Over the Edge and Back
In Time for ‘Law and Order’
after nearly twenty years, the author gets his groove
by Charles Herman
long before Jerry Rice even heard of a foxtrot or Drew Lachey swiveled his hips to win first place, I found out just what it felt like to dance with the stars. I had recently moved across country to Los Angeles for a new job at a network news organization. I started work at 5:30 AM, knew few people, and spent my evenings watching too many repeat episodes of “Law and Order” before going to bed at 9:00 PM. I needed to get off the couch and do something exciting, but it had to finish at an early hour. Nothing inspired me. Then it hit me. Dance.
That’d be physical, challenging, and different. I didn’t need to watch B-list movie stars like George Hamilton and Tatum O’Neal become ballroom dancers on national television. I was going to do my own dirty dancing. (I should disclose here that I work for ABC News, but I have never done a cha-cha-cha anywhere near the “Dancing with the Stars” set). But I wouldn’t do just any type of two-step. I’d tap dance.
I was no stranger to the clickity-clack world of tap. Years earlier while in my teens, I had taken lessons. It all started after a disastrous audition for a musical production of “George M.” about George M. Cohen—he of Yankee Doodle Dandy fame—in my hometown of Oakland, California. I had never worn tap shoes before. After the audition, the choreographer told me in a disparaging tone, “I see what your problem is. You’ve never taken a lesson of tap in your life.”
My parents, supportive as always, responded by enrolling me in classes at a typical Dolly Dinkle studio in nearby San Leandro. They figured that if I wanted to pursue a career in the theater, I should learn how to dance. What I didn’t expect was that they’d sign up for classes with me.
To this day, mention tap classes to my mom and tears of laughter come to her eyes. My father, a short, overweight, Jewish man in his late fifties who could barely see his toes over his belly, had such cheap shoes that his taps kept flying off as he danced and he insisted that while he could bring one foot off the ground, he would never lift both feet up at the same time. Jerry Rice looks like a professional dancer compared to my father. He was ridiculous. But he loved it. Now, nearly two decades later, here I was, a thirty-three-year-old man enrolling in tap classes. The son had become the father.
I did research and found the Edge, a studio in Hollywood. It was to my benefit that I didn’t know it was where tomorrow’s hopeful stars polished their moves. I steeled up my nerves and one night, impetuously, decided to go. I put on the tap shoes from my teenage years that I had found buried in a closet at my parents’ home in Oakland. Thankfully, they hadn’t bronzed the shoes, though the fit was a bit too snug.
When I arrived, I walked to the far side of the small rehearsal hall, as far as possible from the enormous window that overlooked the waiting room where other dancers and their parents scrutinized our every move. It felt like the first day of first grade. I worried whether the other kids would like me, whether I’d do something stupid, if I would be able to keep up or remember how to tap. I fretted that the clothes I was wearing were not cool enough.
The other tappers arrived and the answer to the last question was a definite no. Not only were my sweatpants all wrong, but I was, by far, the oldest in the class by more than a decade. Those parents outside, many were my age.
The studio filled up with pimply-faced, tattooed and pierced, baggy-jean-wearing, hipster kids. Most of them longed to be professional dancers bumping and grinding in the music videos of Britney Spears and Madonna. I just wanted to be home in time for “Law and Order.”
I tried to make my five-foot-nine, 180-pound self as small as possible. Class started and the real terror began. Our tapping consisted of slapping the floor with our taps while completing complicated, rhythmic steps and keeping a low center of gravity. I had learned traditional musical theater tap. Think white gloves, up on your toes, and lots of smiles. “Come and meet those dancing feet.” This was not my father’s tap class.
The steps were the same, goofy names like “Maxie Ford,” but this dance was more Savion Glover to my youthful “42nd Street” roots. It was called rhythm tap. I didn’t even know it had a name.
We tapped to the music of Outkast and Black Eyed Peas. I didn’t know you could Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo to Eminem and you can bet I shared this newfound knowledge with friends months later when, after too many drinks, I demonstrated my “Real Slim Shady” routine.
The music blasted the studio. I could barely hear the instructor, let alone my tapping. I had no idea if I was making the right sounds or doing the right steps. I did know that I felt as if I were about to trip myself. As we progressed through the warm-up and began the routine, something odd happened. I started having fun. My shoulders, previously tensed up and above my ears, relaxed. I stuck out my neck and jaw with attitude.
Yeah, that’s right. I was tap dancing and looking hip doing it. Stand back. “I’m Slim Shady. Yes, I’m the Real Shady.” Then I blew it all. There, in the mirror, was what can only be called my “tap face.” A goofy, open-mouth smile, eyes opened wide, eyebrows raised. It was one part Rockette and one part ice skater with heavy sprinkles of musical theater. I looked ridiculous, but I made it through class. I managed the triple-time steps, faked my way through the “wings.” No one laughed. No one pointed. No one asked me what I was doing there. No one else cared but me.
It was so different from my daily world that tapping became an escape from it all. Unlike my classmates, I was there for pure joy. I had no hopes (let alone chance) of becoming a professional. If I was good or bad, it didn’t matter. I was doing it for the pleasure of doing it.
I started taking more classes. I got better; my sounds became clearer. I had a certain tap in my step. My toes starting tapping out routines as I sat at my desk, while I covered forest fires and celebrity trials. I didn’t just “tap” my toe with impatience, I “shuffled” my toe. At the Edge I learned to wear baggy jeans and carry myself with a slight swagger. But I also found my “tap face” starring back at me in the mirror which undermined any cool-kid attitude I attempted.
I looked like a fool but I didn’t feel like one. More important, I didn’t care. Tapping was more than just exercise or an outlet for boredom. It reflected an outlook on life. Take a risk, try an impossible step. I might look like those clumsy white guys you see on the dance floor at weddings and on national television or I might hit it right. But I was taking a chance and it felt better to be in the show than just watching from the audience.
Charles Herman is a producer with ABC News. He lives in New York where he is trying, once again, to find his tap groove.