SITTING IN THE ORPHEUM watching Riverdance, the shuffle-shuffle-ball-change suddenly came back to me.
A 30-year-old seed of regret, along with a couple of tricky tap combinations, bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. It could have been me up on that stage. I, too, could have tapped my way across the country with handsome Irishmen. I could have shuffled off to Buffalo. But I blew my Lawrence Welk audition.
I am breaking a code of silence, here. It is a rare friend who knows I once practiced heel-toe-heel-toe-hop-slide-slide for hours on my mother’s kitchen floor, lined up with my five siblings in order of height. I was the oldest, but not the tallest, so I had to stand second. I started dance as a preschooler. Every couple of years, a new sister was born. Once she could walk, she joined the act, wandering around the stage in a miniature costume, making the audience goo and aaah.
We were The Hill Sisters. We tapped in tutus, on individual stair steps my father built, lettered with our names in sparkly silver paint. We had matching outfits and a new act every year. We wore my mother’s lipstick, a satisfyingly sticky shade of deep red. We danced to songs like “Tijuana Taxi” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” We studied at the Virginia Luoma School of Dance and performed in revues.
And, had it not been for a tornado in Crystal, we might have been on the Lawrence Welk show.
A bubblemeister scout was coming to check us out one summer evening. All six of us, plus my mother and our teacher-who looked like Liz Taylor and wore glamorous purple leotards tied at the waist with trailing scarves, were in the basement dance studio, tapping through one last rehearsal before we hit the big time. Suddenly, there was the sound of a gigantic freight train and the splintering of wood. Then the lights went out and the water pipes exploded. The pitch-black room began to fill with water, and the feminine shrieking began. My mother was juggling babies. Our dance teacher was juggling records. At 13, I was prone to dramatic heroics. As Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Janet Lennon rolled into one, I would save everyone. I waded upstairs and opened the door.
That was the only part of the building left standing. The neighborhood was gone. Our car was upside down, across the parking lot from where we’d left it. The streets were flooded, rushing streams. Down the block, part of a little candy store was still intact. I decided to head for it, looking for a working phone so I could call my father and have him fetch us. Even in two feet of murky floodwater, it was easy to see where to step. The downed and broken power lines were snapping and sparking underwater, helpfully lighting the way for a child wearing bits of metal screwed right onto her shoes, and proving that guardian angels do exist.
When I got to the door, the shopkeeper wouldn’t let me in. I assumed he was just a crabby old poop. Now, with the hindsight of adulthood, I think it was me. He had survived a tornado reaching down and snatching up half his building, but opening his door to a chubby, red-lipsticked 13-year-old in a pink satin leotard, purple tutu, and hot pink tap shoes must have made the evening too darn Fellini-esque for a simple guy from the suburbs.
I found a phone down the street. The tornado hadn’t hit the news yet, so my father thought I was making it all up. I had to call him twice before he believed me. I went back to the studio and collected everyone. We waded through the water to the one house still standing, where we sat around a Weber grill in a roofless living room eating leftover hamburgers from a ruined cookout until my father arrived.
The lady from Hollywood never showed. The tornado scared her off, and she flew home to California. Our dance careers were over. We had seen the champagne music summit, and all else paled in comparison. The lessons, the practicing, and the performing stopped. The tutus were stuffed into the back of the cedar closet, and were only resurrected as Halloween costumes. We are grown women now, and no longer line up in order of descending height. If we did, I’d be last.
Since I’ve broken my own silence about my childhood not-quite-stardom, I’ll tell the rest of the secret. In the almost 30 years since my last night of tap dancing, there’s a secret little ritual I perform every few years. I drive myself across town to a store where ambitious mothers take their daughters of four or five, whose chubby tummies hang over the tops of their tiny pink tights. I wait until all the little girls and the fluttering, big-haired mothers are gone. First, I tell the clerk behind the counter not to laugh. And then I buy myself a brand new pair of black patent leather tap shoes. Just in case.
This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, August 1997. And yes, one of those little girls is me. I’m not telling which one.