Encore Performance: How One Woman's Passion Helped a Town Tap Into Happinessby Vicki G. Riordan, Brian Riordan
Billy Elliot meets The Golden Girls in this inspiring true story of a woman who learned that it’s never too late to live the life you want.
The inspiring true story of a woman who learned that it’s never too late to live the life you want
As a young girl growing up in the 1950s in central Pennsylvania, Vicki Grubic Riordan/b>/i>/i>
Billy Elliot meets The Golden Girls in this inspiring true story of a woman who learned that it’s never too late to live the life you want.
The inspiring true story of a woman who learned that it’s never too late to live the life you want
As a young girl growing up in the 1950s in central Pennsylvania, Vicki Grubic Riordan idolized stars like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly. She soon found her calling as a dance instructor, but like many baby boomers, she put her passion on hold to focus on starting a family. Only when her marriage ended and she was left with little means of support for herself and her two young sons did Vicki return to her first true love: teaching dance. In doing so, she found much more than a way to make a living: she found a way to make a difference. With her exuberant personality, infectious enthusiasm, and unwavering belief in the magic of movement to make even the darkest times better, Vicki has inspired thousands of women to do things they never dreamed possible.
At the age of sixty-two, when her peers were thinking about retirement, Vicki opened the doors to what has become America’s largest adult tap dancing studio. She has gone from teaching fifty students a year to teaching more than five hundred, and thanks to Vicki, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has become the unofficial tap capital of the world and the home of her celebrated “Tap Pups.” The majority of the women (and a handful of men) in her classes are in their fifties and sixties, but instead of yielding to the expectation that they’d be slowing down at this stage of life, tap has helped them to get in touch with their own natural rhythm.
Tap helped Anni, 56, get through a difficult divorce with grace. It gave Betsy a newfound self-confidence, and at 57 she was inspired to wear eye makeup for the first time in thirty years. And when Jeanne, 62, was diagnosed with cancer, the Tap Pups rallied to offer their full support. Vicki’s students come from all walks of life: teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, insurance agents, therapists, CPAs, retirees—married, divorced, single, and widowed—but through dancing together, no matter their innate talent or years of experience, Vicki’s Tap Pups have found a potent source of friendship, vitality, and fulfillment.
After years of putting everyone else first, these women know that now it’s their time to shine. In Encore Performance, Vicki inspires readers of all ages to listen to the beat of their own hearts and dance through life as they were born to do.
“The struggles that [Vicki Riordan] and her dancers face, especially as older women facing retirement, are easily relatable, and her story is inspiring.” –Kirkus Reviews
"Riordan's story is sweet and inspirational." Publishers Weekly
- Atria Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.02(d)
Read an Excerpt
• • •
Sunday, June 12, 2011
EVEN BEFORE I TURN THE CORNER TO THE THEATER, I CAN SEE THEM ARRIVING.
They’re streaming along the sidewalks, carrying carefully ironed costumes in plastic dry cleaning bags, loaded down with coolers and folded lawn chairs. They’re in groups, or two by two, chatting and smiling, coming from every possible direction. A few of the ladies see me and try to wave, but they’re carrying too much stuff, so they have to jump up and down to say hello. I give a short honk of the horn, a quick wave, and a big smile.
On any other day of the week, these streets would be busy with state workers making their way to the giant gray municipal buildings just behind us. This is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and like any state capital across the country, it’s a city where people work in departments with a capital D, where the jobs start at nine and end at five—a workaday universe of offices and cubicles and business suits. But today Harrisburg has glamour. Today the city belongs to these women.
Most of the ladies live within a few miles of here. Many of them will be walking these same sidewalks to the office on Monday. Some are stay-at-home moms with small children. Some are empty nesters with grown children. Many are retired. Some have lived here all their lives; others have moved here from states across the country. The majority of them are grandmothers, although there are some in their twenties and thirties too. In almost every way, the ladies carrying their costumes are like any other women you’d find living in any midsized city anywhere in America, but with one important exception: every one of them is a tap dancer.
