Joan Bay Klope | A gift from God with taps

One of the things I most enjoyed over the July 4th holiday was attending a parade and community celebration. I don’t mind the crowds because it affords me the chance to people watch and the kids were simply the best part of all I saw this week. Cub Scouts and Brownies, Judo students and tumblers, cheerleaders and youngsters in full ethnic dress absolutely warm my heart. They remind me of being a young girl and studying ballet, tap and jazz under the direction of Billy Clower.

The last time I spent time with this treasure of a man I was 22 years old, a recent college graduate, and a bride. Billy whirled me around the dance floor to waltz during my wedding reception.

A bride often feels like a princess on her wedding day and I was no exception. With my white bridal gown swirling and Billy’s strong hand placed solidly on my back to guide our steps, I remember feeling a bit like Ginger Rogers. Today, at 49, I can momentarily go back to that dance in my mind and welcome that wash of happy tears that accompanies the memory.

From the tender age of four until I graduated from high school, Billy Clower was an ever-present force in my life and the focal point of every Monday evening. He taught me how to dance, about the value of doing my best, and how to incorporate God-given talents into my everyday life.

He was born in New York and his natural talent and dedication eventually landed him on Broadway. For years I gazed at black and white photos of Billy dancing alongside famous hoofers, some of whom went on to enjoy Hollywood film careers. But he rarely spoke about these photos that filled space on the walls between the mirrors and ballet bars at the dance studio. The photos spoke for themselves.

Whenever I think of Billy I picture his rather short, slim frame and flat top haircut. I recall his quick stride and ceaseless energy. He was an interesting mixture of masculinity and grace. When his tap shoes were on, even a normal walk had rhythm. I can still hear his graveled voice and occasional cough that betrayed a longtime smoking habit he worked diligently to hide from us. He was a lousy singer but one of the best tappers American theater ever produced during those early years.

His studio was a converted private home situated across the street from a public elementary school. We would dump our shoe bags and jackets onto chairs lining two walls of the studio and begin each lesson by stretching.

After walking the entire dance surface with a floor duster between each class, Billy would hurry into a small room that housed a turntable and reel-to-reel tape player. That simple sound system introduced me to varying styles of music and just as many ways to dance to them.

Although Billy was a fabulous dancer overall, he became a true showman when he tapped. He taught us how to fall off the log, modify a time step using syncopated rhythms, execute wings, do the Soups Sales, and more.

He expected us to do our best and would rap down hard on his dancing cane if we showed signs of laziness. Out of frustration he would often mimic our poor efforts in great exaggeration and declare, “Do it A-G-A-I-N!”

He gave his best and expected the same.

At the end of the lesson he would situate himself on a folding chair as we formed a semi-circle in front of him. One by one he would speak to each student, outlining what made him proud and what moves needed additional work before the next lesson. Then we would gently encircle our arms around his neck and he would respond by offering each one of us a gentle hug in return.

I never minded if some of his perspiration rubbed off onto my cheek. And when I think back on such tenderness, I value the ways he showed how much he cared for me and the hundreds of children his life touched through the years.

Staging, lighting, choreographing, and costuming was all done by Billy in coordination with friends in the industry who worked out of Las Vegas and Hollywood. His style and unique background created shows that will never again be produced by my generation.

Over the years several of Billy’s students enjoyed professional dance careers and he delighted in their successes. He enjoyed a longtime marriage and daily worked alongside his wife Audrey, who ran the business end of the studio until her death, which preceded his own by several years. Together they parented two children and passionately served their community through their longtime association with the Lions Club International.

Billy Clower’s rare talent was a gift from God and how he used his gift is a story of faithful living. I never recall a canceled lesson or witnessed a moment of unprofessional conduct. He was the consummate showman but never an egotist. He shared himself with his community and helped parents raise their children by being a unique educator.

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