It would have been the late 1950s. I was 7 and my sister was 5. We were both taking tap dance classes and my mother made us these costumes for our recital. I remember it driving her crazy—they were very difficult and she was very careful. It was a British nanny’s uniform that was modeled, I assume, on a wealthy family’s servant class costume. During the recital, we had prams that were decorated to match. We pretty much pushed them around and tapped a few times—that was about it.
My sister, Eleanor, and I would get carted off to tap lessons. They took place in a strip mall somewhere in the suburbs of Cincinnati, near where we lived.
I realized at some point that most of my friends didn’t go to these classes. At that time, my father was the only man in the community who had gone to college. He was a physicist for General Electric. But most families in this pretty rural area were farmers raising tomatoes in hot houses and working in factories.
I suspect the impulse to take these classes came from my mother. In this unquestioned way, she believed that there were certain things that were just expected. She was from an old American/British family. If they hadn’t lost all of their money in the Crash in 1929, I would have ended up being a trust fund kid. My mother’s family literally came over on the Mayflower. They occupied a lot of Cape Cod in the 1600s, and were related to the Adams family (John Adams and John Quincy Adams). The pictures of my grandmother and my great grandmother look like Edith Wharton times where people did things like go on picnics, go to the seashore, or go to theater.
So with this vestige of a wealthier heritage, there we were dancing around in beautifully sewn nanny costumes. Thinking about it now, it’s really quite ironic.
Leslie Thornton is an artist working in film, video and new genres who teaches in the Modern Culture and Media Department at Brown University.