In Harrisburg, we’re part of the culture. If you ask people here if they know about our group, the answer is usually “Yes, I’m a tap dancer,” or “Yeah, my mom is a dancer,” or “I’ve seen those ladies in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.” I know dancers who practice their riffs while pushing their shopping carts in the supermarket, because the hard tile floors are perfect for tapping. One lady taps while she walks her dog each morning. When she passes the same elementary school, all the kids give her the thumbs-up. It’s not unusual to see a dancer perfecting a routine while standing by an elevator, or waiting for a bus, or sitting at a table at a restaurant. There’s not another city in the country that’s home to so many adult tappers. We’re the town that loves to tap.
Today is the morning of June 12, the most important day on our calendar. It’s our annual spring show, when we perform for our family, friends, and fans, raising thousands of dollars for charity. As I pull up in my car, I see my dancers filing up to the giant iron doors along six separate pathways in the shape of a sunburst—Busby Berkeley couldn’t have choreographed it better. I glance at my watch. In less than six hours, it’ll be showtime. My son Brian climbs out of the passenger’s seat, and we begin unloading big plastic containers filled with all the dancers’ accessories: pink and black feather hair clips; chiffon scarves in aqua, black, white, red, and polka dot; pink sequined wristbands; silver and red sequined hatbands; and red sequined gloves. With the boxes piled high in our arms, we join the stream of dancers going inside.
As we push open the double doors to the backstage area, the sound of tapping and voices just explodes. Dancers are everywhere: chatting, taking photographs. Others are lined up down the long hallway, practicing their arm movements, and the clatter of their taps is ricocheting off the walls. One group is using a storage area as a dressing room; the rest are using the bathrooms, the green room, and the locker rooms to lay out makeup bags, costume bags, and curling irons. The four men who will be dancing alongside all these ladies today have their own dressing room, otherwise known as the men’s bathroom. I adore these guys—and so do all of my ladies. These men are here strictly for the love of tapping, and they’re not intimidated by doing it alongside all these women.
In the long, wide corridor behind the stage, the ladies have already staked out their areas for the day. They’ve unfolded their lawn chairs and are sitting along the walls, tailgating on the marble floors. They’re preparing for a long day of rehearsals before showtime, with breakfast from the big open coolers at their feet. Everyone is wearing comfortable clothes, sweats, and T-shirts. The costumes come later. Backstage looks like a large outdoor family reunion.
Brian and I leave our boxes of accessories next to the green room and head for the stage. As we walk out from the wings, we see that the production crew has already set up the giant nine-and-a-half-foot V-shaped light in the center of the stage. During the show, the V will flash white and aqua—our signature colors. V for Vicki, my name; V for Vicki’s Tap Pups, our group.
It was my students who came up with the name Tap Pups. A month after I started teaching my first adult tap class in 1997, Brian took me to see the Philadelphia production of the Tap Dogs, an Australian men’s tap group. I was instantly taken with them and talked incessantly about the Tap Dogs to my class. After our first year together, my original seventeen dancers presented me with a birthday gift. The card read, “We realize we will never be as good as your Tap Dogs, but we can at least be your Tap Pups.” My gift was a T-shirt that read, “Vicki’s Tap Pups.”
The name stuck.
As I look out across the huge circular auditorium, with its four tiers of seats, I see different groups of dancers pacing out their steps for the show, arms linked, feet flying. No one looks up. No one wants to forget a step. For nine months now, these ladies have been coming to their classes once a week, some twice a week, or more, to perfect the routines they’ll be performing today. Seven levels of dancers appearing in fourteen different numbers, each with a different style, different costumes, and different challenges. Now that the big day is finally here, it’s easy to spot the ladies who are nervous. They’re the ones spending every spare second going over the choreography, as if their lives depended on it.
In the small hallway that leads to the stage door, I see a group from one of my New Beginner classes helping one another remember a complex sequence they’ll be performing this afternoon. In the middle of the six of them stands Jana, fifty-four years old, a tall woman with straight, bobbed blonde hair and long, graceful arms. Although she’s just one dancer out of many, Jana’s story is true of so many of my Tap Pups.
Ever since she was a little girl, Jana always knew that she’d like to learn to tap-dance, but as a child, she’d never gotten that chance. By the time Jana was old enough to make her own decisions in life, she found herself too busy juggling family, work, and home to make time for her own interests. Only when she was older, and when her children left home, did she realize that this was her time. Maybe she could finally do something for herself. But what activities were there for Jana? For women like us? Not much. She kept hearing experts on TV telling her that she needed to find a passion in order to be fulfilled, but for many reasons, Jana didn’t feel confident that she could try something new. Besides, she never thought of herself as much of a “joiner”—she preferred doing things alone, or with her family.
