By Jeanne Marie Beaumont
It may have been one of the craziest things I had ever done. The week before I was to leave for the Stonecoast summer residency, I enrolled myself in an intensive tap workshop, as part of Tap City, and I also signed on to perform Tap It Out in Times Square. I would be adding my two feet to the chorus of some 300 others in, as the press release states, “a pre-choreographed orchestral collage of a cappella unison rhythms, contrapuntal sequences, individual riffs, movements and grooves . . . that promotes tap dance as pure music.”
What that meant in terms of time was that I was signing up for more than 25 hours of tapping, including class, practices, rehearsals, and four performances, during the week of July 8th. My morning workshop class was with a teacher who has a reputation for toughness, one whom I had found demanding and a bit intimidating in the past. Yet I knew that she had a lot to teach me and that I had a lot to learn.
This became a week for taking critique and being grateful for it. As I have only been tapping for about four years, I am still squarely in the advanced beginner stage of tap, which is, by the way, undoubtedly the most difficult thing I have ever tried to learn. Part of the “tap addiction” comes from the fact that tap technique seems to stretch into infinity. There is no end to how much you can learn, or how adept you can become, at least for a late-starter, like me.
Over the past year, I had been trying to live up to a motto that had come to me one morning in that twilight between sleep and waking: “True art is never timid, be committed.” It had helped me persevere when I felt myself holding back, or withdrawing, or losing energy in any of my artistic endeavors including dance and writing poetry. So, this endurance test of a week of truly aerobic activity was an extension and further challenge to my efforts to fully commit. And did I mention this was all taking place in the midst of a truly broiling Manhattan heat wave?
Survival depended on practical things, like Epsom salt foot-soaks, ice packs, Aleve, and lots of hydration, as well as the good camaraderie of others who had signed on for the same challenge. The tap community as I have experienced it is friendly and supportive. That helps when you are trying to do something some part of you still feels might be impossible. Communities of writers, such as we have at Stonecoast, provide the same sort of ballast for the writing life. Art never thrived in a vacuum. We need each other.
Over the course of the week, I felt myself becoming stronger mentally as well as physically. I learned to fine-tune as much as I possibly could various steps and moves but also to forgive myself for falling short. Tap does teach one humility. There is always so much more to learn, and there are always new ways to fail! But in writing as well as in tap, part of the growth process is learning the ways you can fail, which is just as essential as learning how to succeed. As on any road, you will proceed more smoothly once you know the location of those potholes and ditches that you want to avoid.
By the end of the week I had learned and performed with my workshop class a dance piece choreographed to “One Note Samba” at Symphony Space, and I had survived three performances of Tap It Out in the midday heat of Times Square. After the last performance, my legs felt like old rubberbands, the heels of my tap shoes were palpably hot, and I had sweated through my clothes entirely. That weekend, I had an email message from one of my Stonecoast graduating mentees that her presentation had gone very well. “So relieved!!!!!” she wrote adding that she had crashed right after and “slept for ages.” I knew the feeling, and confess that I slept for about 10 hours the night after the tap performances were over.
To excel in any art requires sometimes stepping outside of our “comfort zone,” breaking out of our habits of ordinary effort to test our endurance, and, in my case, being willing to leave it all out there on a two- X four-foot tap board one hot July Saturday in Duffy Square. At one point, seeing how overheated and fatigued I was between performances, a friend said, well, you could just stop. Stop? But no, I had committed to occupying board number C-5 for the duration. (True art is never timid…) I had practiced, and I was trained. I knew I could still conjure some energy to spend, and I was determined to spend it.
Perhaps this is something of what the French poet René Char meant when he wrote “spend your truth.” That is the artist’s true currency. And though you can’t take it with you, you can certainly leave it behind in your works. On the tap board, or on the page. Tapping your feet, or tapping the keyboard. You can go further than you think, and there is always further to go … be committed.
Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s first book of poetry, Placebo Effects, won the National Poetry Series. She has published two subsequent books with BOA Editions, Curious Conduct and Burning of the Three Fires. She co-edited American Letters & Commentary for seven years and also co-edited The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales.