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:

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…

Français pour non-Francophones

Français pour non-Francophones photo by Juan-Pablo

Français pour non-Francophones
photo by Juan-Pablo

Our Koreo-Belgian French teacher assigns the American and a Vietnamese to divide the class into teams, and I go Romanian right off the top–she has a killer memory. Next up the Iraqi–because he just gave me a ride to class–and then the Turko-Iranian, herself an English teacher. I go Romanian again—hilarious, smart–then Portuguese—smart, friendly, and hot–and then the Iraqi hisses the last pick my way: Columbian.

My super friendly, sharp, PhD candidate counterpart picks Chinese: brainy and studious. Then he goes Vietnamese–clearly sentimental–followed by another heady Portuguese, then our tiny Philippine friend who brings the candy to every class, and rounding out his team with a pair of Romanian guys, friendly fellows who won’t make the linguist’s circle but who typify our funny warm band of adult Franco-wannabees.

Missing are a pair of Siberians who had their first baby over the weekend, their Belarusian ally, three hilarious Spaniards, the Israeli who won’t shut up, my Vietnamese friend’s Vietnamese wife, the Syrian, the super-friendly dude from Sierra Leone, a quartet of Moroccans, the Nigerian and the Guinean guys who haven’t been seen for a while, the teenager in the head scarf who speaks so inaudibly that we have mostly given up trying to hear her, and two African women who arrive late, beam hostility, and depart early.

Last Christmas my Belgian family began chanting le chouchou, le chouchou—literally ‘darling’ but in this case something like in grade school when we used to shout ‘teacher’s pet, teachers’ pet’–as the youngest of all the cousins scooped up gift after gift. I picked up the chant in French class for Santi, a Spaniard from Valencia here for half the year whose combination of smarts, accent, humor, and lack of ego clearly made him a favorite of the class and of Madame B. Now that he is gone we taunt each other with le chouchou—I actually turned red when Balthasar excused an error in my speaking, and Javi from Barcelona tossed a well placed chouchou bomb my way.

Madame Balthasar—our wonderful, acutely intelligent, sympathetic, tease of a teacher—tells the 60-plus students at the beginning of the year that by the end we will be a group of some 20, and her prediction has come true. We the survivors have passed a three-hour mid-term written test, worked our way through 5 units of material including how to introduce oneself, navigate tasks of daily living, rent an apartment, get around town, go shopping, share a meal, conjugation in the present and passé composé, ins ands outs of masculine and feminine nouns, an endless variety of irritating pronouns and prepositions, all while attempting to pronounce this most unspeakable of languages.

We are the United Nations of French Classes, lacking only an Aussie and someone from the North or South pole for full continental representation, bonded together for the 2013-2014 school year by a twice-weekly adult education 240-hour method in beginner’s French. Some students speak French already, but having learned by ear can’t really read or write; they push the class along with wonderful language skills and true feel for the spoken language. Some of us work the books, learn the rules, study and push the academic part: our accents suck, we speak badly and hesitantly, but we can read, conjugate, and parse.

Some of us are forced by the Belgian authorities to take this class as part of promotion sociale, sent to class by the local Liege social services office to learn French in order to receive unemployment benefits, in the hope of finding employment and integrating into society. Mostly we are normal working people between the ages of 25 and 50: nurses, nursing home aides, teachers, high-tech gadget-bearing freaks, academics, hairdressers, cooks, factory workers, and at least one tap dancer.

My friend from Nigeria and I walk home sometimes together, our progress noted in conversations which over the course of five months have switched from all-English to mostly-French. He dropped out last month, after getting a better offer from the department of social services: now he gets paid a monthly stipend for attending daily lessons in a group of 10 students. Olubenga beamed as he told me the government was actually paying him 100 euros a month to learn French.

Madame B. plays the guitar and loves pop music, and last night an exercise involving subordinate clauses led to a discussion of Le Bossu de Notre Dame—always great to add ‘hunchback’ to your vocabulary in a new language—which led directly to she and my buddy Quanh humming a few bars of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Not one for pop music and especially not Disney— Walt ratted my grandfather out as a commie to the House Un-American Committee–I have to admit that the Belgo-Koreo-Vietnamese musical minute was nonetheless touching.

