I’ve always loved to dance; just not in front of an audience. My parents were just the opposite. In fact, my father used to tell everyone, “Dancing is my life!
My parents performed in as many PTA, ORT, and any other shows they could. They could both tap dance, sing, and act. My father also had the gift of knowing precisely when to ad lib a line in a song, causing the entire cast to crack up during live shows. He was like Tim Conway of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
In one particular show, the director wrote new lyrics to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Each person in the number would stand up to say their line. My father’s line was, “I’ve got a headache,” but each night, when he stood up to say his line, he’d change it. One night, he sang, “I’ve got cramps,” and another night, he sang, “I’ve got gas.” There was no way for the cast to recover, but it was okay, because the people in the audience were laughing so hard, they wouldn’t have been able to compose themselves to hear the rest of the song, anyway.
As much as my mother loved to perform, she would get extremely nervous before each show. It’s no secret…well, it might have been, but, it won’t be after I spill the beans: she almost always tossed her cookies before going onstage. In fact, before every show, the entire cast waited anxiously for her to run to the bathroom to, let’s just say, “purge her nerves.” If she was successful, the cast knew they’d put on a great show. If she didn’t “belt out a tune” in the bathroom, the cast feared the show might not be as good as it could have been, plus there’d be six more weeks of winter, even in the summer.
Literally wanting to follow in my brother, Paul’s, footsteps, I auditioned for, and was invited to join, Indiana University’s African American Dance Company (AADC) in 1981, which was Founded and Directed by Professor Iris Rosa (ProR0) in 1974.
I loved being a part of the AADC family, but I was never able to shake the sweaty-I’m-not-good-enough-I’m-going-to-faint-I’m-too-fat-feeling I’d always get before taking the stage, even though, for the first and only time in my life, I weighed exactly what my driver’s license said I did.
In the middle of the show at The Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, I decided I was just not going to go onstage during one particular piece. I was one of six dancers in a tap routine. No one would notice I was missing, would they? Normally, no matter how nervous I was, I’d go out, do my thing, and then exit, stage left, or stage right… whichever was closest.
But, this time, I was more nervous than usual because our “costumes” consisted of purple tights, a purple leotard, and tap shoes. Period. Nothing else. I was just one, thin, purple layer of spandex away from being completely naked onstage, except for my tap shoes.
It didn’t help that my boyfriend at the time saw me in all my purple glory, laughed, and said, “You look like a grape!” I dumped him shortly thereafter.
So, the other five dancers took their places onstage as the lights went up, and began tapping away as the music began. Where was I? Hiding in the wings, hoping no one would notice I wasn’t onstage.
Now, when there are only six people in a piece, it’s pretty obvious when one of them is missing; especially when she is the first person listed in the program for that particular dance because her last name begins with a “C.”
ProRo found me cowering in the wings and told me to get my purple butt onstage.
I rolled – – I mean, tapped – – into place onstage, making my entrance look as natural as possible.
Fast forward to 1986.
Besides performing, my mother taught tap at The Carol Walker Dance Studio. My father started as a beginner, and never advanced during Mom’s 25-year tenure, so she referred to him as her “best beginner.”
While Mom was sitting in the office of The Studio before one of her classes began, she received a phone call from the producer of an upcoming Famous Footwear commercial. He called the studio looking for tap dancers who would be willing to work a 12-hour day for next to nothing. Mom told him she would round up dancers, and that we’d be delighted to shoot the commercial.
“We” consisted of some of Mom’s students, Mom, Paul, and me.
Well, I wasn’t exactly “delighted,” but, I realized that if the three of us were in the commercial together, we’d have an opportunity to create a life-long memory.
On the “set” (because I’ve been in one commercial, I know the lingo,) Paul was given a top hat, cane, and tails, and told to “just improvise” some tap movements.
What none of us knew at the time was that the director was shooting, “Honey, I shrunk the Paul.” (See below)
Mom and I brought our own black leotards, tights, tap shoes, and those black wrap-around tunics with little skirts that were popular at the time because they were adorable, and covered up any excess adipose tissue in one’s midsection.When the director said it was time to film the tappers, I realized I hadn’t yet cased the joint for an escape route. That’s when I heard ProRo in my head, much like Yoda, saying, “When a grape life hands you, roll with it you must.*”
Thankfully, the director told us the camera would only be shooting our feet…or so I thought.
After we shot the tap dancing scene, and I thought we were finished, I was handed my wardrobe change for the next part of the commercial.
What? Hey, Mr. Director-man, Sir, Mom only signed me up to tap dance; and, against my will at that! Now you want to put my entire body on camera in just a leotard and tights? No one wants to see that – – especially me – – and, by the by, everyone knows the camera adds at least 10 pounds!
So, there I stood on the set in a very, very, very light gray leotard, an oh-so-flattering elastic band around my waist, a sweatband I had to wrangle around my very-1980’s asymmetrical fro, and a pair of gym shoes.
I was going to be filmed exercising with Paul, who was given an outfit worse than anything Richard Simmons ever wore, and another woman wearing exactly what I was wearing, only taller.
Did I mention that part of the wardrobe was a pair of purple tights? It was grape déjà vu all over again.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about. If you blink, you’ll miss me, so please blink. Also, because the real stars of the commercial were the Famous Footwear shoes, we were blurred out in the background.
As much as I love to dance, I’m very content being a humor writer, which, by the way, is an excellent career choice if you don’t like performing in front of an audience, or earning a living.
Enjoy watching my 30 seconds of fame, because, if I have my way, there will never be a second more.
*A fruit salad attempt of an homage to one of the AADC’s most powerful works, “Lemonade Suite.”