by Mattie Updyke
after “What Did I Love” by Ellen Bass
What did I love about tap dancing? Let me start
With the rap on the floor, the cacophony
Of continuous noise that penetrated deep down
Into my core. In the large room, filled with girls who looked like twigs,
I loved the control--the only class I could
Commandeer because I was unafraid.
My weight did not matter when I had my shoes on;
I could scream with my feet or
Be soft and sigh through my knees. It was a sound
from deep within, nerve steps revealing my
racing pulse to the floor, until the beat of my
pounding heart could be heard through my shoes. I stared at
the fat woman, my teacher,
Who dared to pretend like it was anything less than
It was like a song, cutting through these
Solemn silences to make symphonies
Her awkward stops said it all, like she would rather be teaching
a flowing modern piece than making noise with her feet.
She didn’t get that it’s more than steps in succession.
To shuffle through the
Quick sharp strikes of a buffalo to
Before blowing into the explosion of a pullback?
Controlled creative expression! And yet
A dig, a toe stab into the earth
can touch deeper than a mine, a hollow sound that mimics
A miner finding gold.
Not dug too deep, but if you really look deeper
You’ll see miles of mistreated black tappers, an art borne out of
Slavery and oppression, sanitized of its authenticity then
Fed back to the masses. An escape from inequality and
Aggression now seen as party tricks,
Taught by people who do not wish to teach it honestly.
I glared at her red face and watched my class pretend to care,
A group of thin, rich white girls slipping in their shiny shoes,
Taking tap class because they wanted brownie points. I
Looked at myself; another white girl, but thicker and smaller,
Shuffling in her space because she knew she’s out of place,
Despite her desire to be there.
As they giggle with her and waste my class time not teaching,
My steps become clearer the angrier I feel.
I hated the superficiality of what she taught. Smoke and mirrors. Fake.
But my tap, true tap? I loved it because it is angry.
It’s real--rhythm cannot lie
Sounds don’t hide, but people do.
I could yell at her without opening my mouth,
Stomping that tap is so much more complex than this
Off-broadway bullshit she’s attempting to sell us.
It’s falling through the shifts and the slides, it’s struggling through
muddled sounds that make your ears clog, and knees
slathered in gel and ice from the bruises. It’s practicing
until it’s better than perfect, until the steps
are memorized into the sinews of my muscles. It’s the
sweat that drips across my face and down my back,
it’s the grimaces I get from my neighbors
after two hours of tapping in my basement.
It’s knowing that my love of tap means that I value
Something the rest of them cannot begin to understand;
that metal refuses to conceal the truth.
She calls on me, noticing I spaced out, and I move
my legs, mimicking her motions perfectly.
She turns back to the thin bitches, and I relax,
Continuing to flex my ankles in quiet rebellion.