Who would have thought that tap class would teach me about how to be a better activist? Certainly not me. And to be honest, I’m not sure that my partner Mariann had that in mind when, earlier this year, she urged me to dust off my tap shoes and revisit a hobby that had been such an important part of my life back when I was a teenager, 20 years ago. Mariann simply thought that I needed a new activity, something that would effectively get me out of head, force me into my body and into the moment, and — if for just 90 minutes a week — give me something else to think about besides animals. Rather than dusting off my old taps, I bought new ones. Vegan ones. Glittery, silver, fabulous ones that everyone asks me about. “They’re vegan,” I proudly proclaim at least once every time I’m at my tap school. Let’s just call that taptivism.
At the American Tap Dance Foundation, I re-entered tap class as an “Absolute Beginner.” I realized pretty quickly that I had sold myself short, and — truthfully — I felt like a bit of an asshole when everyone around me was trying to master the basic shuffle and I was effortlessly doing pull backs across the floor. Apparently, your brain (and your foot memory) has a compartment specifically devoted to things like flap-ball-change. (Perhaps that’s why I can never find my glasses — even when they’re on my face. My subconscious mind is preoccupied remembering how to dance, leaving no space left for finding things.) I was quickly humbled, however, when I realized that — for the life of me — I could not remember a goddamn routine. Sure, I’ve got the moves when they are isolated. But to string them all together? Apparently that compartment of my brain became defunct on this side of 30.
Happily, I soon graduated from Absolute Beginner to straight up Beginner. Huzzah! I was surprised to learn that many of the folks in my class were moved to start tapping for the same reason as me: They took it as a kid, quickly got weighed down by the stress of paying bills and finishing work projects, and somewhere along the way, they lost their fun. Someone in their life noticed that they were constantly waxing poetic about their old days of performing and practicing, and said person urged them to try it again, because why not? (A childhood friend of mine recently started taking an adult gymnastics class for the same reason, and she gets the exact same thrill from it as I get from tap.)
“Beginner” tap was not only much more my speed, but it was actually extremely challenging. I should note that my tap school does not (currently) offer “advanced” classes — they have Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Fast Beginner, and Advanced Beginner. So it’s all relative, I suppose. Regardless, I was now one of the slow kids in the class — and I was petrified. I actually have no idea why I’m speaking in past tense here: I am petrified, every single time I walk into my class. Sometimes, it seems that the only thing I have going for me are my cute shoes. Even my goddamn bunion is out to get me; it wonders why I couldn’t have chosen a hobby like flying a kite, or speed-reading.
And yet, every single week, I return — petrified, yes, but feeling absolutely electric. Sometimes I am so stupidly happy to be there that I could literally start weeping (which probably wouldn’t go over with my tough-as-nails bad-ass teacher, who is so wildly talented and renowned that I am truly privileged to learn from her). There is simply nothing greater than being forced to be in the moment. If you’re not, you will miss a vital part of the routine, and it will be nearly impossible to pick it up later.
Even when I suck, I love it. It’s frivolous. It’s fun. Plus, there’s a degree of anonymity in it that I find myself craving. For 90 minutes, you are in a room with a bunch of strangers — they don’t know you, and they don’t want to. You don’t know them, and you don’t care to. But still, you’re in it together, as one big noise-making machine. For me, as someone whose life revolves around animal rights and activism, it’s shockingly refreshing to go into a room and not have to talk about gestation crates, or lapsed vegan celebrities, or a letter to the editor opportunity. As Mariann so wisely sensed when she said “take a tap class,” the truth is, I do need a break from that sometimes. Even when I go running, my mind reels around my work. I love that time — I find it surprisingly productive — but I ain’t in the moment, that’s for sure.
Actually, the anonymity I look forward to in tap was recently punctured when I accidentally made a good friend. She asked me to email her the iPhone video of our teacher doing our routine at the end of class (sidenote: this kind of technology would have helped me tremendously back in the day when I used to work so hard to perfect my routines, tapping my little teenage heart out in Metuchen, NJ). I sent the video to her. She noticed my email signature — Executive Director, Our Hen House. We got into a conversation about animals. Turns out she and her partner love animals, and have been advocating for them for years. Her partner is a songwriter and has included pro-animal messaging in many of her pieces. Before long, we met for dinner at NYC’s vegan mainstay, Blossom. One thing led to another and my friend began to embrace veganism. We even took a trip to an animal sanctuary together. And every Wednesday, we still see each other “across a crowded room,” flapping, shuffling, and attempting a left cramp roll. In the last place I could have expected it, I made a friend. A really cool, interesting, smart, funny, and hopefully lifelong friend.
I don’t totally understand how this little hobby that I rekindled a few months back has so quickly entrenched itself into my heart, but yet, there it is. And going back to how I began this, I hope you’ll indulge me for another moment and allow me to spell out for you some of the lessons I have learned from tap that I think can directly pertain to animal activism.
- Building, finding, and fostering community is vital. This is the first community I have been involved with since I became an animal rights activist ten years ago. It is so clear to me that the “small town” feel that goes along with this new group of comrades is partly what fuels me, reminding me that, as activists, we must always have a safe space. For those who are not immersed in a world of vegans and fellow activists, as I am, it is especially important — in order to be in it for the long run — that you find and foster a group of like-minded folks with whom you can be yourself.