At this point, Jana had no idea that tap classes for adults even existed. Like most people, she assumed tap lessons were for little girls. Then fate took over.
Jana works as an occupational therapist, helping people recuperate from injuries and surgeries. Last summer she was meeting with one of her clients, a woman in her seventies named Elsa, who had recently beaten breast cancer. Jana always asks new patients about their hobbies so that she can get a better idea of how they spend their time. It turned out that Elsa was a tap dancer.
The very next day, Jana met with another new client, Joan. She was also taking tap lessons. Two tap dancers in the same week! This piqued Jana’s interest.
She didn’t think too much more about it until a few days later she met with a client named Jeanne. This lady was also—you guessed it—a Tap Pup.
“You’re my third client this week who’s a tap dancer!” Jana exclaimed.
“I don’t have much rhythm,” Jana told the lady in her consulting chair. “I don’t know if I would be able to keep up.”
Jeanne, who was in her sixties, assured her, “Don’t worry! Vicki breaks everything down for you. Trust me, you’re going to love it. Everyone does.”
Later that day, Jana sent me a note requesting information about my classes.
I can still picture her on her first day of class last September. It was a Tuesday night, and Jana arrived at my studio wide eyed and clutching her black-and-white tap shoes in their box, looking like she couldn’t wait another minute to put them on. I’ve been teaching tap to adults for fourteen years now, but I still get a kick out of seeing the new dancers’ faces as they lace up their tap shoes for the first time. Jana was no exception. She wore the kind of smile you’d expect to see on a child opening presents on Christmas morning.
Jana took a few tentative steps, like she was walking across hot coals, and her smile faded. Then she got a little bolder—click, click, click—and her smile returned. The class hadn’t even begun, but Jana had already learned the first lesson of being a Tap Pup: it feels good to make noise.
Right away, I asked the dancers to form three long lines in front of me from one side of the room to the other. Jana chose a spot in the back line.
“I’m about to say the four words you’ve been waiting a lifetime to hear,” I announced to my new beginners. “WELCOME TO TAP CLASS!” Everyone laughed and class began.
For most people, tapping doesn’t come easily. There’s a reason you never see tap routines on So You Think You Can Dance: it takes a lot longer than a week to master even the most simple combination. In order to get that true, solid tap sound, you have to find the “sweet spot” right in the middle of the ball of your foot. And to do this, you have to shift the weight to your toes instead of your heels. It feels completely unnatural at first. When you walk, you always hit your heels first, but when you tap, you have to lead with the balls of your feet instead.
Most of the New Beginners were struggling as they took their first steps, which is natural, seeing as they were wearing tap shoes for the very first time. By contrast, Jana was picking up everything I showed her quite easily and by the end of the hour, she was tapping naturally. She left class that night pink in the face from working so hard, smiling from ear to ear.
Jana came back to class week after week, making new friends and quietly pushing herself. Tap is so complex, it makes people want to try it again and again, to figure it out. It’s a challenge, but in a good way. When you’re tapping, you’re completely focused on the intricacy of what you’re doing. There’s something about the connection between your mind and the sounds of your taps that allows you to forget everything else. It’s hard to think about what you’re going to make for dinner, or the boss who made you feel bad at work, or the guy who didn’t call you back. All you can focus on is the steps. It’s like meditation in motion.
It’s also a lot of fun. Remember that famous scene with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain? Remember the smile on his face even though he’s soaked to the skin? Well, in the movie, he says it’s because he’s in love. But I think it’s simply because he’s tap dancing. Nothing else gets the endorphins flowing in quite the same way. When you’re tapping, you’re completely in the moment. When it’s working—and it was definitely working for Jana—it just flows.
As we got closer to the date of this year’s spring show, I knew that I wanted to put Jana in the front row so that the other dancers could follow her footwork when it came time to perform. One evening, I went over to Jana and told her quietly that I wanted her to move to the front line.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yes. I want you to go to your new spot each week when you arrive.” I put my hand on her shoulder and walked her to the front line, moving different dancers from one line to another to make room for her. Jana was blushing, but she was smiling too.
“Class, from now on, Jana will be dancing in the front line,” I told them. “She’s doing so well that I want you to be able to watch her feet as well as watch mine. No pressure, Jana!”
