking of Mary Poppins. ALL OF THEM THINK MARY POPPINS. So by the fifth time I explained that the step was from the shim sham, I added, and nothing to do with the movie, or chim-chim cheree, although it sounds like that…

My intermediate group at the end of Friday night is like therapy: they can flap! They know cramp rolls! They can put three steps together in a sequence! That class, fun as it is, is also a mixed bag; four ‘old-timers’ some of whom have been dancing since the 1970’s, a pair of 30-somethings, and right now for two months only a young, refreshing, 24-year old–working temporarily nearby–who could not be more delighted by the nutty ‘claquettistes’ who come out at 8pm to get their tap on. Stephanie joins in, when she can, and you can really see the advantages of her having studied with more than 20 teachers in her first five years of tap. Not to mention her lifetime in music.

The intermediates began with a revolt, they were all pissed that I had raised prices and didn’t like the way we structured the payments. So we went home, invented a new system, lowered their class price, and the second week was like a love-in. Although I have been in the business quite a long time– making my living teaching tap for more than 25 years–having my own classes and business structure for weekly lessons in my own (rented) space is a new venture. We blew it, we changed it, everyone is happy.

And now we are jumping off a cliff: this week we said YES to buying a building just a few meters outside of Liege, in the neighboring town of Herstal. Butt-ugly and nearly hidden from view, it has a number of features that bode well for the future of tap dance in Liege: four thick concrete and brick walls that don’t touch any neighbors, enough square-footage to allow for a spacious dance floor and simple entrance with bathroom, changing room, and coffee bar, and a location just thirty seconds walk from the end of Liege’s main bus line—and future tram–easy to access from the main train station. An electric tram in Liege, which will eventually connect 20 kilometers of people to the studio’s front door, is something like the Big Dig was in Boston, and it is only this American who believes it will ever actually get finished.

And so we shuf-fle step, building skills, community, enthusiasm, spirit, and momentum, and hoping that the future of tap dance here in Liege is as bright as a shim sham sheree…

Time Travels: Stockholm Tap Festival 2014

Josette Wiggan, Michelle Dorrance, Joseph Wiggan, Derrick Grant, Chloe Arnold, Michela Marino Lerman, Nicholas Young, Sam Weber, Jason Samuels Smith, Guillem Alonso, and myself--alien invaders of the space-time continuum!  Photo Iselin Jansen, courtesy of the Stockholm Tap Festival

Josette Wiggan, Michelle Dorrance, Joseph Wiggan, Derrick Grant, Chloe Arnold, Michela Marino Lerman, Nicholas Young, Sam Weber, Jason Samuels Smith, Guillem Alonso, and myself–alien invaders of the space-time continuum! Photo Iselin Jansen, courtesy of the Stockholm Tap Festival

Maybe it was the moon-shaped Globe arena–‘the largest spherical building on earth’–that lit my hotel room, the other-worldly gathering of nearly 300 tap dancers and colleagues from 30 countries, or the Easter dinner turned all-night Star Wars costume party: at any rate, the first intergalactic tap festival just happened in Stockholm, Sweden and a jam session on Mars cannot be far behind.

My festival began sweetly, with 15 people gathered in a gymnasium to learn my worldly tap dance hit, Cappella Josh. They are Finnish, Swedish, Austrian, German, British, Scottish, Brazilian, Swiss; ranging in age from mid-20’s to 75. I have enough festival experience to know that 33 hours later, when they return for the third and final session, their brains will be toast, their feet will ache, and they will be largely incoherent. The next night when we gather to finish learning the choreography, a long-lost friend of mine nearly sleeps on her feet in a far corner of the gym.

For me it is the ‘flashback’ festival, with students I first met 20 years ago in Austria, 10 years ago in Helsinki, last month in Berlin: a Croatian woman approaches me and asks if I was the same Josh who judged her in the North American Tap Dance Championships 15 years ago in Las Vegas and Boston, and thanks me for the cassette of recorded remarks which she found helpful, and still keeps.

