Saturday, August 2, 2008


Reva is a good family friend.
My mom grew up in Missouri, and whenever I visit St. Louis, I have a very hard time seeing all of my relatives there--my St. Louis family is huge, and there is an intricate and enormous network of relatives and friends. My mom understands how they all fit together, but having grown up out of town, I always forget just how it is that this cousin or that aunt is related to me. Not that the how of it matters. Suffice to say that the experience of going there (which I try to do at least once a year) is like coming home to a stadium full of people who think you're the bees knees regardless of what your day (or year) was like.

Reva is one of those people in the stadium. Her family isn't related to mine, but they may as well be. Mama Jean and Reva met when a mutual friend indirectly accused Mama Jean of stealing Reva's daughter and passing her off as her own. Amy Beth (my aunt) and Amy Beth (Reva's daughter) are the same age, grew up blocks away from each other, and looked very similar as infants. They are also the best of friends.
(They are also both tornado babies, but that is another story.)

Since Reva lives so close by to Mama Jean, and since I love her and her family dearly, I almost always get to visit with her when I'm in town. One of the marvelous things about her house is that she is always finding interesting things to do with it. She has raised chickens, installed a "diamond mine", has a mouse house underneath her stairs, and is working on a wall tattoo. For a number of years now, a good part of her basement has been designated "the costume room." There is an impressive contingent of bridesmaid's dresses on the metal racks that line the wall, as well as Hallowe'en and Purim costumes, vintage dresses that make me swoon, boy scout uniforms, wigs, veils, gloves, hats, masks, and of course, shoes.

In the past Reva has let me take outfits out on long term loan--dresses to wear to weddings, or just for fun. In fact, the local high school borrows clothing for their annual musicals, and neighbourhood kids and relatives "shop" at Reva's for costumes and formal attire. This year a pair of tap shoes caught my eye.

I've always been intrigued by tap shoes. Growing up I took ballet and modern and jazz classes, but it was a well understood rule in our household that tap was out of the question. My mom had three other sisters in her family, and two of them were avid dancers. The sound of tap shoes drives her nuts. So tap dancing is something that I've always been a bit curious about.

My Auntie Andrea let me try on her tap shoes once when she was visiting. They were white, and a bit too small. My Auntie Amy once told me that I could have her old tap shoes if she could find them--her feet are closer to my size. About 6 years ago, my old dance studio was celebrating their 25th anniversary, and invited a bunch of graduates to come back and dance in show. It was a tap number, and having never taken tap lessons, I wore an old pair of (tap-less) character shoes and did my best to seem like I knew what I was doing. I really wished I did know what I was doing, but had a good time not having to worry about any sounds giving me away.

When I saw a couple of pairs of tap shoes in Reva's basement, I got excited. Reva wasn't sure of the origins of the shoes I ended up taking home with me. My guess is that they belonged to Auntie Amy. The other pair, which was larger, shinier, and the flat-heeled style, belonged to Reva. She told me their story.

Reva said that she and her sister were sitting together "kvetching about the fact of their lives," and that their family wasn't able to afford to let them take dance lessons when they were younger. They had both always wanted to tap dance. One of the sisters suggested that since they were able to afford it now, they should buy themselves tap shoes. And they did.

Reva recounted how she and her sister could be found giggling and goofing around at the dance store, how the staff and other customers must have thought they were crazy with the noises that were coming from their feet. They bought the shoes, but Reva never took lessons. I don't think that that was important to her. She and her sister just enjoyed making noise and "tip tapping" together.

Reva encouraged me to try the "tapping shoes" on, the ones that were closer to my size. They are capezio heeled tap shoes, size 8 or so, with dance studio pink insides. It turned out that they fit me really well, and I stepped off the carpet, onto the cement floor and started making noise. Reva was astounded, "you sound really good!" She said that it sounded like I knew what I was doing, that it was as if I was making music with my feet. She was so impressed that she said I should bring them home.

I tried walking to my grandmother's house in them, but I gave up after about half a block. It seemed so wrong tapping as I walked on the sidewalk, plus I think that it just feels wrong in my body to spend so much time in heeled shoes. So I took them off, and reverted back to my regular shoes. Inside Mama Jean's I put them on when no one else was home and tapped up a storm of made-up moves that may or may not be proper moves or pass as tap dancing. (We had recently seen part of a documentary on dance, and I think that watching Fred Astaire and the way his body moved made me all the more eager to try dancing with taps.)

Back in Guelph, I decided to wear the shoes for just part of the day, due to the heel factor. I
wore them while taking a much needed break from planning camp programming and gathering books at the library. I was nervous -- I wasn't sure if our downstairs neighbour was home, but risked it anyway. I just put them on, and started making sounds. It felt kind of freeing, although I was a bit tentative. I found a very funny book at the library that I thought might help me, but turned out to not be very helpful at all. I imagine that it's the sort of book that my mom would weed off the shelves, if she was weeding at the Guelph Public library.

Unfortunately, Erica wasn't home. She had offered to show me some moves. Later on, she tried on the shoes and showed me what she could remember. According to her I do a pretty good modified buffalo-type step. Hmm...

The tapping shoes are exciting and playful. When I put them on, if no one else is home, I can imagine that I'm a super-swell tap dancer making up my own music to dance to as I go or slow, syncopated rhythms and pauses that I can play with and delight in. It's also a bit of that feeling of breaking the rules, doing what I wasn't allowed to as a kid, being really loud, and making lots of really loud mistakes, and just laughing afterwards. Although the tapping shoes' original owner is a mystery, I imagine them as having belonged to my aunt and having lived in Mama Jean's house, probably packed away in the basement for some time. I also somehow imagine them as carrying Reva's story of two sisters finally just doing what they had wanted to for so long, making their noise and laughing. And they are also caught up with my idea of St. Louis...that stadium full of people ready to hug me, or applaud after a convincing series of pseudo buffalo steps.

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