“Thump! Thwap! Whack-a-slap-smack!”
A clattering herd of a couple dozen people, ages 5 to 70, shuffled, stomped and kicked their way across a black-and-white tiled dance floor while the Jackson 5 belted out “I Want You Back.”
It’s Tappy Hour — actually two hours — a Friday night event at Can Can Wonderland, the eclectic entertainment venue in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
Can Can Wonderland, which opened in January, is best known for its artist-inspired miniature golf course, arcade games and boozy malts and slushies. But since February, couples on dates, friends on a dare, gal pals and children-and-parent teams have been showing up to try their feet at flaps and slaps, shuffles and shim shams, and such combinations as the front essence and the Maxie Ford.
The free tap sessions, which run from 4 to 6 p.m., are led by Ellen Keane, a longtime local dance instructor, University of Minnesota dance and theater adjunct faculty member and owner of the Keane Sense of Rhythm tap dance company.
You don’t need any dance experience to give Tappy Hour a whack. For the most part, participants are first-timers or people who tapped years ago and want to pick it up again, Keane said.
“Anyone can pick up the stuff we’re doing,” she said. “We do a lot of repetition.”
You don’t even need your own shoes. You can borrow one of the dozens of tap shoes that Keane brings to Can Can.
“I’ve been collecting tap shoes for years,” she said.
The event got its start when Keane was having a beer at Can Can shortly after it opened. She told the bartender that her dance studio, just across the street at the Celtic Junction Arts Center, offered classes to adult beginners. Can Can quickly installed a dance floor and hired Keane to put on a Tappy Hour class for its patrons.
“The name alone, it’s perfect,” said Chris Pennington, Can Can’s creative director and founder.
He said he initially thought that Tappy Hour would last about a month. But the lessons have become part of Can Can’s “rolling boil of entertainment,” designed to keep customers happy while waiting for their mini-golf tee times.
“It’s the idea that you can go to the bar and get a drink and end up improving yourself and building skills,” he said.
From bucket lists to balance
Claudia Schaaf decided to give the class a try because tap dancing is “part of my bucket list.” The 67-year-old St. Paul resident played drums when she was younger, so she thought she might have a leg up — so to speak.
“I’ve got rhythm, but just because I’ve got rhythm doesn’t mean my feet will move the way I want,” she said.
So she brought her daughter, Jennifer Prince, 35, of St. Paul, along for support. Prince started tap dancing at age 3 and won competitive titles in high school. However, she last tap-danced in college because “adulting” got in the way.
Heidi Heitkamp and her 5-year-old son, Revelin, have been to about 10 Tappy Hours.
“He loves anything that’s singing, dancing or entertaining,” she said. “He’s good all week so he can come to this on Friday.”
Pam Riesberg of Mendota Heights said she goes to Tappy Hour because tap dancing is good for your bones, balance and memory. But it’s also a stress reliever.
“One of my friends, she had a terrible couple of months, and she gets to tap dancing and she really makes a lot of noise,” said Riesberg, 71.
Speaking in tap
Keane starts the sessions by getting everyone to follow her through basic steps such as digs and ball changes before leading the group through simple routines.
“We’ll go slow. We’ll go slow. We’ll go really, really slow,” she assured a recent group of would-be Savion Glovers.
As the lesson progressed, more joined in. Sometimes as many as 30 people crowd onto the dance floor, creating a happy racket.
“There’s something about making music together that’s really fun,” Keane said.
Kathy Mann agreed.
“It’s like a creative process. You’re creating a dance. You’re using your feet as a percussive instrument,” said Mann of Rosemount, who came to Tappy Hour with her husband, Steve, to celebrate their 400th month of marriage.
They used to take weekly tap dance lessons when they were younger. Now that their kids are grown, they’ve decided to take it up again.
Class varies from week to week. Sometimes Keane will get everyone to stand in a circle and take turns improvising a short dance. Or a dancer might be invited to tap out the rhythm of a song while the rest of the group tries to name that tune. Or everyone will dance to the beat of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in unison or tap-dance a four-part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
At the end of one routine, Keane asked everyone to stomp out “Shave and a haircut — two bits.”
“I love the sound,” said Tappy Hour fan Nancy Hone, 68, of St. Paul.
“The tap sound is a sound that speaks to me.”