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Carry your shoes: tap dancer-comedian Jane Goldberg recalls her personal passage to India.

Tap dancing in India! Hoofing at the Taj Mahal! Spinning in Madras! Bombing in Bombay! It all happened to me because I applied for a Fulbright Indo-American fellowship to "research the relationship between jazz tap and Indian classical dance, primarily kathakali." Actually, there was none. I meant kathak, where at least the feet move rhythmically (the term means "storyteller"). I was fascinated with the "foot cultures of the world," I wrote.

Applying had been the idea of my friend Betty Bernhard. She is a feminist theater professor who gets grants to go everywhere, but she had really fallen for India - its theater, dance, and food; also a man named Kailash. One night, when she was projecting slides of elephants, textiles, and Indian theater productions onto my bedroom wall, she said, "You've got to go to India." On a dare I filled out the Fulbright applications, thinking nothing would happen. Naturally I went into a major panic attack when my acceptance letter came a year and a half after I applied. I burned incense and prayed for inspiration.

I met Badal Roy, an Indian tabla player who lived in New Jersey and played for modern dance choreographer Jonathan Hollander. His drumming sounded just like tap. In fact, he had played with Miles Davis and had a jazz feel himself. He came to my apartment, and we played "tabla tap" and sat on the floor drinking tea; he told me to travel with my boyfriend, that it was hard for a woman traveling alone in India. More panic. I also met India's jazz impresario, Niranjan Jhaveri, at his son's Lower East Side apartment. Niranjan saw a video I'd made and got me my first booking: tap dancing in Bombay's renowned Oberoi Towers on New Year's Eve. He warned me to wear lots of glitter.

After this breakthrough, Betty and Kailash began preparing a hit list of people to contact (among them a feminist collective in Madras). I reached by phone Kumudini Lakhia, a renowned kathak dancer and innovator in the form, who lived in Ahmedebad. "Sounds interesting," she had said over a cracklingly bad connection. "Come." Ahmedebad would be my sponsor city. Eagerly, I looked it up in a Lonely Planet guidebook; it was known as the "city of dust."

I broke out in hives just before the departure, but I left anyway. I landed with my hit list, two pairs of tap shoes, a backpack filled with every medicine I could think of, and a ton of glitter.

Well, as I admitted right off, I bombed in Bombay. Georgy, the Oberoi Towers emcee, had to beg the audience of seven hundred drunken businessmen to welcome me, but they had not come to look at or listen to any tap dancer on New Year's Eve. There were three different rooms in this Disney-like complex, and I was asked to scurry around to all of them. I did manage to thrive with the Take Three jazz trio in one lounge. They couldn't believe I lived in the same building as Sonny Rollins.

This mad gig was not a total loss, for through my lighting designer, Sam Kerawalla, I met Colonel S. Y. Rege of the National Center for Performing Arts. One huge, articulate fan of kathak, Colonel Rege told me about the temples, courts, and Mogul empire where the "storytellers" danced and were married to God. When the kathaks weren't telling a story through their abhinayas ("expressions"), the dancers slapped their bare feet on hard marble floors to create unimaginable rhythms. I grabbed my notebook and wrote down everything the colonel said as we drank tea together and he reminisced about the Astaire and Rogers movies shown in India and about his own ballroom years during British rule.

Colonel Rege wanted to hear me dance. I told him I didn't have my tap shoes, so he pulled off his loafers and handed them to me. Though they were three sizes too big, I tapped in them as he snapped his fingers to the beat of my feet. Rege gave me my first real lesson of the journey: Always carry your tap shoes. You never know when you are going to dance. He also helped me chart an itinerary, taught me the difference between tourist and regular taxis, and charted the fine points of etiquette.

