On a recent summer night I wandered past Smalls jazz club on West 10th Street in the Village. The Maine coon cat reclining on the doorstep caught my attention, and the chalkboard announcement of “Tap Jam” held it. The cat is called Minnow and the Tap Jam is not to be missed.
On Wednesday nights, from 6:00 until 9:00 p.m., the basement club fills up with dancers. Dressed casually in shorts and t-shirts, baseball caps, and summer dresses, they are an unassuming group. No sequins, no bugle beads. No ramrod dancer’s posture or louche way of walking. On the street, you wouldn’t notice them. Then they put on their tap shoes.
Michela Marino Lerman, the host of the jam and tap dancer extraordinaire, calls out a name and asks, “You got your shoes on?” Quiet, hesitant, a dancer steps out onto the small stage, just a portable piece of wood, splintered and scuffed, parked in front of a jazz trio—drums, bass, piano. The dancer asks for the tempo and they’re off.
This is improvisational tap, the shoes a percussive instrument jamming along with the band, sometimes leading, sometimes following. Feet bang across the wood, hammering and skipping, slowing down to scrape a semi-circle before speeding up again. When the band quiets down for the dancer’s solo, she breaks out every move, dripping sweat and deadly serious. You feel the footfalls knocking in your ribcage.
There’s a deep, unsmiling concentration on most of the dancers’ faces. They’re working hard. From the knee up, it’s as if they forget they have bodies—arms swing in odd directions, lurching like Boris Karloff—but it doesn’t matter. This is not about the body. It’s all about the feet–and the feet are incredible.
The dancers perform at all levels, from shy beginners barely tapping out a pulse beat to experts sending up complicated rhythms that move so fast you can’t connect the sounds to the sight of blurry shoes. It’s a total pleasure to watch the experts fly, but I am partial to underdogs. The elderly gentleman who does a light and agile soft shoe. The heavyset older woman who unveils unexpected elegance. The spaghetti-thin boy, all limbs and adam’s apple, who impresses with his delicate touch.
With some prodding, an awkward newbie from the Plains States gets up and braves it, though she’s only got a few basic moves under her belt. Wide-eyed, biting her lip, she clomps her way through. At one point, she lets go of trying to get it right, and her face breaks into a mega-watt smile, her arms windmilling the air as her feet take over. It’s a tender and joyful thing to watch. Later, I tell her she’s courageous and she says, “I was terrified. But I’m alive, so I might as well do it.”
Here is New York.
Jeremiah Moss is the award-winning author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com). His writing on the city has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Daily News, and online at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He has been interviewed in major newspapers around the globe.