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Tap roots

Linda Goebel helps you put your best foot forward --- and back

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If you happen to pass by St. Paul's Episcopal Church on a Monday evening, you may hear a thundering, percussive noise. If it piques your curiosity, you might walk over to the steel grates and look down through the window into an old basement gymnasium.

            There you'll find the answer to the age-old question: what is the sound of 30 feet tapping?

            In the gym that serves as a studio for Park Avenue Dance, you'll see people of all ages learning tap-dance routines choreographed to the music of a variety of composers, from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder.

            You might catch the class breaking into laughter as students temporarily overstep the invisible fence of technical skill. That's when their teacher, Linda Goebel, steps out and demonstrates, making it look beyond easy --- downright effortless. And, after another false start or two, the dancers will be doing precisely the routine that tripped them up minutes before.

            When you see tap dancing in Rochester --- from high school and college musical theater productions to classes in neighborhood recreation centers --- it's a good bet you can trace those taps back to Goebel. If she hasn't instructed the dancers themselves, she probably taught their instructor. Goebel's what's known as a teacher's teacher.

            Throughout the past 25 years, she's taught at the Orcutt-Bottsford School of Dance, School of the Arts, the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and many more. For the past 10 years she's been an instructor at Park Avenue Dance. (She also teaches at the Terry Fyke School of Dance in Scottsville and RIT.)

            "Her level of commitment is phenomenal," says Carol Hubbell, who has taken classes with Goebel and taught dance with her at School of the Arts. "Her rhythms and the way she comes up with new things are incredible. They're truly difficult. You have to be there from the first day and not miss a class."

            Shuffles, buffalos, pick ups and pull backs; soft shoe, hoofing, paddle and roll --- there is a whole world waiting behind the tap-dance door for those who choose to step into it.

            "Tap is a totally different vocabulary than any other dance form," says Goebel, who turned 50 on May 25, which happens to be National Tap Dance Day. Goebel is quick to explain that she shares a birthday with one of her heroes, Bill Bojangles Robinson; the holiday is for him.

Like one of Robinson's best-known dance partners, Shirley Temple, Goebel started dancing as a young child. She began when she was five for the simplest of reasons: the girl who lived across the street from her Chili home was taking dance lessons.

            "She stopped dancing. I never stopped," says Goebel, whose childhood was far from easy. She was eight years old when her father, a designer at Eastman Kodak Co., died of lung cancer. Her mother had to go to work as a secretary. "Our life was pretty much survival."

            And those dance lessons weren't exactly productive.

            "They didn't break it down," she says. "I had no technique, no rhythm, no musicality. It was crap-tap, as I call it now; just terrible tap. But I just had to dance. I watched Lawrence Welk every weekend with my grandmother."

            Goebel attended Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock State College as a dance minor, but she didn't find a lot of encouragement there. Back then, she says, teachers didn't bother with constructive criticism; they just attacked.

Returning to Rochester, she stopped dancing for two years. No one told her to stick to it.

            "Dancing is very personal; you are the instrument," she says. "I was very vulnerable, very sensitive. I left home. I just kind of spread my wings in the wrong direction. I was doing pottery; I was considering another lucrative career --- in pottery."

            Things got better when Goebel married her husband John, a mechanical and manufacturing engineer. They have two sons; the oldest, a jazz percussionist, will enter the Eastman School of Music in September.

            Goebel gradually gravitated back to dance. "I had to start all over again, which is why I'm so adamant about technique," she says. "Bad instruction is a waste of time and money."

            She hooked up with Val Mates, an eccentric instructor who really knew tap, Goebel says. His studio walls were lined with photographs of himself dancing. "He always said he should have had all the jobs Fred Astaire got, but he went into the service."

            Goebel finished her degree in modern dance at SUNY Brockport under Susannah Newman, graduating Magna Cum Laude. She also studied with William Orlowski, a student of Paul Draper who founded the National Tap Dance Company of Canada. She began to get choreography and teaching jobs.

            Goebel's class goes way beyond "Tea for Two" tap. Her students dance to Duke Ellington's "Caravan," "Take the A Train," or "C-Jam Blues." And they are just as likely to dance to more recent selections from Earth Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, Bill Withers, or the Average White Band. On one recent evening, Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" was blasting from the speakers while the class learned intricate moves that beautifully complemented the music.

            "[Wonder] writes great music, so how could you not dance to it? Any choreographer will tell you the biggest challenge is finding danceable music," Goebel says. "It's got a strong beat and there are spaces between the notes. It's a motivating thing; students get into the groove with it. It helps their energy. It's not Gershwin, it's not Count Basie, but it's very danceable music."

            During every class, Goebel digs through a case holding dozens of CDs. Other favorites are Traveler '99: A Planet Full of Grooves and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's collection of African rhythms, Supralingua.

            "As a choreographer you're always looking for inspiration," she says. "I've called radio stations. You're in a restaurant and you hear something. You write it down on a napkin. You just stop and say, 'I have to have that song.' It hits you and you have to have that music."

            That's not to say music is Goebel's only inspiration. A few years ago, she choreographed Pulse, a modern dance piece built around heart beats and arrhythmia, evoking elements of excitement, relaxation, and birth.

            If there is a beat, she's attracted.

            "When my son is drumming, I'll either go up and start dancing or say stop and write it down in dancer's count," she says.

            Like her tap-dance heroes, Goebel's comfortable improvising to music or a beat. While many of her students are reluctant to try improvising, she has an 8-year-old student who loves it. He's not inhibited by the knowledge of how difficult it can be.