It was essential, for instance, to present a single rose to Bombay's kathak maven, Sutari Devi, when I met her. My meeting with this grande dame reminded me of how I had chased after the old vaudeville hoofers to hear their stories and learn their steps. Sutari Devi wore lots of makeup, and her bright red lipstick complemented her large red bindi (the dot painted on the forehead). As she held her puppy, she sang rhythms to her student. I tapped for her in my silver glitter shoes, the tap answer to Dorothy's ruby slippers. She said she loved the Nicholas Brothers and Eleanor Powell.

In Poona I stayed with Niranjan's daughter Neesha Jhaveri, eating authentic Indian food that I saw prepared every night. Neesha was a modern dancer, and we talked shop for two weeks. There I phoned my two kathak contacts, Rhohini Bhate and Prabha Mharate, and began teaching tap to their students. Although they were barefoot, they could easily "get the feet," i.e., learn the tap steps. I also met a caterer, Dilip Borowake, who insisted that I see his gardens. I didn't realize that he was one of Poona's leading citizens. When I expressed my admiration for his gorgeous green mosaic floor after I began tapping on it, he presented me with a complete sound system, microphone and all. One hundred of Poona's finest feasted on my "feet" and his food. I told myself this was how Isadora Duncan started out, dancing for the well-heeled in European salons. I tapped to the renowned tabla of Zakir Hussein, and though I didn't get all the rhythms, the Indian audience appreciated my stab at their music.

Hours before I was to leave Poona to make a two-day journey by train to Madras, I learned that the feminist collective there had booked me into the five-star, vintage Connemara Hotel for a week in exchange for my "feet." V. R. Devika, another Indian contact from Rhoda Grauer of the Asia Society, organized gigs for me to tap for children, teenagers, students at the Indian Institute of Technology (their equivalent of M.I.T.) - even her brother's Rotary Club. I bought antiques in Madras and met George Deligianis, the former diplomat, who had settled in Madras so that he could live the good life.

On the overnight train ride from Madras to Cochin on the Malabar coast, I almost froze to death in a first-class berth, which I shared with four old men, because a window was wide open all the way. The next morning I got off at the wrong stop and had to spend an extra half-hour getting to my hotel. There the reporter for the Indian Express who had been eagerly awaiting my arrival asked me to show her my "rapid-fire feet." I couldn't help it, I burst into tears. The next day - my birthday - the story appeared headlined, "Tip Top Tap of a Lonely Heart." That scoop brought me lots of interesting people, including a writer who moonlighted in dental products; he found me a dentist to glue my tooth back in. (Did I forget to say that one of my teeth had fallen out? Well, I want to forget it.)

Finally, I made it to my sponsor city, Ahmedebad, to meet the two czars of dance, Mrinalani Sarabhai, an innovator in bharata natyam, and Kumudini Lakhia, my kathak contact. Kumudini was alarmingly well organized. She had arranged for her "right arm," Sandhya Desai, to put me up in her home, took me to a wedding herself, and saw to it that her entire school just happened to be present for one of my impromptu solos. Actually, I found Indian dancers always eager to sample my "wares."

Where was my most dramatic demonstration of tap? I would say it was in the streets of Trivandrum. Babu Varghese, who ran Tour India and who had a big passion for the arts, met me at the train. (I'd seen his name on Betty's hit list, but I thought it was an address; then I read the travel book, Chasing the Monsoon, and learned otherwise.) He treated me well, just because I was an artist. When his good friend Soman, a powerful journalist of Kerala, discovered that my tap could be "topical," he staged a demonstration at the Secretariat, the seat of government, so I could tap for the people. Too late I discovered that the citizens of Trivandrum always seemed to be on strike. A crowd of chanting men protesting the use of alcohol showed up, and my twirling got caught up in the rhythm of their chants. The next day I made the front pages of five of Kerala's newspapers, photo and all. I couldn't read the language (Malayalam) but it looked great! For the first time I really felt my politics were in synch with my dancing, that people who couldn't understand English had rallied around my tapping feet.

Jane Goldberg, "tap goddess of the Lower East Side," is working on a book, Shoot Me While I'm Happy, while touring with her act, "Rhythm & Schmooze."
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Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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