Intermediate-advanced learning the first part of my choreography to Tenderly.  Photo by Iselin Jansen courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Intermediate-advanced learning the first part of my choreography to Tenderly. Photo by Iselin Jansen courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Run by a lovely trio of low-key guys—Jonas, Andrew, and Larsa—and housed in a cultural centre in Årsta, just next to Stockholm, the festival defies categorization and summary. A six-day workshop, with masterclasses and regular classes for 6 levels of students, themed classes taught by professional dancers who attend the festival to network, party, and seek inspiration; a nightly performance showcase with jam sessions, a cutting contest where both amateurs and professionals battle for supremacy and free tap shoes, an all-styles dance battle where hip-hop, tap, and contemporary dancers face off, a midnight cabaret, and a faculty concert in a historic downtown theatre; a feeding frenzy with daily lunches in two seatings for more or less 200 people, and an Easter dinner turned aquavit-laced singalong; and throughout a nightly party beginning around midnight and ending between 3 and 6 am.

The trio and their staff of volunteers have laid down 600 square meters (American translation: a whole lot) of flooring in two gymnasiums, a movie theatre which doubles as the lunch room, and the cafeteria and assorted classrooms in a nearby school. A theatre and an actual dance studio have no need for additional flooring, and so the dance classes and events spread out over at least 10 rooms in four buildings.

Full disclosure: if it happened after midnight, I missed it. By all accounts the midnight cabaret was a festival highlight, avant-garde performance art mixed in with tap dancing and all sorts of performance delights. The Star Wars party ended the next morning in full daylight, and featured a light saber battle, the live head-shaving of Paola, Barcelona’s inimitable mistress of anarchy and joy, and a conga line of everyone at the party. Never having been a fan of things that happen late at night involving alcohol, I was happy to escape with my early-to-bed companion the fantastic Sam Weber. We shut down the hotel bar midway through our first beer on Saturday night at 11pm and felt like some wild middle-aged partiers. I was nonetheless very sorry to miss the festival cabaret.

While the faculty was largely American—except for the Spanish genius Guillem Alonso—the students formed a global village. My favorite conversation took place in the hotel lobby, where some dancers from Norway discussed the various difficulties of reading, writing, and speaking Swedish vs. Danish vs. Finnish. I turned to Sam and said, ‘and they’re discussing all of these languages in English,’ and we shared a hearty laugh about just how sad America is with regard to foreign tongues.

I spent my time in the classroom teaching Cappella Josh, and concentrating my 8 technique classes on beginners through intermediate-advanced dancers. With tap technique at such an incredible level, I was happy to stay away from the advanced and professional groups. In general these days, the less people know, the more fun I have teaching. The more people know, and the more their vocabulary is built upon physical and technical degrees of difficulty and ‘tricks’, the less I am interested in working with them.

Nothing delights me as a teacher more than activating legs and minds.  Especially when it's the oldest advice in the book: pick up your knees!  Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

Nothing delights me as a teacher more than activating legs and minds. Especially when it’s the oldest advice in the book: pick up your knees! Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival

But give me a group of people working on flaps, shuffles, and time steps—and especially an international group—and I am happy beyond belief. The lower two levels at the festival were super curious and thirsty, and they also happened to be the most proportionally Swedish of the festival. The local scene in Stockholm is still small, primarily beginner/intermediate, and wonderful. Two more advanced Swedes appeared in my choreography workshop, and what a pleasure to teach the 75 year-old Monica the entire Cappella Josh in three lessons over two days. I hope I can be that hip, fit, and able 25 years from now.

To be featured on stage in the historic Sodra Theatre, downtown Stockholm, with an extra-terrestrial lineup of trail-blazing tap dancers is an honor, humbling, and wild. My own ‘greatest hit,’ with ukulele and kazoos, has had finer moments, but the forgiving crowd of tap junkies seems to enjoy it, and I use the only Swedish I picked up along the way: “Hey!” The virtuosity of each artist is mesmerizing, and the group groove and jam at concert’s end is total pleasure. Fearing what might happen in the last encore, I stay offstage as my colleagues finish the show with the fastest version of the BS Chorus I have ever seen.

I fumbled around with my Ukelele One-Man Band--not at all happy with this version--but the crowd didn't seem to mind...Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival.

I fumbled around with my Ukelele One-Man Band–not at all happy with this version–but the crowd didn’t seem to mind…Photo by Iselin Jansen, courtesy of Stockholm Tap Festival.