Jana beamed, and the class laughed. Until now they had no idea that Jana was such a good dancer, because she was always in the back row, but by the end of the session, Jana had proved her worth.
Afterward, Jana came to find me in my office.
“Vicki, I have to tell you something,” she said. “When I arrived at class this evening, I was planning to tell you that I needed to quit.”
“Oh, no!” I replied. “Why? You’ve been doing so well!”
Jana explained that her husband had recently undergone knee surgery and her mother-in-law was not well. She was taking care of both of them right now, and she felt she didn’t have enough energy for tap too.
“But now that you’ve put me in the front row, I can’t quit!” she told me. “I love to tap. And if you think I have potential, then I’m going to stay.”
“Jana, you belong here,” I replied.
I had no idea she was thinking of leaving, but by putting her in the front row, I’d helped Jana to realize that tap was important to her, that it made her feel good, and that she was good at it.
That night, Jana became a true Tap Pup. She stumbled upon her passion.
ONCE upon a time, I made my own very first tap sound.
I was just three years old when my mother took me by my hand to my first dance class. That was sixty-one years ago, but I can still remember looking up at a white building with a bright pink door on what seemed to be the steepest hill in Harrisburg. I could hardly wait to see what was behind it. Later my mom told me that she had to scrape pennies together to afford those classes, but at the time, I had no idea about her sacrifice. All I knew was that the pink door looked like the entrance to fairyland, and when I stepped inside, I entered another world. It was a place that felt about as exciting and glamorous as anything I could imagine.
At first I took tap and ballet. Eventually, I also took classes in jazz, acrobatics, and baton twirling, but from the beginning, tap was my favorite. Tap was unlike any other form of dance. Tap was fast. It was exciting. Ballet felt so slow and dull by comparison. Most important, tap came with the coolest shoes. When I put them on my feet, I wasn’t just moving in rhythm, I was making noise. From an early age, I knew that the crisp, clean sound of a steel tap on a hard floor is one of the best sounds in the world. As a young girl growing up at a time when little girls were expected to be quiet and demure, tap taught me that it was okay to put my foot down. It gave me permission to be bold. “The louder the better!” our tap teacher told us.
When you’re a child, you don’t have to think much about which activities you enjoy the most. You don’t wonder to yourself, “What’s my passion in life?” You just know. So at age three, I knew that I loved to dance. Sunday afternoons, my aunt Dutch would come over. She was my mom’s sister, and because she never had her own children, Aunt Dutch was like a second mother to me. As soon as she entered the door, we’d go into the dining room and roll up the rug. Then my mother would open the lid to the portable record player, pop a record onto the spindle, drop the needle on the disc, and after a fuzzy click, the music would begin.
We usually listened to Glenn Miller, but we also played Perry Como and Tommy Dorsey—one of the big band–era classics. At the sound of the music, my mom and my aunt started snapping their fingers. Then their feet would begin to move, and before I knew it, they were hopping, turning, and jumping. They could jitterbug better than anyone I’ve ever seen. I can still see them, their faces lit up, their eyes shining.
At first I’d sit on the couch with my knees pulled up to my chin, watching and taking in everything. I loved to see my mom and aunt laughing like two little girls as they danced. Before long, they’d hold out their hands and beckon for me to join them, and I’d begin jitterbugging right alongside them. Aunt Dutch was single, so she was a regular at the ballrooms around town and in Philadelphia. Whenever she learned a new step, she’d teach it to my mom and me, always taking the lead. She’d hold out her hand, and I’d take it, using my other hand to hit her open palm, bouncing back, and spinning around. Then my mom and I would cross over, while Dutch released us and twirled.
Eventually all three of us would collapse on the sofa in happy exhaustion. I never wanted those afternoons to end. Looking back, I realize that dance was the way that I played at home. I was an only child. While other kids were out in the backyard with their brothers and sisters, I was dancing in the living room with my aunt and my mom.
I was born in 1946 in a small town called Steelton, just a few miles from Harrisburg and the theater where we’re performing today. Steelton was literally a steel town back then—the entire town revolved around the mill. My family lived in one of the row homes on the hill overlooking the Bethlehem Steel Company plants. From my bedroom window, I could see the trains making their daily deliveries of coal, and the smokestacks that overshadowed the plants pushing smoke up into the sky. At the end of each shift, the whistles blew, and hundreds of men came pouring out of the gates, each one carrying a metal lunch box, wearing a hard hat, and bearing a face black with soot.