- Clapping for one another when we take our turn across the floor is soul food. This surprised me and delighted me. In tap, when people take their turn across the floor, the rest of the class whoops and hollers. That moment is about them, and we’re there to support them. Period. And it feels good all around. We appreciate them and we appreciate their effort. I think this is important for activists to remember partly because we can get caught up in silly in-fighting sometimes — and that’s just plain toxic. Refocus your attention on those who are doing their best to get across the floor, and give them some love, would ya?
- Having others clap when it’s your turn means more than you might realize. Also surprising! I was actually pretty embarrassed the first time I shuffle-ball-changed across the room, got to the other side, and saw a group of smiling and cheering strangers looking back at me. But then I was smiling too. And hey, I had given it my all, so why shouldn’t I be applauded?
- Celebrate the small victories. Such as when I finally understood how to do a “slurp.” (I’m honestly not sure if that’s the official term or if that’s just what my teacher calls it.) In animal rights, sometimes progress can feel sickeningly slow. But good things are happening for animals. The world is changing. Rather than constantly lamenting about how slowly that change is coming, notice what is happening, and celebrate that. There will be plenty of time to be sad and angry later.
- Staying in the moment has its place. As I mentioned, in tap, if I let my mind wander for even just a moment, I am lost. Totally and completely. I guess what this has taught me is to not constantly worry solely about the end result. It’s important to remain true to the process. This especially holds true for activist campaigns. Frequently, there are several steps and markers before the campaign is considered finished. Be there with it. If you’re not, you might get confused and miss an important step (ball change).
- Connections come in unexpected places. Tap was the last place on earth I thought I’d make a friend — let alone a vegan convert friend! In activism, you just never know how your life will change. I’m not only talking about personal connections (which you will find), but also other connections as well. Animal rights activism, for example, has opened my eyes to so many other social justice movements. As I said, connections come in unexpected places.
- Finding someone to look up to is important. For me — and this won’t be surprising for anyone who knew me when I was a teacher-loving kid — I am in absolute awe of my teachers. I’ve had three there so far, and all three have taught me something different about how to improve my technique. As activists too, we must always have role models and mentors. Kim Sturla, the mastermind behind the sanctuary, Animal Place, is just one of mine.
- You might find that someone looks up to you, too. A few weeks ago after class, someone approached me and asked how I am so good at pull backs. It’s true — I am good at pull backs. I am mediocre at best at most other steps, but something about me and pull backs are apparently simpatico. We get each other. It’s likely due to my childhood tap teacher, Michelle, who I think about so frequently on Wednesday evenings. She had really drummed those pull backs into me. Anyway, the point is that I didn’t know that anyone else noticed my pull back ability. And yet someone did, and she wanted tips from me on how she could get that little “click” that comes when the move is done right. My point is, even if you don’t realize it, someone is noticing what you’re good at — and you are likely someone’s mentor. So chin up. You’re being watched, and admired. You have more experience than someone. You’ve thought the issues through more than someone. You’re doing it just right, making it “click” just so, and someone wants what you, my dear, have got.
- Embrace what you’re good at. Truthfully, I’m not (yet) very good at a lot of tap moves. But, as of last night, I know how to make a cramp roll get that delicate and quick “buh-duh-duh-duh” (on the right side, anyway). And, as far as my role in changing the world for animals, I know I’m a good podcast show host, a good writer, and a good activist liaison. I own that. What are you good at?
- Challenge yourself to get better at what you suck at. With tap, that’s most things! I must, for example, get better at learning how to remember a routine. It’s infuriating, really. I’ve got to practice more often, that is for certain. And with activism, I could certainly stand to learn a thing or two about the legislative process. We need more laws to protect animals, and when it comes to policy, each our voices are hugely important. I have to understand how that process works a little better. And so I will learn that routine, too.
- Sweat a little. It feels good. It gets your juices flowing. Be passionate about what you’re doing, and don’t shy away from the hard work. Being out of breath is not a bad thing.
- Use your core muscles, and other muscles you didn’t know you had. With tap, I am truly shocked at how frequently I am told to “engage my ass.” My ass is more important than I ever realized. And it’s sore these days, too. But engaging it will apparently make me the good tapper that I know I can be. With activism, it’s also important, from time to time, to engage new muscles, and try on new projects for size.
- Be consistent. You made a promise to yourself. The friend I made in tap is a perfect example of this. Her New Year’s Resolution had been to learn how to tap, and nowadays, she goes three to four times a week — no matter what. She made this promise to herself, and she is seeing it through. When we go vegan, it is a promise we are making to the animals — those who are so extremely less lucky than we are, and those whose voices are squelched by everybody, all the time, in dire, horrible ways. What is your life’s mission? Is it to change the world for animals? There is a way in for each of us to do just that, and it is up to us to figure out how to do that in a way that works for us, in a way we can be excited about.
- Show up. If I didn’t prioritize going to my tap class, then I swear to God my life would be way too hectic to go. I frequently up and leave about fifteen opened projects in order to take my little class. I’m stressed out the entire way there, but once I’m there, I’m so grateful to myself for showing up. The projects will get done — and I might have to work late in order to make that happen. But I’ve got to show up, or I will be cheating myself. And with animal activism, if we don’t show up, we’re not only cheating ourselves, but we’re also cheating the animals.
If you feel like sharing, I’d love to know some of the things — not animal related — that you’re passionate about? Are you able to relate it to your activism?