At some point I walk into a gym after Joseph Wiggan’s class, and there are four little girls dancing what I assume to be his material, like machine-guns. Late for my intermediate class, I ask the girls to move along. They stay put, and keep up the barrage. I ask them again, more forcefully, to leave—tough to do when I realize they speak hardly any English. Unable to kick them out, I realize: they are here for my class! So skilled, so young, so tough.

Returning to the hotel the next night under the glow of my artificial moon-arena, a man with a thick Russian accent approaches and says, ‘How was your day?’ I do not know this man, and assume the worst: the Russian mafia has put out a hit on me. ‘Fine,’ I say, preparing to meet my maker. ‘You teach our daughters,’ he continues, ‘they say you are very good teacher.’

Somewhere, in a galaxy far far away, a three-headed alien wakes from much needed sleep, dreaming up new ideas for next year’s sixth spacey edition of the Stockholm Tap Festival, before heading off to a jazz jam to trade with the band: Joseph, Andrew, and Larsa, may the fours be with you!

Félix’ Navidad 2013!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year's!

Not only tap dancers and families but the rest of the modern world descends on Barcelona for New Year’s!

If the Christmas ‘shitting log’ defecates a t-shirt for your infant son, and the hostess of the party explains that the figure on the shirt is a boy who gets eaten by a cow, and farted to freedom, you suspect your Spanish may be rusty, and then you realize you’re in Barcelona. In a culture where a figure taking a shit—the caganer–is an official part of every nativity scene, it only stands to reason that every child’s beloved Patufet is rescued from inside the cow by feeding the cow enough fibre to force the little man’s evacuation.

My trip here begins for the third year in a row with the Molins’ family celebration of Nadal (Christmas), highlighted by the most Catalan of rituals: the children beating the shit out of the Tió de Nadal (Christmas log, also called the Caga Tió, or shitting log)—a piece of wood which has been fattened up with nuts and dried fruits in the days before Christmas so that it will bountifully poop out presents for the family. The kids gather around the log, beating it with sticks as the family sings the Caga Tió and after the gifts–hidden under a discrete bolt of fabric–are gleefully distributed, the kids return to the bathroom to clean the imaginary shit from the sticks, while the grownups dutifully reload the log with another round of presents. When the presents are gone, the kids remove the cloth only to find a roll of toilet paper.

Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years...

El Timbal’s Mireia Font, friend for more than 20 years…

More than 20 years ago I stumbled into Barcelona to teach a tap workshop at El Timbal, fell in love with the dancers, the city, the food, and Catalan culture. Between classes that very first year, a brilliant contemporary choreographer threw me on the back of his motorcycle and blasted me up to Montjuic to look over the city while eating lunch and having coffee. Over the next 8 years I taught 10 sweaty, intense, loud, hilarious, 2-week-long workshops, and deepened my love for the place and the people. Three years ago as my marriage was dissolving I met a woman who would become my second wife, and now we are here with our two-month old baby Félix. It is a city that occupies a profound spot in my heart and my experience of the world.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The brilliant David Batlló, taking time out from working on his new show.

The young dancer Guillem Alonso–who connected me with that first workshop–grew up to become a brilliant practitioner of tap dance, a successful world-touring artist, and founder of one of the largest schools for tap dance in Europe. My workshop this year at Escola Luthier is not the biggest I have had, but the beginners are sweet, the intermediate group brings a great enthusiasm and work ethic to the room, and the advanced class conquers my ‘High Heelberman‘ ragtime dance in three sessions, rocking the room at the end of the third class with clarity, hilarity, gusto, and a cameraderie notable even after 25 years of teaching.

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos...

Self-motivated tap dancers work it out while the teacher sneaks around taking photos…

If the lyrics to When You’re Smiling suddenly involve something about ‘making pee-pee’, you know you’re in Catalunya. Dixieland is alive and well, as the Gumbo Jass Band plays four family concerts in the Caixa Forum auditorium. A one-hour workshop before the concert pays off in more than 50 kazoo-wielding kids joining the band at concert’s end to sing, riff, and, fantastically, improvise together on Saints Go Marchin’ In.  Coincidentally, three kids bring their horns which match the band’s front line—trombone, clarinet, and trumpet—and the trombone is actually as tall as the little guy who plays it. My Catalan is good enough to know that the lyrics to Baby Won’t You Please Come Home have also been abandoned, to reflect the fact that kids hate spinach, but love macaroni (Macarrons), sausage (Botifarra), and dessert (postres).