Steelton was a true melting pot. Our neighbors were Irish, German, Italian, Serbian, Slovenian, African-American, and Croatian like my dad. The mill was a hub of constant activity and a source of pride for everyone, because all of our fathers and uncles worked there. When you drove into Steelton in those days, you saw a sign that read: Steelton, the Little Town with a Big Heart.
After the working day was over, there were four main sources of local entertainment: the taverns on every corner of Front Street; the high school sporting events where everyone gathered to watch football and basketball; the many churches; and the social clubs. Steelton had a social club for practically every ethnic group in town. The Croatians had the St. Lawrence Club; the Italians had the Italian Club; the Germans had the Dutch Club; the Slovenians had the St. Aloysius Club; and the Serbians had Serb Hall. Each of these places held regular dances, featuring everything from big band to polka nights.
Some people were tavern people, some were sports people, some were church people, some were dance people, and some were a combination. Although my mother loved to dance, overall, you could say that my parents were definitely on the sports side. When my dad, Victor Grubic, first set eyes on my mother, Charlotte Brubacher, in 1945, she was the only woman competing in the local steelworkers men’s bowling league. My mother was wearing a stylish bowling dress that she’d specially ordered out of a catalogue from the Midwest, set off with a bright red manicure and matching red lipstick.
My dad wasn’t intimidated at all. He took one look at the girl bowling like a dream and turned to a friend to say, “I’m going to marry that woman.”
Charlotte went on to win the bowling league that year with the highest season average of 177. And sure enough, three months after first meeting, she and my dad married. They would have wed even sooner if the priest hadn’t insisted that they wait for the end of Lent. Charlotte had always been a very independent person, but when she met Vic, she fell hard. My mom said she felt so safe in his arms that she let down her guard and trusted a man for the first time in her life.
Vic was twelve years older than Charlotte, tall and strong with black hair and a striking dimple in his chin. He was six foot one, and once upon a time, he’d been a star athlete: a brilliant bowler, baseball pitcher, and amateur boxer. But then, in 1941, World War II erupted. Like millions of men across the United States, he was drafted into the army, and his life took another course. He was injured in Italy. Shrapnel lodged in his back and right leg, and although he recovered initially, soon after I was born in 1946, the damage caused a disc in his spine to slip. After he underwent surgery, he was back to bowling and led a healthy life for more than a year, until the disc went a second time, and his doctors told him he’d never walk again. Although it took Vic three years, he proved them wrong and got back on his feet, but he knew he would never bowl, pitch, or box again. And so my father kept involved in sports by coaching. It was his gift. He could look at people and tell them exactly what they were doing wrong and how to fix it.
From the beginning, my dad recognized that my mom was a superb athlete and began coaching her not only in bowling but also in softball and basketball too. While five months pregnant with me, my mom entered and won her first circuit competition, the Harrisburg Ladies City Bowling Tournament. Later he coached her women’s softball team, the Harrisburg Roverettes, and soon they were competing all over the state. They were the team to beat. In most marriages at that time, the wives helped the husbands fulfill their dreams. In my parents’ marriage, the reverse was true. My dad believed in my mom’s talent and did whatever he could to nurture it.
In fact, Vic was so obsessed with sports that when I was born, he brought my mother a brand-new bowling bag as a gift—he didn’t even think to bring flowers. Of course, my dad would have loved a son, a little Vic Jr. to coach, so he was admittedly a little disappointed to find himself the father of a girl. Then, a few days after my arrival, he was given new hope. It was the hospital’s responsibility to print the birth announcement in the local newspaper, and for some reason, when my announcement appeared in the Harrisburg Telegraph, they made a mistake:
To Mr. and Mrs. Victor Grubic, a son.
My dad raced back to the hospital, clutching the newspaper.
“Are you sure they’ve given us the right baby?” he asked Charlotte. “It says in the paper we had a boy!”
“Vic, for heaven’s sakes,” my mother replied. “You saw her with your own eyes. You know we have a little girl!”