Why is it so hilarious to hear a non-native French speaker say, unintentionally, I took care of an apple, I understood my arms, or to greet a piece of fruit—hello, a melon—or the classic I fucked 10 times instead of ‘I lay down…’? We witty people in our native tongues have all taken turns attempting wit in French; it is not uncommon for us to utter something so completely incomprehensible that even the all-knowing Balthazar is speechless. When Q. changed a single letter, from place to plage, so that the windows on the courtyard suddenly looked out over the beach, the uproarious laughter made it seem like we were drunk at a comedy slam.

At certain key points in our linguistic journey, someone’s frustration hangs them up on a grammatical landmine, and it is then that the answer from Madame Balthasar remains invariable: ‘Because it’s French,’ she will sigh, apologetically or occasionally perturbed, but always sympathizing with our collective plight, angst, and desire for understanding. Questions lead to funny sidebars on expressions and aphorisms, and slowly we accumulate nuance as we mainly clobber the poor language. The road to true French takes a lifetime of study–we are after all mere debutants–but I am already looking forward to next year, because I will not give my tongue to the cat.

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.

Shuffling Papers

S. and I happy that the paper chase was over.  Or was it?

S. and I happy that the paper chase was over. Or was it?

The most shocking thing about trying to make a baby was that it worked, the very first time. An anonymous pharmacist in Brussels was the first to hear the news; with a headache, and perhaps an embryo, Stephanie asked (in French) for ‘something safe in case of (muffled word here).’ Behind her, listening intently, I missed the key word: ‘PREGNANT.’ I hissed, ‘Did you say it?’ She elbowed me, ‘Yes!’ ‘Are you sure you said it?’ The pharmacist glowered at us as though Stephanie and I were a pair of unlucky teens

Confirmation came via text message–after a 7:30 AM blood test a few weeks later–between flights, as I headed home to Boston and Stephanie headed off on a two-week American tour: ‘First congratulations and best wishes from security woman.’ I could not quite believe my eyes, and nearly abandoned my flight for the planeload of Hasidic Jews at the next gate headed to Newark, to meet S. in New York. Thus began our ‘Pregnancy World Tour,’ a three-month odyssey involving intense planning to find time together in Belgium or Boston, and fast-forwarding a mad chase for some kind of diplomatic solution that would assure me of not missing the birth in Belgium.

Deciding to relocate to Belgium with Stephanie, and raise our child there, was not that difficult. I have always loved Europe and have a great network of friends and work opportunities. My work in the US had become ‘adjunct for life’ at a pair of prestigious Northeast Universities, jobs I was happy to have but that required more driving than actual classroom instruction. My local classes—the famous Saturday Morning Classes—and private lessons in Cambridge were wonderful, but not nearly lucrative enough to pay even a studio apartment in Greater Boston.

S. has a house, a fantastic job with an internationally renowned orchestra based in the Netherlands, and a large, loving family nearby. Her orchestra provides free day care—right now there are 9 or 10 orchestra children at the creche–during morning rehearsals: musicians tumble out of their cars with kids in tow, drop them off across the street, settle in for three hours of music-making, pick up their kids after rehearsal, and head home. I was flabbergasted when S. told me that Belgium sends each family a monthly stipend of 150 euros (around $200) for the first child, to support the kid in any way necessary. I was too shocked to listen: ‘For 18 months they send the money?’ ‘No, 18 YEARS’. The stipend increases at a reduced rate with each subsequent child. Imagine: monthly government support for raising children.

Deciding to remarry was largely bureaucratic: a helpful contact in the Belgian consulate in NYC, answering my numerous visa questions, suggested via email that the easiest way for me to move to Belgium would be to marry, then apply for the ‘family reunification’ visa. I forwarded the email from the consulate to S. with the added line “marriage? could it get more romantic than proposal by email with forwarded info from the consulate?” Marriage also guarantees our ‘unborn genius’ dual citizenship.

If anyone would like to see my FBI background check–‘no prior arrest data at the FBI’– I don’t need it.(While I was relieved to find that the FBI had no record of the four grams of pot I sent myself from Amsterdam in 1993, those clever FBI devils, however, now have my fingerprints on file.) Having abandoned the quest for a ‘cohabitation visa’, which involved more paperwork and a longer wait time, I can also offer up: the Cambridge Police Department statement of record–‘NO CRIMINAL HISTORY RECORD’; a certificate of residency in Cambridge–‘this is to certify that Joshua Hilberman is a registered voter in Cambridge, MA’; and a ‘medical certificate for family reunification and cohabitation’ stating that I have been examined and found free of ‘illnesses requiring quarantine…pulmonary tuberculose, active or progressive…(and) other contagious or transmittable diseases by infection or parasites.’