In Barcelona in 1993, tap dance was already well established. My classes were full of professional dancers with excellent abilities, starved for the chance to take something like a company class. There were musical theatre dancers, concert dancers, dancers who mixed contemporary dance with tap, dancers who had been child-stars: in short, an active, healthy, vibrant tap scene hungry for input. The Méndes brothers, Rafa and Lluís, were just beginning their 20 year run of original productions with percussionist Toni Español in a company called Camut Band, and I remember seeing that first show–a macho, funny, intimate, conversational take on tap involving dancing on huge drums, djembes, kitchen tables, and ribald theatricality.

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí...

Ho hum, another casa de Gaudí…

So seeing Sonoritats, the new show from Camut Band, 20 years later, is quite a treat. Two musicians, six exceptional dancers, and one singer—who I last saw in my tap class 15 years ago!–come together to create multi-dimensional soundscapes, involving tap dance on metal sheets, a wooden stage, electronic platforms, a moving set of stairs, modern dance, live vocals with some electronic tricks, keyboard, drum set, homemade electric bass thingamajig—apparently the subject of the singers doctoral presentation–percussive clay pots, and astro-turf.

The most beautiful and surprising moment of the show involves Guillem with accomplished dancer and choreographer Sharon Lavi dancing soft shoe on the strip of artificial grass which stretches across the front of the stage. Behind them, two dancers–long-time pro Maria Bossy and exceptional newcomer Estefania Porqueras—move silently and rhythmically, accompanied by piano and drums. The moveable staircase serves alternately as dance space, tableau, set for the clay pot solo, and spot for a wonderful solo from Sharon.

You know you are in Catalunya when the greatest sand dancer—one of the finest tap artists—of the modern generation takes a turn on plastic grass. Guillem’s solo uses the sound of the plastic grass with a decaying delay effect, and turns into a duo with Toni Espanyol playing the homemade bass-thing. Tap dance on artificial turf with the drummer playing a bass which looks like a quadruple-long shoe box? That is an image that I won’t soon forget.

Camut Band's new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Guillem Alonso atop the stairs in Camut Band’s new show, Sonoritats, a feast of sights and sounds

Everywhere we go, we lug Félix, who experiences at barely 8 weeks old a number of firsts: his first tap classes, music concert, tap dance show, Catalan Christmas, escalator ride, moving walkway, security check, airplane ride, tapas restaurant, subway ride, and meeting some of my favorite Barcelona people—the brilliant ball-bouncing tap dancer David Batllo, and dear Mireia Font who hired me for all those years in a row—along the way. He doesn’t really scream until the car ride home from Brussels airport, so we stop and feed him, and at home he spends about an hour totally inconsolable, before falling asleep.

We have spent two days in feverish preparation to import as much Catalan goodness as possible back to Liége, buying three types of manchego, chorizo, ham (pernil ibéric), tuna, bread, turrón, red wine, brandy, assorted vegetables as we get home on when all stores are closed, and ¾ of a kilo of my real obsession, pimientos del padrón. Little Félix freaking out cannot ruin our feast, and we take turns holding and carrying and calming him as we enjoy the tastes and memories of the wonderful week.

The only tragedy was we couldn't bring it ALL HOME!

The only tragedy was we couldn’t bring it ALL HOME!

I am upstairs in the bedroom working up a rage at the stupid fireworks outside my window, which have gone out of control, and getting ready to go tell those kids to shut the f**k up, when I look at the clock: 00:08, or 8 minutes into 2014. We missed it! I shout downstairs to Stéphanie, ‘we missed it,’ and she calls back, ‘missed what?’ We laugh and enjoy a moment that new parents everywhere can surely understand, and the new year is that much sweeter with the little man coming along for the ride.

Luggage, or baggage?

Luggage, or baggage?

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books...

Lambs to the slaughter

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books...

The guests were stuffed, but we were not. Another gig in the books…

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.

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.