Growing up, I always knew my dad was different, but it took me many years to figure out exactly how he was different from all the other dads. I grew up in a small town of about 3,000 people, in Northern Montana. With Glacier National Park 50 miles to the east our town slogan ‘Where the Rockies meet the Plains’ reflected our literal geographic location. It’s the heart of oil, farming, and ranching country. The winters are long, cold, and dark. The summers are short, intense, and dry. People are tough, the men very rugged. It was not uncommon for dads to pick up their children from school or sports practice in oil stained rig clothes or well-worn cowboy boots.
In a town so small that everyone knew each other, I feared people knowing that my dad was different. My dad loved music and the arts. His closet wasn’t full of Carhartt or Wrangler. His closet was full of bootcut polyester pants straight from the 70’s that spanned the full spectrum of the rainbow. My dad wasn’t the classic rock or die-hard country fan like many of the other dads in town. My dad rocked the classics. And by classics I mean Mozart, Bach, Gershwin, and Brahms. By ‘rocked’ I mean listened peacefully to on a Sunday afternoon. Because my dad kept to himself more and didn’t frequent the local bars or town gatherings, we all pretty much flew under the radar. Or in other terms we all ‘passed.’
In the fall of 1997, the year my dad was to turn 50, he decided to take dance lessons. In what I think was his attempt to prove he was still footloose and fancy free in his middle age, my father signed up for tap class at the only dance studio in town. My younger sister and I had been taking dance classes there for years and had worked our way into the most advanced classes our teacher had to offer. Michael Flatley, the Irish step-dancer, and his chorus of ladies were huge that year, touring the world and blowing up commercial slots on television with advertisements for Riverdance and the much anticipated follow-up Lord of the Dance. I was excited that our studio was going to do our own version of Riverdance because it felt like something larger than my small town – or even the entire state. Riverdance was something performed on iconic stages in populous cities far away from our small town in Northern Montana. My dad was never one for pop culture or music, I remember Gregorian Chant albums being big in my dad’s world that year. I cringed while I tried to study with Dad harmonizing along to those damn Chant albums in his office across the hall from my basement bedroom. I was certain no one else’s dad harmonized to music as they listened. And once tap class started, it was obvious my dad was the only tap dancing dad in town as well.
I’d love to recall happy memories of the three of us, dad, my sister, and me, practicing our Riverdance steps and bonding over our shared love of music and dance. Instead, I remember dreading dance class each week and worrying about what the kids at school would say when they saw my dad onstage in his black v-neck sequin shirt. I was certain I would die of embarrassment come our annual spring recital in May. As a teenager, all you want to do is fit in. And my tap dancing, harmonizing dad made me feel very different. The truth was, I desperately wanted my dad to be like the other dads. I wanted him to drink beer, chew tobacco, drive a big truck, work on the rigs, and listen to anything but NPR and classical music. Instead, my dad made his own wine and soap, drove a two-door Toyota from the ‘80s, sewed his own buttons back onto his shirts when they fell off, and struggled to understand my love for MTV and pop music.
In 8th grade, it was utterly embarrassing that my dad’s midlife crisis was to become Lord of the Dance when it seemed like all the other dads were having affairs with younger women or buying flashy new cars. “Why can’t he just buy a candy red convertible or run off with a 20-something blonde?” I often found myself wondering. Did he really have to be so different? Why did I have to be born into this!? Woe was me.
Years later, when my dad did finally come out to me, I was a junior in college at San Diego State University. It was September and my Grandma, his mom, was in the hospital waiting to have open-heart surgery. I was hundreds of miles away from everything when Dad called to update me. I thought the purpose of our phone call was Grandma, but my stomach flipped as he stumbled over some words about me maybe knowing something about him… but he wasn’t really sure. I remember wanting him to spit it all out – to simply say the words, “I AM GAY,” and be done with it. But it wasn’t that easy, for either of us.
Knowing now what I know then, I wish my dad had been able to be himself sooner. I think back to the tense years full of resentment and anger and I wish we could somehow go back and do them over. I wish there was a way to replace some of the yelling and tears with more conversations and laughs. I’m sure tap class would be much different now that I no longer resent having a ‘different’ dad. It helps that my dad’s sexuality isn’t the hefty secret it once used to be. However, life doesn’t give ‘do-overs,’ so I’m thankful my dad is still here and that we have the relationship we do today. At 66, my dad’s dancing abilities have become somewhat of a tradition at family gatherings and weddings now. He doesn’t tap dance anymore, but he performs his version of the bottle dance from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof and it’s definitely a crowd favorite. My brother is even known to join in as our cousin’s chant along. Nowadays, when I think back to the year my dad took tap classes, it makes me smile. We were and always have been slightly different. But, today, as an adult, I’m finally able to celebrate my dad for all the ways that he doesn’t fit the mold.