Easily the most disturbing difference in the paper chase for marriage versus cohabitation was that, though simply living together required a health check, marriage allows me to bring unlimited communicable diseases, tuberculosis, and parasites to my new homeland.

Applying for the marriage license together in front of the clerks at city hall was funny: S. turned bright red having to hold up her right hand and swear that her statements were truthful, and I felt strangely relieved when the form asked ‘Is this your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., marriage?’ The form actually offers ‘etc.’ with a blank line to fill in infinite marriages. The fact of it being my 2nd seemed suddenly mundane.

Repeated trips to city hall in Cambridge and Liege were required to ensure our marriage would be recognized by the Belgian authorities. This included tracking down 8 middle names of S. and her parents, complete with accents going two directions, and umlauts. When I inquired about the accents and umlauts, apparently crucial to Liege city hall, the response was loud, hostile, clear: ‘Sir, the English language has 26 characters, no accents or anything else. That would make it NOT English!’

The 13-week ultrasound in Liege revealed a large-headed creature—an improvement over the initial test which pretty clearly showed a potato—which prompted S. and I to say to each other, simultaneously, ‘It looks like YOU!’ Two weeks later S. was in Cambridge and we walked down Mass. Ave to Cambridge City Hall to tie the knot.

Our 8-minute ceremony with only my mom and Pat in attendance went off almost like Obama’s first inaugural oath of office. I repeated the vows, then the justice of the peace turned toward S: ‘I, Joshua’–S. dutifully repeated–‘take you, Stephanie’–also dutifully repeated, at which point I began to wonder if I was the only one listening. After a short silence, we all began to laugh. S. said later, she was so nervous about getting the English right that she assumed the J.P. had said ‘Hi, Joshua’!

All forms for visa applications are certified by apostille, an international form of notarizing documents that most people will never encounter. Your local secretary of state office provides the service so that official documents in the US can be recognized by foreign governments. The MA secretary of state public records division, in downtown Boston, charges $6 per document: you provide notarized originals, and they attach via lovely blue ribbon and gold sticker an official MA cover sheet. If public records ran the rest of local government, Greater Bostonians would all be thrilled with the results.

We bolted city hall with both marriage certificates plus two certified copies of the application–umlauts and accents clear for all to read–taking the T to the secretary of state for apostilles. Then we drove to NYC to deliver my dossier to the Belgian consulate. Observing my agitation as the clock was ticking, my Israeli friend in NYC said, ‘What, you think there’s going to be a line of people beating down the door to get into Belgium? You want a line, you should come with me sometime…’ We were in fact the first and only people in the ‘visa’ line at the consulate, my amended passport with visa was returned an amazing 2 business days later, and a simple formality in Liege will net a 5-year family reunification visa which also serves as a work permit. The paper chase was over!

Back in Belgium, triumphant, S. took the MA apostilled marriage certificate and application–down to Liege city hall. Somehow in the quest for proper punctuation, we had overlooked one of her mother’s three middle names. Belgium recognizes our marriage, but without the 15th family name on the marriage certificate we are not allowed to buy property together, engage in any number of other legally married behaviors, or get divorced. For $50, Cambridge city hall will make the correction, as long as S. appears in person with her birth certificate, and then we can make one LAST trip to the secretary of state’s office, one LAST trip to the town hall in Liege…and then we can get busy changing diapers.


Boston Marathon 2013

Boston Marathon 2013 began like every other, runners and fans in peaceful common pursuit. photo J. Hilberman

Boston Marathon 2013 began like every other, runners and fans in peaceful common pursuit.
photo J. Hilberman

The bombings at the Boston Marathon were cruel enough. But the calls for citizens to become the eyes and ears of a new ‘Security States of America’ blame the victims and insult the very openness that makes us who we are. On NPR, a military trainer talked about how when a person goes out for a walk in their neighborhood they should, casually, also keep an eye out for ‘suspicious activities.’ For my money you can start with notifying the authorities that more than 20,000 people chose to run more than 26 miles—for most of us, running a marathon is a suspicious activity indeed.

