I rediscovered my love of tap, and found a new rhythm to my life

​Kathryn Tann had taken dance classes all through childhood but stopped when she was 18.A decade later she took up tap dancing again, finding a hobby which gives her joy.

I meet Tamara one morning in April; crossing the river against a tide of school runs and walking commuters, to have a coffee and talk about tap dancing. There’s no need for any warm-ups: we get straight to business. While the milk jug is still hissing in the barista’s hand, Tamara gives me a short history of her dancing life – and I give her a much shorter history of mine.

“The ten year gap is actually really common,” she says, gesturing toward me. “People who remember how much they enjoyed their years of tap dancing, and who suddenly wonder why they don’t do it any more.”

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Just over a year ago, while working on a new essay, I found myself writing unexpectedly about tap dancing. The piece was an attempt to examine why it feels like such a challenge, as a 27-year-old adult, to spend time doing something purely for the joy of it. I realised I had spent every one of my school years going to dance classes, cheerfully donning my tap shoes once a week, through all the ups and downs of child and teenagerhood. Until suddenly, I didn’t anymore.

Kathryn Tann has rediscovered her love of tap-dancing. PIC: Rob IrishKathryn Tann has rediscovered her love of tap-dancing. PIC: Rob Irish
Kathryn Tann has rediscovered her love of tap-dancing. PIC: Rob Irish

Tamara is exactly right. And it’s like waking up out of a fugue state – from that stumbling march into adulthood – and noticing that you’ve left something behind that, maybe, you didn’t want to. But so many of us did, because at 18 (or perhaps even earlier) it felt like there were two choices: a professional career, or nothing. There was scant opportunity for anything in between. I loved my hobbies, but I wasn’t talented or committed enough for them to be anything more than hobbies. And this meant that leaving them behind felt like some kind of failure.

As I wrote my way into the muscle memory of my tap dancing years, I had toyed with the idea of going back to it. The idea felt fizzy in my stomach. I even dug out my tap shoes and put them on, feeling a thrill of possibility in my feet – but I was reluctant to take the plunge. I had been lucky, as a child, to have a teacher whose top priority was for us to enjoy our Tuesday evenings. It was an approach I absolutely took for granted at the time.

This past summer, Tamara set up York Rhythm Tap – a new group in the very centre of town, running solely for the benefit of adult tappers. No syllabus or long-running routines to learn, no commitment – and no pressure.

Rhythm tap, she explains to me now, is much more relaxed than the kind of broadway tap you often find in UK classes. It’s creative, dynamic, and there are fewer rules.

“It makes no financial sense to run an adult tap group,” Tamara admits. “Usually it’s the packed out baby classes that pay the bills for teachers, and subsidise the older groups. But that’s not why I’m doing it. This isn’t my day job, it’s just what I love.”

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I leave our coffee meeting with genuine excitement. I’ve had a window into the small but incredibly friendly tap community that Tamara is a dedicated part of, and I look forward with childish delight to putting my own shoes back on.

The following week, I go along to the advanced beginners’ session – optimistic that all those years of dancing will have left enough residual fluency in my feet to dive right in.

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We warm up with easy shuffles and tap-steps. The gears creak into motion and I loosen, privately amazed that I’m here, doing this, again. I follow Tamara’s instructions, though secretly I want to burst into a tapping frenzy, to try out all the moves my body used to take such pleasure in. I feel like a giddy cow let out to pasture after a long winter in the barn. I want to gallop.

For the next 45 minutes I manage, with intense concentration, to keep up with the progression of the class. The cogs turn, and I lose the thread of the routine a few times. I remind myself that this won’t be like hitting an un-pause button on everything I used to know: it’s okay to find it hard.

At one point, I stoop to tighten my laces, and in doing so, an actual puff of dust escapes.

At the end of the session there’s a smattering of chat. I admit to the other tappers that this is the first time I’ve done it in almost a decade. One of the women grins. "And how does it feel?" She wears pink trousers and her silver hair is held back with a lime green hairband.

The word that comes to me first is confusing. “It feels familiar and alien at the same time.”

I stay for the following class: the intermediate. There are fewer of us, and I stumble at the second hurdle. There’s some muscle memory in my body messing me up, trying to do the steps it knows instead of the new steps I’m trying so hard to learn. It’s tougher than I expected, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m scrabbling, cheerfully, to grasp hold of the beat. To rediscover that brilliant thing: rhythm.

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The next morning, by wonderful coincidence, I bump into the woman with the colourful hairband in my local coffee shop. I ask her if she’s been going to the classes for long, and how she’s finding them. “A few weeks,” she says, “and I love it. I’m no tap dancer, believe me. But I don’t think that’s the point really. I’ll give anything a go.”

We talk for a while, and I tell her how it was writing about joy that had nudged me back into my tap shoes.

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“So what else?” She asks. “What other joyful things are you going to try?”

I come away with a list of enthusiastic recommendations, including a salsa class that meets in the nearby park, every Sunday through the summer.

When I first found myself writing about tap dancing, a friend of mine informed me that, contrary to its common usage now, the word ‘amateur’ actually means ‘for the love of’. We ascribe the term now to ‘unprofessional’, and in turn equate that to mean ‘bad’. Those things might well be the case, but the category is supposed to be a positive one. It’s got nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with enjoyment.

So often, we are expected to spend our precious free time on activities that benefit us in some measurable way – like improving our fitness, our skills, our social lives. But here’s an idea: what would simply improve your mood? What hobby, unfashionable or obscure as you like, would make you happy? And try this: What if you don’t have to be any good at it, either?

That essay about tap dancing became part my new essay collection, Seaglass. Writing the book was a joy in itself, but especially because of the way it led me to rediscoveries and experiences I might not otherwise have found. That was in the writing – even better if, in the reading, others might be inspired to go out and do the same.

Seaglass: Essays, Moments and Reflections by Kathryn Tann is published by Calon today, price £16.99 hardback​

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