Tap dancing has much in common with jazz. It's a bi-product of the American cultural melting pot. African Americans originated the art during the 19th century, when freed slaves migrated to cities. There African rhythms and dances met up with Irish jigs and English clogging and a new form of dance took shape. Tap gained popularity through minstrel and vaudeville shows (often with white performers imitating the moves of blacks) and worked its way into early movies through innovators like Bojangles Robinson.

            "He's the one who brought tap dancing to the balls of the feet," Goebel says. "When you're on the balls of your feet you have the treble sound, and when you're on your heels you have the bass sound. You're a drummer. He's huge. His impact on tap and breaking down racial barriers --- his relationship with Shirley Temple is very important; a black man holding hands with a little white girl and being responsible for a little white girl --- was very significant. I talk about that in my classes."

A few years ago, when she was teaching at School of the Arts, Goebel celebrated Robinson's birthday in the same manner as tap dancers in New York City. She had her students tap around a city block, in this case the block of the Memorial Art Gallery.

            Goebel loves Robinson, but her all-time favorite tap dancer is Gregory Hines.

            "He said, 'We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us.' If you're not aware of all of the contributions of all of those people, then how do we get where we are now? I love his musicality, his love of the art, the smile on his face, his improvisational skills, his whole style," she says. "There's just nobody who danced like he did."

Tap dance is not frozen in time; it's a living art form open to new ideas.

            "People are constantly adding things to it," Goebel says. "There's electronic tap and industrial tap and there's 'Stomp' and 'Tap Dogs.' Society is more aggressive, it's louder. And that's reflected in our arts. It's open-ended. But I want my students to know what a soft shoe is. You have to know the basics. There are young dancers now who are more athletic. I'm not saying they're more athletic than the Nicholas Brothers, because a lot of this is history repeating itself whether they know it or not. But they're inventing new steps and the steps are harder."

            Tap is surprisingly vital in today's popular culture. It's prominently featured in the latest video by Prince. It's used as a percussion solo on "Bright Lights, Big City," a cut on James Blood Ulmer's latest album, No Escape From the Blues. And it plays a major role in Showtime at the Apollo (5 p.m. Sundays on UPN). Of course, some of the tap artists at the Apollo get booed off the stage.

When asked if she ever encounters a student with two left feet, Goebel is diplomatic.

            "I have met students who are rhythmically challenged, which makes my job a lot harder," she says. "I can help them improve, it's just going to take them longer."

            She has more than 100 students at any given time ranging in age from eight to their mid-70s. Occasionally, one of them takes her training right to the top. Jason Dougherty, who graduated from School of the Arts, left for New York and, in his first audition, got into a revival of West Side Story.

            Goebel has choreographed many shows locally, but she's choosy.

            "I have to know who the director is," she says. "I want a director who respects choreographers and dancers. And if I don't like the show, I don't want to do it."

            She's fond of Crazy for You and The Wiz, but don't ask her to do Grease. While directors get a script to follow and bandleaders get a score, the choreographer is usually expected to start from scratch.

            "The dance has to be re-choreographed, Goebel says. "I might take the style or some steps, but I would not plagiarize an entire dance. And you're dealing with all levels of dance, all body types, the limitations of the stage, etc."

            "It's a real creative challenge. Not every kid is a master dancer," says Robert Sagan, a former Rush Henrietta High School teacher who worked with Goebel from 1980 to 1998 on musicals like No No Nanette, Pippin,and Guys and Dolls. "She's wonderful. She was a master teacher and the kids really appreciated what she did for them."

Goebel has carefully developed her tap curriculum over decades.

            "Tap is technical but built on other skills," she says. "If you take those in a logical progression, you will be successful. When you take those out of order or do too much too fast, you won't be successful."

            Her class attracts people from all walks of life. And they all take the class for different reasons.

            Eleanor Dow enters the waiting area after the intermediate class on a recent Monday night and sinks into a chair drained of energy.

            "It's a really good workout and it's fun," says Dow, a senior at Pittsford Mendon High School who will attend Mt. Holyoke College next year. "It works all your muscles. Today we did butterflies and my muscles are hurting, but that's good. It helps your rhythm and posture. It helps my singing and clarinet playing. It's about controlling your body."

            "If I'm not tapping, you know I'm really sick," says Valerie Johnson, an administrative law judge who loves the camaraderie of the class. "Tap keeps me grounded."

            "I've followed her from location to location since 1979," says Kitty Wise, former staff person for Friends of the Rochester Public Library. "She is not a kiddy review teacher. I love the music. I like the variety of her choreography; sometimes we'll do Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. She gives us bits of dance history."

            Wise, who is over 70, says studying tap has many fringe benefits. "It's made me a better tennis player. Tap is wonderful for helping you move fast in different directions," she says. It also helps her sleep. "Some people count sheep, I visualize myself dancing and I count it out and say the steps."

            "Students come out smiling, realizing it's not for other people, it's something they can do too," Goebel says. "I'm truly honored that these people choose to spend their time and their money with me."

            By the time I arrive on a recent evening, she has been dancing for three hours and is still dancing along with her fourth class. Goebel, who is also certified as a group aerobics instructor, eats well --- no junk food, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of calcium. She makes sure to get enough sleep, does weight work, and stretches a lot.

            "When I'm 80 I will be dancing," she says. "There's no question. If I'm breathing I'm dancing. There's a lot more to do, a lot of places I haven't been yet. When you're doing something you love it's not like work."

Linda Goebel teaches tap at Park Avenue Dance, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 15 Vick Park B. 461-2766, www.parkavenuedancecompany.org

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