Tap dancing lessons were on the bucket list I kept in my brain. Not one to have actually written a bucket list, I was also not one that you’d ever imagine dancing on a stage. But musicals and choreography have always been a love of mine. Think Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in old musicals. Happy, upbeat and silly – a perfect antidote to life’s daily ups and downs.
The past two years, having been rather bumpy and somewhat painful, inclined me to dust off my tap shoes and return to dance class last September.
My class consisted of a friendly group of mostly extroverted and lifelong tap-dancing women. Our teacher was fun, mischievous and able to encourage a middle-aged woman at the back of the class whose paradiddles were not quite para-diddle-ing.
Through the fall and winter, Monday nights found my brain and toes struggling to keep up, to shuffle and tap at the right times, sometimes meeting with success but often just providing me with sore muscles and a laugh at my lack of talent.
Come March it was time to learn recital routines for the annual show. This was typically my time to exit from class, stage right. The thought of dancing in a show for all to see, in a garish costume, to music too fast for my feet, struck terror in the pit of my stomach. However, this year the troupe was short of dancers and they pleaded with me to stay and to dance – albeit in the last row, right corner, a filler of sorts. This was peer pressure at its best, or worst, depending on how you view things. I was in!
Two evenings a week, we tore through step after fast step to a song I really could not bear. After class, “River Deep, Mountain High” would play over and over in my mind as I fell exhausted into bed. My daughter’s “Celine” impression kept me seeing the humour in it, but oh, to sleep without that soundtrack stuck on repeat.
In tandem (pardon the pun), that spring time marked a very difficult journey for a dear friend and his family. My husband and I had stepped in to help, in any little way that we could, as Larry struggled valiantly with his Gord Downie type brain tumour.
Larry’s ability to speak had become very limited, his principal way of conversing being with a beautiful smile and a thumb’s up. He and his family were a sight to behold – the efforts made, the choreographing of his every movement from arm chair to car for a drive, to wheelchair, to bed. A beautiful dance of love and care, each and every day.
June arrived and with it my ever growing anxiety. With each rehearsal and costume fitting, I asked myself, What was I thinking to sign up for this?
Living between these two worlds of bright lights and loud music, juxtaposed against diminishing life was like being suspended in an alternate universe. There were meals to be made, pep talks and hugs to give, tears to be shared. It felt surreal.
Show week finally arrived. Dress rehearsals, sound checks, final touches all complete. I silently worried now, not so much about making a fool of myself, but more, I worried about Larry. He had been moved to hospice the first day of show rehearsals.
Each day that week as I showed up to the theatre, I felt a bit lighter, distracted from the sad reality that existed outside of the dance show world. I muddled my way through the nights, costume fitted, dramatic stage make up applied, toes tapping.
Friday arrived, a big night for the show. It was an exquisite day, the kind one associates with the month of June. Bright sunlight, budding gardens – all the promise of summer ahead. I decided to take a quick swim before leaving for the performance, pausing to take in the beauty of the moment. A bright red cardinal alighted on the pool’s edge, and for a fleeting moment I wondered if it was a sign, if Larry was okay. A cardinal is meant to be a good sign, wasn’t it?
I jumped out of the pool, dressed, grabbed my costume bag and my phone, calling out to my husband that I was leaving, was on my way.
Midway out the door, I saw that I had missed a text. From my very dear friend, it simply read, “Larry is gone.”
Gone? I thought Gone where? He was in hospice, how could he be gone? Then it dawned on me. My heart felt as though it stopped. I called out to my husband.
What was I to do? I wanted to run to our friends but knew this was their private time, a time to be together in their grief as a family.
Meanhwile, in my alternative universe, the show clock was ticking loudly inside my head. I made a quick decision, jumped in my car, body trembling, and drove to the theatre. Backstage, everything was bustling, teeming with life, music, and colourful dancers everywhere.
I found my group. I didn’t say a word other than hello, fearful that I wouldn’t be able to keep it together. I smiled, lined up for group photos, sharing nervous glances with my fellow dancers. We entered the dark and mysterious world that is backstage. My heart was racing more than usual as I struggled to keep my tears at bay.
I thought of Larry, wondering what his advice to me would be. A man small in stature but large in presence, Larry had had a successful life in every way. A committed community builder, he’d made many an appearance on stage. Not a grandstanding man; rather, a measured, intelligent man.
Our music was cued, the first beats of the “Celine loop” started up. It was time to perform. I took a deep breath, looked up and silently vowed that this was for Larry. Miraculously, I danced the whole way through, smiling, not missing a beat as images of Larry happily smiling kept me on time and focused. Suddenly, it was over, the audience applauding generously. We took a final bow and ran from the stage as we had rehearsed.
In the darkness that constitutes the back stage, I blew a teary kiss heavenward. “Thanks Larry,” I breathed. “See you on the other side.”
My tap shoes and I went home.
Paula Aicklen is a budding writer who engages in many creative ventures and has always had a love for the written word. Paula works in Oakville as a design consultant and floral designer and hopes to mesh her writing with these pursuits.
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