Soulful Tapping with James Brown
Victoria Moore doin' her thing to James Brown
Leading Up To The Big Day!
The hardest thing I had to adjust to while creating my tap routine, "I Got Soul," for the "Cancer Support Community's" Holiday Open Mic held on December 16, 2011, were unpleasant memories from the past that popped up whenever I practiced the dance. Clocking in at around two minutes the entire number included an introductory poem "Long Division" a Korean Sijo by Linda Sue Park from the book "Tap Dancing On The Roof" then the actual number to James Brown's record, "Soul Power, Part 1." Full of tapitude, romance and whimsy I wanted to take the audience back to my childhood, in the '60s and '70s, when I used to dance with my best friends Kelly and Sue to r'n'b records in my bedroom. Released in 1971, "Soul Power, Part 1," also reflected my ethnic pride as an African-American and made me feel even more emotional about the piece.
Now that I'm in the midst of my breast reconstruction process (I had my initial surgery on December 22, 2011), and the mastectomy, chemotherapy and major cancer scares are behind me I can look at this routine as another turning point in my recovery.
My initial brainstorm for this new piece came on the day of the CSC's first Open Mic on October 7, 2011.I was talking to Eileen Flaxman, a professional singer and the event's co-coordinator in the reception area and she wanted to show me the tap step she'd learned from one of her tap classes.
"This is all I can remember," she said before she did the "flap, heel, heel, brush, heel, toe, heel," step. As she did it I also reminisced about the the first time I'd learned it in Mark Mendonca's "Beginning Tap Class" at Santa Monica College. "I'll never get this," I thought back then because it requires being equally adept on both feet. Eventually I mastered it, and had forgotten all about it, until I saw Eileen do it. "That would be perfect for my new routine," I thought. It would've been an effective opener, going around in a circle on my old wooden board if I hadn't tried it on the new portable tap board I bought for my birthday from "FASFOOT," then it looked and sounded better dancing it straight on facing the audience.
Gorgeous, with a light wooden foldable stage over a gray carpeted base and a pink handle, the board created by Erik Patience is as magical to me as the prima ballerina's ballet slippers in the movie "The Red Shoes." The minute I tapped on it I sounded fantastic. I could stumble or fall and I'd still sound like Savion Glover! One Saturday TCM (Turner Classic Movies, Channel 127) showed the musicals "Top Hat," "The Seven Little Foys," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Even though I adored, and was inspired by all of the tap numbers in the films, the one that influenced me the most was from "Top Hat," when Fred Astaire did the "flap, heel, heel... because then I could replicate it when I did "I Got Soul" at CSC.
Whenever I'd worked with a choreographer for "Folklorico de SMC" or "Synapse" at Santa Monica College one of the things that used to always frustrate me was that they often changed the routine, periodically, to give it more swag. Now that I was putting together another piece I started doing the same thing. My "opener" was the first to be pushed aside. Instead of Eileen's "flap, heel, heel..." I decided to start with a step that had more attitude. Intensly rhythmic it announces itself with a "toe, heel, heel, toe" cadence. I call it the "Thumbin' The Nose" jig.
I first did it in public while working as a Circulation Page at the Santa Monica Public Library. I'd just turned 40 and I wanted to give myself something special for my birthday, so I chose tap dancing. Ever since I'd read Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography, "Yes, I Can!," as a little girl. I'd wanted to take tap. My decision didn't come without backlash however, as practically everyone I knew had an opinion about my new hobby. Those who were happy and excited for me still make me feel good about my decision to learn it while those who were against it still make me angry and sad.
Detracting to the point of emotional abuse, two of the most vicious haters were my supervisors at SMPL (Santa Monica Public Library). My direct supervisor even started a rumor that I had an eating disorder when I lost 30 pounds in a month thanks to the cardiovascular attributes of tap. This group, led by these two, also constantly told me that I was too old for tap and that it was a waste of time and money. Every time I worked with them I was subject to these insults, which made me so depressed I realized I'd have to do something to put them in their place or they'd eventually convince me to give up a dance I loved.
On the day of my retaliation, I wore a pair of heavy vintage leather World War Two combat boots I'd bought at an army surplus store in Santa Monica to practice tap in, to work. I had just finished shelving a cart full of books so I was bringing the empty cart back to the office. I knew these two supervisors would be at their desks so I burst through the door as hard as I could, doing the "toe, heel, heel, toe" bit as fast as I could. I danced over to their desks, went back and forth in front of them a few times, then when I was finished, I bowed and said "TA DA!!." They looked up shocked and speechless while the page, on the swithcboard, laughed so hard he almost fell out of his chair. After that they never said another disparaging word to me about taking tap. I guess you could say I won that challenge!
Besides chutzpah "I Got Soul" also had its share of sweetness and cool too. The "Tea For Two" step came from a duet I saw Lucille Ball and Van Johnson do on t.v. once and the traveling "Paddle and Rolls" came from the challenge dance Gregory HInes and Sammy Davis Jr. did in the movie "Tap." Unfortunately when I added everything together it was so strenuous I had to start doing Pilates to strengthen my body. Before I began working on my routine I'd taken a bone density test at Kaiser-Permanente so my oncologist could see how I'd react to the post breat cancer drug Arimidex. The test revealed that in addition to lupus and rheumatoid arthritis I now also had osteoporosis because of the Prednisone I had to take for two years after I got Scleritis in 2008.
It would've been an obstacle if the doctor I talked to about it hadn't told me that "one of the best things to do to strengthen my bones was daily exercise." Along with my post mastectomy exercises and tap practice I added beginning exercises from Portia Page's book "Pilates Illustrated." From "shoulder warmings," to "tail wags" I gradually made my body more flexible, stronger, and agile enough to practice for about an hour a day.
Selecting the music was another important part of getting together the physical mechanics of the routine. I needed something with bite. The James Brown cd "The Best Of James Brown The Millenium Collection-20th Century Masters" was one of my favorites, and after trying out my routine to it, I ended up with "Soul Power, Part 1."
The poem I read "Long Division" was one I'd found in 2011 in a children's poetry book I'd checked out of the Mar Vista Public Library. I was working as a Special Education Instructional Assistant at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica in a third grade class. The teacher, a strict old school educator and amateur writer and illustrator of children's stories, was teaching her class about poetry that semester. Whenever I worked with different classes I always tried to contribute anything I could to the lesson plans, so I brought in this book and thought it would be perfect for the children to read. For some reason she didn't agree with me, because she never used it, and let it languish on a shelf until it was due back at the library. While reading it, one of the poems delighted me so much that I copied it into my breast cancer journal and vowed to use it for something tap-related one day. Composed of about four lines it complimented my warm up tap exercises perfectly so I paired it with that, and added it to my routine.
To complete my vision I put together a costume that was very cute and funky. The last time my routine to Thelonius Monk's "In Walked Bud" had a slightly military feel to it so I wore a plaid kilt, navy argyle knee-high socks, a white button-down tuxedo shirt, a navy blue Civil war cap and a black wooden cane as a prop. Now I was going for a softer and edgier feel, with a pink, black and white palette inspired by two Japanese fashion trends-"Gothic Lolita" and "Retro British Punk." By tying a long-sleeved pink tuxedo button-down shirt over a pink tee, by "Prayer Haute Couture," then pairing them with a pair of black shorts, black and white striped stockings and a black and white polka-dotted hairbow headband I embodied the character I'd been trying to summon for weeks. Finally I was ready to bring in the holidays, and perfom for an audience, with all of the enthusiasm of a person making peace with their past.