Increasingly, in modern urban culture, making eye contact and talking to the people around you are suspicious activities. But at the Marathon, it’s what happens: I spent three hours watching the Marathon around mile 24 on Monday, and got to know three different stories of the people I had simply decided to stand near. Two Midwestern women, one young and one middle-aged–strangers to each other–were waiting for their fiancee and husband to run by, and an elderly Canadian couple waited for their son to come by in his 11th Boston race.

The crowd at Boston, famous worldwide for enthusiasm, lines the entire course and dedicates a good portion of lung power–sometimes enduring truly disgusting weather conditions–toward cheering the runners on home. We scream for the wheelchairs, the breathtaking elite front-running men and women, the fast, the not so fast, and then the throngs of people who by mile 24 and the fourth hour look suspiciously like ourselves–frumpy, pained, off-kilter, and maniacal—except that they are in the middle of Beacon Street with numbers on and ultra-bright shoes, and we are banging noisemakers and cowbells as the police keep backing us off of the course. They write names on their jerseys, and we scream: ‘Go Army’, ‘Attaboy, Ken’, ‘Looking good, Mom.’

Three teenagers—any group of teens, immediately suspect–push in front of the short, anxious, Midwestern fiancee: rude crowd behavior anywhere. They edge onto the course and begin trying to high-five the hypoglycemic saps who are stumbling onward. I nearly intervene, but something stops me. The lankiest teen begins reporting how many ‘high fives’ and at some point he is up to 30. The runners love it! I watch in amazement as high-five after high-five comes from the runners to the three teens, who are howling with laughter. They are partying, and their party is giving energy to the runners.

We are all partying, and giving energy to the runners, and getting energy from the runners. It is one of the truly beautiful days of the many marathons I have watched, a little cold at times but mostly sunny and dry—a glorious Boston spring day. Two of my three new friends from out of town see their people run by–the husband actually stumbles over for a kiss—and they do what all the ‘support personnel’ do: hop on the ‘T’ and head down to the finish line. I am hoping to watch the fiancee greet her husband-to-be, but after three-and-a-half hours I decide to shove off, on my bike, and leave that chapter unfinished.

Riding through Kenmore Square—the first time in 25 years I have dared to take this route—I encounter the largest frat party I have ever seen. Thousands of college kids drunk in the streets and nearly incoherent, stumbling over to the lightly-barricaded median of Beacon Street, screaming for the runners: group binge drinking is a behavior I have found suspicious since I was a teenager. But at the Boston Marathon, it’s just another part of the course, not far from the historic finish on Boylston Street.

The Marathon divides the city into North and South for most of the day. You can get around the race by driving 30 miles West, or right downtown. I ride a few blocks past the finish line and circle back to to meet my friend Kathleen for coffee. On the way I see a few people wearing the familiar mylar blankets, given post-race to avoid hypothermia, and the spectacular 2013 blue and yellow participant’s jackets. I offer congratulations from my bike, and weary but content runners smile or say ‘thanks.’ I cycle past parked buses with the runner’s clothes all bagged and waiting for post-race pickup.

After coffee, cycling home, throngs of out-of-towners either led or trailed by a marathoner, are jaywalking. As a biker, the thrill begins to fade back into a more normal sense of my city: these people who don’t know where they are going, or how to cross the street, they are like one big suspicious activity. I don’t notice the transition, but the good cheer of my inner marathon-watcher collides directly with the jaded, 25-years-in-Boston traffic curmudgeon. Great job, runners, now get the hell out of my way!

Out of the crowd, down a relatively empty city artery, and over the Mass. Ave Bridge. From the bridge, Boston on one side, and Cambridge waiting for me, the city is most glorious: river, trees, skyline, sun, boats, a few Marathoners walking back to their hotels, pedestrians, bikers. And then: BOOOOOM! The blast is unbelievably loud. I have been waiting all day for the Air Force Thunderbirds to fly over, which normally happens around 11 AM, and think it must be them. A quick sky check reveals nothing. People on the bridge stop and turn and look back. I keep riding.

Home, I hit Google to see who won the race, and the computer is buzzing with ‘explosions at the marathon.’ Without a TV—to some people not just suspicious but unfathomable–I have to phone a friend: I call Pat and ask her to turn hers on. She begins a series of gruesome reports, which just get worse as day fades into evening. I need ice cream and companionship, so I pick up a pint of chocolate and head over to my mother’s place to watch some TV.

