Dec. 24, 2007
The cue to march upstage for my tap solo is supposed to be the first of eight drum bars preceding "Anchors Aweigh." But I had a feeling it would be Jan Geroir, 70, poking me in the side and saying, "Now!"
Today I'm performing with the Happy Hoofers, a troupe of eight female tap-dancers aged 60-87. We're on the dance floor in a banquet room at Palace Station, executing a salute to the military for a Sunrise Hospital luncheon.
The Hoofers invited me aboard because they're fans of my articles -- and because they don't charge for bookings, so the audience can't ask for its money back. They perform about 60 shows per year, mostly at nursing and retirement homes.
"Most of the time, we're older than the audience," said troupe director Fern Jennings, 77, who added that tap-dancing "makes people happy and gives us a chance to dress up in fancy outfits and have fun."
Instead of donning an official sequined Hoofer dress, as Jennings originally suggested, I opted to borrow genuine Navy blues from Las Vegas resident Bill Stojack, whose late father served in World War II. (The result, judging by stares from Palace Station staff members, appears to be a similar level of curiosity about my sexual orientation.)
"You need to relax your ankles more," insists CeeAee DoVanne, 63, as she grabs my right foot and slaps it into the floor as if pounding veal scaloppine.
We're at VFW Post 1753, where the ladies have twice-weekly practices. Here, I was introduced to the ball change and shuffle hop step, and I counted from one to eight more times than Dick Van Patten's TV character on a camping trip with the kids.
"That's where you're throwing yourself off," DoVanne continues. "You're trying to make a big noise, but your taps are making noise all on their own."
Jennings may be the troupe's director, but DoVanne -- who has been tap-dancing for 12 years -- elected herself my personal Bob Fosse. When it comes to my guest appearance, she is definitely the least-happy Hoofer.
"He's gonna dig a hole with his feet," DoVanne protests.
It's true. With my fingers, I'm Buddy Rich to the rhythms playing compulsively in my head. (At least I am at my desk; ask annoyed co-workers.) But my feet march to their own drummer.
"That's good enough," Jennings responds, marking the first time two women have ever fought over me. "Let him do his wild thing." (The compromise is for me to solo once instead of twice.)
Tap-dancing, like virtually all performing arts forms America claims credit for, has its roots in the rhythms of the guests we once imported from West Africa. In the 1730s, many Southern slaves were banned from playing drums, for fear they would communicate to each other across plantations. In response, they improvised, expressing their former culture's rich musicality with spoons, jugs, washboards, and their own bodies and feet.
White minstrel performer Thomas "Jim Crow" Rice is credited with introducing "levee dancing" -- as it was called by the plantation owners -- to the stage in the 1820s. In 1866, it was combined with Irish clog dancing by the producer of "The Black Crook," considered to be the first Broadway musical. The resulting amalgam was coined "tap and step dance" by the 1902 play "Minstrel Misses."
Tap had its heyday in the '30s and '40s, when America's hearts -- and Hollywood's walls -- bore the heel prints of Fred Astaire. But by the early '60s, it was "Taps" for tap, when the movie musical croaked and jazz dancing took over Broadway.
Today, the pop-cultural influence of tap is limited to the occasional Broadway oddity ("Riverdance," "Stomp"), Sammy Davis Jr. impression and "Dancing With the Stars" move.
"Who says it isn't relevant?" Jennings huffed at me. "I think it's plenty relevant."
Jennings starred in her first tap shows at age 5, in her mother's Duluth, Minn., basement.
"But I didn't tap for about 50 years after that," she said.
When her husband died in 1984, Jennings moved to Las Vegas and joined a tap group (now defunct) called the Nevada State Troupers. She formed the Happy Hoofers in 1988 and is its only original member.
"Now," Geroir says, poking me in the side.
The line of Hoofers in front of me parts as I march toward my mark and start my "Anchors Aweigh" solo -- almost half a bar late.
Did I mention how difficult tap-dancing is? It takes years to master the art of clicking the two plates on the bottom of each Capezio against the floor in perfect syncopated time to a song.
Much as I try to better my rehearsal performances, my effort still possesses all the rhythm of randomly popping corn.
And that's just what's wrong with my bottom half. Instead of executing the graceful sweeps I was taught, my arms appear to be attempting to signal "man overboard" to imaginary fellow crewmen.
When my feet stop their Jiffy-Popping, applause -- much to my surprise -- erupts. Apparently, hearing loss and cataracts have never worked so much in a performer's favor.
Later, I discover that the audience was briefed and in on the joke.
"You're not a professional," Las Vegas resident Francis Geier explains. "If one of us got up there and danced, we'd be on our behinds."
Las Vegas resident Mark Howard expresses amazement that I even "seemed to have a few of the basic steps down."
Nevertheless, as we exit the hall, DoVanne appears worried. And this time, she's joined by Jennings.
"I just hope there were no sailors in the audience," Jennings says.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.