capezio entered my vocabulary around the age of 8. there was a dance studio on 5th street, between main and omaha, on the east side of the street. it was a white brick building, with store front windows and inside there was a small, wooden stage, ballet barres and a mirrored wall, if you were passing by, either on foot or in a car, you would be hard-pressed not to look inside and see what was happening–the action of dancing feet and little girls in tutus is irresistible to women, girls, fathers and future gay men. once i realized that i could actually learn how to dance i insisted on taking tap lessons–it’s quite possible that there was a tantrum/fit of pique/tears involved in order to get my way–there’s not much an only child of my particular temperament can’t do that doesn’t result in some form of self-gratification (somewhat tempered since then).
it may be that i had watched too much ed sullivan, jackie gleason or some other variety show on tv, it may be that i was having busby berkeley dreams, (who wouldn’t, i ask you), even though at that age i couldn’t have known a busby from a berkeley, but it had to have been something like that to have spurred my interest in taking dance classes. i believe now that the adulation of adults was to me the most important form of respect (and the dearest) i could evoke during my childhood and to be on a stage, whether in a school play or dancing or reciting or debating, it didn’t matter, as long as adults were paying attention to me was the quickest road to that reward (achieving academic success an also ran in this heat). it didn’t hurt that it saved me from being bullied as well for my effeminacy (do you see how close to effemi ‘nancy’ that is?) i’m not girly, mind you, nor was i then, but i gesture, i pose, i am theatrical. i can’t help it (you know that old canard, “it’s like breathing itself,” well, that’s the truth and there may be those of you who know exactly whereof i speak.)
so, tap. once my mother capitulated to my demands and enrolled me in beginning tap, the next item on the agenda was tap shoes. capezio capezio capezio, i couldn’t get enough of tights and leg warmers and tap shoes. in order to get my size in boy’s tap shoes we would have had to order them which was completely unacceptable as i knew that if i had to wait the possibility of my mother changing her mind — i mean when she saw me tapping my little heart out, wouldn’t she realize how important this was to me? — how proud she’d be that i was so successful and admired, twirling, a tapping (step, ball change and turn) virtuoso, so young, so vibrant, such a star! waiting would not do, what about those there, i cried, pointing to a pair of black patent leather women’s tap shoes with black grosgrain ribbons that tied across your instep–those would fit me, please, please, please.
“but they’re for women, robert, you should wait for a pair of men’s to come in, it would be better if you did that,” she said with a hint of concern in her voice. but my need was too great and she relented and i proudly held the box with the women’s tap shoes in my lap like a favored lapdog as she drove us home. did i tell you i was the only boy in the class? i probably should have mentioned that earlier in the story lest you think i am embellishing; i assure you i am not. as long as we were in class, there wasn’t much fuss about the shoes and i have to say i loved everything about moving my feet to music. i would practice at home in the kitchen on the linoleum floor when i got home from school in the afternoon, and sometimes i would close the front drapes (is that a regionalism, drapes instead of curtains?) and twirl through the front room, from the hexagonal hallway on a diagonal through the living room and up to the full length mirror that hung on the coat closet door in the foyer–foyer does sound grander than what we really had, which was a closet on one side of the front door and a long narrow white wicker planter (the home to several chameleons over the years) filled with variegated philodendron on the other separating the entryway from the living room.
you did note that i closed the drapes, didn’t you? it wasn’t so i could do something perverse mind you, but this dancing thing was still new to me and i didn’t want an audience outside of my classmates and my mother until i was ready for the first recital. this is also about the time when my mother was frantically trying to find manly role models for me. Our prudential life insurance salesman, a handsome young man, newly married, became my ‘big brother’, but it didn’t last — “the demands of my job are such that i just don’t have the time, mrs. patrick,” he said (with what i noted as a distinct sigh of relief, although his backing out didn’t particularly perturb me, nor did i think it had anything to do with me, which is how children operate more often than not; their universe is parallel to that of adults and as long as there is no harm or abuse–both parties are quite happy leaving it that way.)
after the big brother thing fizzled out, i got enrolled in the boys club which was down by rapid creek, but still on the north side of town in a big concrete brick building with a small library (where i spent all of my time–my mother thought my character would benefit by being around older boys and the coaches that volunteered at the club–but i was afraid of them–that came out too easily–what i knew then is that i wouldn’t fit in with them–i didn’t know the secret handshakes of straight men and boys, that roughness didn’t appeal to me in the way it was intended and i often found myself on the sidelines watching, waiting i believe for a lightening bolt to spark out of the sky and strike me, transform me, into one of them, it would have been a minor miracle.)
as if all of this wasn’t enough, i became a cub scout. which was horrible; the badges, the constant striving, the harridan who was the den “mother”, with her cigarette breath and aquanet-sprayed bouffant (do you remember the smell of hair spray?), cajoling, bribing, pushing, i loathed it–another opportunity to beseech my mother (with a tear or two), “please don’t make me go to cub scouts,” i’d cry and except for the smokey the bear ‘play’ we put on (see photo above, inscribed on the back “i’m the tree!” in my best nine-year-old script, sent to my paternal grandmother — and sent back to me years after her death by a relative cleaning out her house.) you know, even though it was cub scouts, it was still being on stage and that, for the moment, trumped the anguish of not fitting in with the other boys.
i was pretty lucky after all. try as she might, my mother eventually gave up trying to make me something i wasn’t and accepted the fact that i didn’t fit the model, that i wasn’t going to be the boy she had thought (did she hope for a different boy? i don’t know.) she was raising. the irony, of course, is that throughout this time, my mother was in a lesbian relationship.
“but robert,” you may have asked yourself, “what about the tap classes, the women’s tap shoes, surely there’s more to that story?” and you would be right, but unfortunately i don’t know what it is. there may have been some embarrassment, there may not have been. i believe there was a recital, but i don’t remember it at all (i’ve been waiting to write this segment, to finish the “child care” chapter, waiting for the memory to surface for some weeks now, but no matter how i try to jog my memory, nothing surfaces. oh, well.) i do know this, after tap lessons i took ballet and modern dance. when i went to college i took more dance classes, studying with lar lubovitch and yuriko kikuchi (a martha graham dancer) in master classes. in chicago, not only did i study with estelle spector at the goodman school, but she arranged to have us take classes with the newly formed chicago ballet led by the indomitable ruth page. i was never going to be a famous dancer, i knew that (one can always hope though), but stardom — whatever that is — didn’t matter as much to me, what mattered was that it made me feel like me and not someone else, or what other people were expecting me to be. it gave expression to who i was, not the boy of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails — okay, that was partly me too, but even though it may have tried their patience, the adults in my life let me explore outside of those confines, maybe even with a sigh of relief at my happiness.