My mother tells me that it didn’t take me very long to win over my dad. When my parents brought me home a few days later, I fell asleep wrapped up in my tiny bundle of blankets, safe in my dad’s arms. From that moment on, he was smitten. He didn’t want to put me down. After a while, my mother actually had to beg him to lay me in my crib, but my dad loved for me to fall asleep lying on his chest, and that’s what I did for the first two years of my life.
Early on, my dad decided it didn’t matter that I was a girl—he was going to coach me anyway. At three, I knew how to make a proper pocket in a mitt by oiling the glove and wedging in a softball. I became the bat girl on my mom’s softball team, and loved wearing my miniature version of their uniform. But as much as I enjoyed all the attention, I knew from an early age this wasn’t my world. I hated getting dirty, I cried when I scraped my knees, and when the ball came my way, I really just wanted to duck.
Luckily for me, my mother recognized my love of dance and told my dad that she wanted to take me to classes. Growing up during the Depression, my mom had always dreamed of taking ballet or tap classes, but dance classes cost a quarter then. She came from a family of six siblings, and that was money her parents couldn’t spare. My mom wanted to give me every opportunity she’d missed. Dissatisfied with my first dance school (the one with the pink door), she moved me to another one and then another one after that, until she finally settled on the Bette Weeks Winn Academy of Dance in Harrisburg. My mother had high standards, and Miss Bette—who had once been a professional dancer—was an exceptional teacher.
I loved my Saturday morning classes, and from the beginning, my teachers started putting me in the front row so that everyone could follow my steps. From then on, I was always dancing. My mom never had to nag me to practice. After school, I’d run down to our basement, pull out my dance shoes, and go through my steps on the concrete floor.
When I was seven, my teacher wanted me to dance with the older girls. This meant attending class after school three days a week. My mother worked as a secretary for the United Steelworkers union, and my dad, forced to leave his job at the steel mill due to his back injury, was working as a security guard. Neither of them could drive me to Harrisburg on a weekday afternoon. But that didn’t stop my mother. She decided that at the age of seven, I was old enough to take the bus on my own. The weekend before I was to start my new classes, we took a bus together, and she showed me where I had to get off in Market Square and how to transfer to another bus that would take me to my class. The journey took thirty minutes, but even at age seven, I wasn’t nervous. It was an adventure. And nothing was going to stop me from getting to dance class.
I was taking six hours of classes a week: tap, jazz, ballet, baton, acrobatics, and at this point, trampoline too. Taking so many classes was becoming expensive, and my parents weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but my mother was smart. She went to Miss Bette and offered to keep her books in return for my lessons—bookkeeping was a part of my mother’s job—so that I could take as many classes as I liked. Mom could see that I’d found something that I loved to do and she was going to do everything in her power to encourage that.
From a very young age, I loved to perform. When I was seven, my mom took me to an audition for a local talent show, TV Teen Time hosted by Ron Drake. This was a big deal. In 1953 TV was still a new phenomenon in Steelton. We were one of the first families in town to get a television set, not because we had more money than anyone else but because my mom was so good at managing the money that we did have. I remember being in the second grade and sitting in the car with my parents when my dad turned around and said to me, “Vicki, in about an hour, we are having a television set delivered to our house!” I was so excited. When the TV did arrive, I raced around the house, waving my hands and screaming with excitement. It was a large brown floor model with a tiny screen and rabbit ears on top. In the end, we saw snow on that TV more than anything else—we had to constantly hit the top of it to get any reception—but even so, watching it was always magical to me.
Now I was auditioning to appear on that same TV. The tryouts were held at WHP-TV, the first television studio in Harrisburg. After I showed the producers my little routine, I was given a contract to dance on the program once a month. For the next year, on the day of the live show, I got to leave school early, and my mom would drive me to the TV station. When we arrived, I’d get dressed in one of the many costumes from my dance recitals. I still have a photo of myself in a half-moon hat with ruffles around the brim, a big bow under my chin, and wearing a satin pink-and-silver polka-dot dress with frills that my mother made for me. She even bought an extra pair of black tap shoes and painted them silver to match my outfit. As much as I loved my costume, my favorite part of the experience was coming home and hearing what my dad had to say about my performance: “Hey, princess, you made me proud again.”
After my appearances with Ron Drake, we got a call from Uncle Josh, a local Saturday morning cartoon show that featured guest performers between Casper the Friendly Ghost and the Roadrunner. The best part was that it was taped in front of a live audience of children my age. I remember feeling about as proud of myself as can be, dancing away in front of them. “I love cartoons,” I remember thinking. “And here I am on a cartoon show!”