My phone rings. My student, Joan, is calling to say she is OK, but not sure she will make our lesson in the morning. She begins to weep as she tells me she was standing in front of Marathon Sports, directly where the first bomb exploded, waiting for two friends to cross the finish line, and walked away only minutes before the blast. She heard the boom, the screams, saw the people running, began to run herself, until she was safely home, a few blocks away. She doesn’t know why she walked away when she did, and she wonders about the people she had just met: in that instant they have gone from new Marathon comrades to the injured, the dead, the amputees.

Joan loves the sweet frozen dessert substance from Tasty D-Lite. I find that totally suspicious: how many chemicals have to go into a flavor list that is longer than the phone book? How can you get a dessert that has basically no calories, and why is that desirable? Did Tasty D-Lite, with their scientifically engineered and expertly portioned dessert substitute, save her life by providing the exact right amount for her to finish, marking a moment for her to leave the scene?

Joan is back in tap shoes the next morning, we are hard at work on Carnell Lyons’ two-chorus Paddle and Roll. After a sleepless night, and with a brain that has not stopped churning, she is smiling when the hour-and-a-half is up. Tap dancers know: it’s like meditation, the quiet, peaceful state the brain finds after making all that noise.

At lunch yesterday with a friend, a marathoner sits gingerly at the table next to us. Instead of my usual ‘congratulations,’ offered for 25 years, I ask, ‘Did you finish?’ Nearly 5,000 runners had the surreal experience of being unable to complete the race, more than 25 miles in. He says, ‘Yes’. Then I ask, in the race parlance, ‘First Boston?’ Again, ‘Yes’. Before two days ago, the marathoners were simply high-achievers engaged in a suspiciously obsessive pursuit deserving congratulations, now they and I and the city and the injured: we are all survivors. I mumble half-congrats, half-apologies, and he keeps saying, ‘I’m leaving tonight.’ Me and my lunch date, we live here, we’re staying. And the dead?

Yesterday, I take a long walk along the Cambridge side of the Charles river, spending some time in contemplation of the city I have called home for all these years and am about to leave. Boats are sailing, runners are out, traffic is backed up in both directions over the Mass. Ave Bridge. With each siren’s wail I wonder if it is just ‘normal’ emergency sounds, or if it relates to terrorism.

I walk back through Central Square, Cambridge–a hotbed of suspicious activity at all times day or night. A small Asian woman walks toward me carrying a box, out of which emerges a plastic Christmas tree with lights on it, and I think: Christmas tree bomber? Should I alert someone? As I stare at her my eyes go into Dunkin’ Donuts, where a woman is dipping soft sandwich rolls into a Tupperware container filled with a tomato-meat sauce: isn’t that illegal, bringing sloppy joes into Dunkin’ Donuts? And even if it isn’t illegal, isn’t it disgusting? Should I go into Dunkin’ Donuts and tell the manager that there is a woman with an alien meat substance and immigrant bread, sitting in the window for all the world to see?

Every day last week the US news was filled with domestic terror, shutdowns of community colleges with suspected gunmen, mass stabbings, hostage situations. Yesterday as the main news focused on Boston, another college shutdown due to alleged gunman snuck under the radar. The killing-spree has become the new normal, and it is pretty clear that the maniacal defense of ‘our right to bear arms’ has created a new pathology, a breed of killers with warped minds and easy access to munitions. I find the zealous defense of our right to buy and sell unregulated assault rifles one of the most suspicious activities of all.

Meanwhile, just after the bomb blasts go off in Boston, a bystander tackles a man of Saudi descent who was running from the explosions. The Saudi gets hospitalized, interrogated, his apartment gets searched, his roommates get questioned for hours, and several days later it turns out: he was doing what everybody reasonable person on Boylston Street was doing, running for their lives. Fleeing an explosion with dark skin, a suspicious activity?

I remain horrified by Monday’s Marathon bombing, but equally horrified at the thought of a populace composed of citizen vigilantes–untrained, fearful, and increasingly armed people who nervously scour their personal domains for ‘suspicious activities.’ Terrorists win when the population gives in to fear.

About one thing there is no doubt: Boston will beef up security and the amazing Marathon will continue to be the region’s greatest day of the year, for years to come.

And I will keep on tap dancing, maybe the most suspicious activity of all.