I talked to Gene Medler backstage at the dress rehearsal for today's North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble performances (two shoes, 2 and 7 pm, Carolina Theater).
Gene's story illustrates living Plan B.
He was talking about how much he enjoys teaching tap at Elon College when I asked: "Can people as old as college students become good tappers?"
"Well, I was 28 when I started," he said.
I asked how it happened -- it must have been when tap was pretty unpopular. Tap, like the accordion, went through a profound period of unhipness before it became rehabilitated in recent years.
He told me he'd been out of graduate school for a while and was doing a little acting for fun. "Mostly sword carrying." In one show his character took tap-dancing lessons. He really liked it and continued taking lessons after the show was over.
But back up. "You went to graduate school? In what?" "Phys Ed. I wanted to be a coach." Gene is very tall. "Basketball?" "No, fencing." "So you wanted to be a fencing coach, but you were acting, and while you were acting, you got into tap-dance?" "Yes, and I started teaching it to my hippy friends. Sometimes I learned something and taught it to my friends the next day. I learned it better that way."
"Was it the first time you'd ever seen tap?" "No, my dad knew a little. He was a minor-league baseball player and picked it up from a Puerto Rican team-mate on one of the farm teams. He could do a little soft-shoe." Gene demonstrated a little soft-shoe while singing "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" under his breath. "I thought it was pretty cool. Oh, I would have been embarrassed if he'd ever done it in public, but in the garage, it was pretty cool."
"What really made me decide to stick with tap was going to the "Word of Foot" festival at the Village Gate in New York in 1980. All the greats were there. [Gene rattled off about twenty names but I can't remember them except John Bubbles.] I took lessons there with Gregory Hines. After that, I had a troupe for a while, the Taptations. But I always loved teaching.
"In 1982 I had ten kids tapping, five boys and five girls, and they were really good. And I said 'let's not just have a recital this year, let's start a company. I'll make up all the dances and we'll put on a show.'" (Shades of Mickey Rooney!)
It eventually became the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, through which year after year Gene crafts excellent performances with a couple dozen (or more) kids from 6 to 18, kids with boundless energy, in constant overdrive but engaged, focused, and completely devoted to Gene and the task at hand.
Gene is a great teacher. Mild and calm, never surprised, angry, or rattled - just right for the director of 40 hyper-active kids. He paces himself cause he's in it for the long haul.
The kids love him to pieces and they all cry, boys and girls both, when they have to graduate high school and leave him. He's got pieces of himself all over the planet in the hearts of his former students, many of whom are still tapping away.
Update: The shows today were lovely. The kids were little dancing dervishes and Gene got out there and shook a leg himself. A tiny tapper played her violin with me on one number. Life is good.
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