After my TV appearances, I was hooked. I kept finding ways to get up in front of an audience and dance. One night when I was about nine years old, I was at a drive-in movie with my uncle Whitey and my cousins when at intermission, Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Shake, Rattle and Roll” played over the speakers.
“Vicki, they’re playing your song!” called out my uncle, who came to all my recitals and knew that I’d danced to that tune. “Get in front of my car and do your dance. I’ll put the car lights on you.”
Without skipping a beat, I popped out of the car and started dancing in front of the headlights. Before long, all the cars around us turned on their headlights too, and when I finished, the crowd clapped and honked their horns. I took my bow and climbed back in the backseat. Life was good!
If my dad was frustrated that I didn’t share his love of sports, he didn’t show it. At every dance recital, I’d look out and see him in the front row: a big guy with tears streaming down his face as he proudly watched his little girl dance. Right by his side sat my mom, beaming. Although my dad had no interest in dancing until I came along, he recognized that I was doing something that I loved, and he appreciated that. It would have been so much easier for him if I’d gone the sporting route, but he knew it wasn’t my passion. My mom was such a talented athlete that I never could have lived up to her achievements. Instead dance helped me carve out my identity in a family that was defined by sports, and that made me feel good about myself.
Some of my happiest childhood memories, though, take place after the annual recital was over. My parents were always extremely careful with money, but they’d make an exception this one time each year and take me to Sam’s Ice Cream Parlor in Harrisburg. The three of us always ordered the same sundae, our favorite: vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, wet nuts, whipped cream, and a cherry on top. I’d scoop up tiny spoonfuls, making each mouthful last as long as I could, while Mom and Dad told me in detail everything they liked about the show: the songs, my nonstop smiling, each costume I wore (which took awhile, because I was usually in about fourteen different routines), how they noticed that my arms were always extended about an inch above all the others. Thanks to my parents, I was able to relive every moment of the recital, and this was just as much of a treat as the sundae.
Through their love and their example, they showed me that it’s a very good thing to have a passion and to express yourself by doing something you love. During my childhood, my mom continued to be a success in sports. When I was twelve, she did something that no one else in Steelton had ever done before: she qualified for a world bowling championship. In 1958 my parents traveled to Chicago so that my mother could compete in the World’s Invitational Match Game Championship, leaving me home with Aunt Dutch. On Friday, December 12, my aunt took me to my mom’s regular bowling league in Harrisburg to watch the final game of the tournament on TV. That night, all bowling stopped at the alley so that everyone could watch my mom. When she rolled the winning ball, the entire bowling alley erupted in applause. Aunt Dutch picked me up and put me on her shoulders while all these people clapped and cheered for my mother. Somebody called the bowling alley that night to tell Aunt Dutch that work at the steel mill had been put on hold so that all of Steelton could watch Mom; they’d even blown the mill whistles to celebrate her victory. When my mom returned home, they held a parade along Front Street in her honor, and the day was declared “Charlotte Grubic Day.” The mayor gave her a key to the town, telling her that she’d put Steelton on the map. After that, my mother signed a contract with the Ebonite bowling ball company to tour the country. The tagline for the tour was “Bowl the Ball the World’s Champ Bowls.” My dad and I went with her. We’d never even been in an airplane before, and all of a sudden, we were traveling first class in a new 707 jet. I even got to go to Disneyland. This was a big deal for a family from Steelton. My mother was a celebrity, not just in our hometown but also nationally. I was so proud to be Charlotte Grubic’s daughter.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to find something she loves from such an early age. Or if she does, she might not have parents who are willing to take the trouble (or who have the means) to encourage it. My mom and dad did everything they could to support my passion and allowed me to be unapologetic about who I was and what I loved. The pleasure that both my parents took in my dancing and performing gave me the confidence and poise to hold my head up, not just as a little girl but also during the hard times that were soon to come my way.
Meet the Author
Vicki Riordan created Vicki’s Tap in 1997 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, beginning with a class of just seventeen students. The Tap Pups have opened up for Chubby Checker, Patti Labelle, and Joan Rivers. Vicki has two grown sons and two granddaughters. Please visit TapPups.com.
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