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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.