As hordes of beginning tap dancers begin to splinter the fantasy floor in our brand new tap dance studio the Claquettes Club, it occurs to my wife and I that perhaps our strategy lacks nuance: invest hundreds of thousands of euros to create a tap dance palace, advertise like mad to find dozens of people who have never tap danced before, and turn them loose on the virgin French oak.
The first few weeks of classes, it was impossible to actually focus on teaching. Having finished the floor less than 24 hours before the first class, neither Steph nor I had actually danced in the new space. So while teaching shuf-fle step to more or less 50 rookies between the ages of 20 and 78, I watched each new dig mark and scuff with horror; listened to the wicked echo of taps off large walls and high ceiling; moved speakers around to try to balance the music with the dance; chased people in their street shoes off of the floor; vacuumed, swept, and damp-mopped; and wondered why a whole section of the floor behaved sometimes like a diving board.
Worried? Neurotic? Obsessed? Exhausted? All that and so much more: happy beyond belief that we had managed to transform the neglected, junk-filled building with the leaking roof into a cosy, inviting place in time for opening the 2nd week of September.
Compromise is everywhere in our Claquettes Club: an unexpected roof replacement that killed the budget for a spectacular lighting plan, leaving us in a fluorescent haze for the indefinite future; the doors needing replacement simply freshened with paint and given new, cheap hardware; spaces in need of further transformation. And still: the Club is fantastic.
After months of observation, unblocking various sediment-filled pipes, copious use of silicone sealant and construction mousse, as of 2 weeks, our building is dry. The new roof above the studio has allowed the permanently humid walls to dry, and the gorgeous floor and the grand piano are no longer threatened. An old fresh-water cistern that was slowly leaking into the basement was emptied by a large man needing a hip transplant into a tanker truck, and within days the basement was no longer wet.
WE DID IT! With a skillful carpenter, stealthy plumber, and wry electrician, friends helping with light demolition and small construction details, and hundreds of hours put in by me, Steph, our students, and friends, we took possession of the keys at the end of May, and opened on Sept. 7.
And then the most amazing thing happened on that Monday 4 weeks ago: people showed up! Suddenly at 6:05 there were 10 people standing in front of us, ready to learn how to tap dance. We zombies stared at them as though they were martians. Then Steph said to me, ‘what do we do?’, and I said, ‘Get their names and email addresses. Collect the money. Let’s dance!’
Truly hilarious was Stéphanie, on the schedule for Monday nights and so teaching our inaugural tap class, realizing 15 minutes into her class that she had no plan at all about what to teach, announcing, ‘and now Josh will take over’; to which I replied, ‘are you changing the plan’, which she affirmed by nodding as she walked off the floor. Which is how I found myself teaching in our glorious space for the first time, no plan either but nearly 30 years of tap dance instruction in my back pocket, no shortage of ideas, a huge grin on my face.
People kept coming, all month, for our 5 euro classes. We opened the doors with a one-month promotion, a gift to our 30 students making the move to the new space, and an enticement for the community to come check out some classes. We borrowed shoes for the beginners from a supportive colleague in Liege, we ordered shoes from Victor Cuno’s Swingtap store in Paris, we checked every screw in every tap going on to our new floor, we shuffled, heeled, and toed, and nightly we collapsed.
The first month has been incredible: Between 70 and 80 people each week passed through our doors to begin or to continue their tap dance journeys. We head into month 2 with a schedule of 8 weekly adult tap classes, a spirited seniors class on Thursday mornings, a parents and small kids class on Wednesdays, and the beginnings of a children’s program on Saturdays taught by our friend Joachim.
Occasionally we even see our son, nearly 23-month old Félix, whose pronunciation of ‘Claquettes Club’ conjures a serious drinking problem. Thank god for his grandparents here and extended family, who love him, take care of him, play with him, and fill in more than capably while we are killing ourselves to get the space open and running smoothly.
Nearly 150 folks came through our opening party–the space overflowing with flowers, champagne, and delicious snacks made by Steph’s sister and the wife of one of our tap junkies (who herself couldn’t stand it anymore and came to class afterwards!). Celebrated Belgian jazz pianist Charles Loos donated his time for the afternoon, as did a very fine local bass player. After only two or three lessons, random and spirited ensembles of our true beginners performed Stephanie’s first choreography three times over the course of the afternoon, 30 seconds set to ‘the Entertainer.’
We chose two of our ‘greatest hits’ and two tap dances of historical significance to open our space: Pete Nugent’s classic 1950’s ‘Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,’ a gift of a tap dance pulled from the memory banks of Nancy Howell; and Carnell Lyon’s Paddle and Roll, the genre-defining piece. With Gregoire and Sharon showing up for an impromptu Astaire and Rogers dance, we managed to initiate our floor with a good portion of highly entertaining tap history. I improvised alone with the band–something I have loved to do for 30 years–everyone shim-shammed on the hour, a cabaret troupe animated the afternoon and a real highlight was Steph and four colleagues together for the first time with her boss’ generous permission as ‘the André Rieu All-Stars.’
Thus begins month two: bringing the carpenter back in to reinforce the bouncy part of the floor and to make the stage and backstage clean and safe for public passage; finalizing details to get sound-absorbing theatrical curtains hung; making a plan for the irritating early splinters in the floor; finishing electrical work and bringing a few last details into compliance for the fire code.
With ‘phase one’ of construction nearly complete, we can get back to our ‘raison d’être’: the dancing, and the dancers. Our youngest student just turned 4, our eldest at 78 has already become senior class technologist, sending video files each week to the group. Last week I learned (as did she) that one of our students just got dumped by her husband. An 11-year old took a city bus for the first time by herself to come to tap an extra time each week. A student stayed after class to talk about surviving cancer last year, just in case any health issues should arise.
In three weeks, my dear friend, mentor, and tap guru Brenda Bufalino arrives to fill the Claquettes Club with her wisdom, power, and singular brilliant voice—she has broken in so many floors and inaugurated so many spaces over a lifetime, it was an easy choice to decide on Brenda for our first workshop and concert. Coming along as well are more dear friends who number among Europe’s finest tap dancers– Belgian, German, and Dutch. We will be staging a version of Bufalino’s classic Haitian Fight Song, and I am working to get back her wicked bebop solo, Buf’s Bop.
With our first real rehearsal scheduled for today—after picking up a friend’s collection of folding chairs, and meeting with the electrician, and before teaching classes– now, it is back to the real business at hand: the joyful noise of dancing and making music.