One night last fall, my girlfriend and I were out at The New Orleans Restaurant in the Pioneer Square area of Seattle. Next to our dinner table sat a tall, lanky man with gray hairs and brown clothes. He wore a nice suit, a matching fedora and a nice pair of black dress shoes. He was classy. Tim Hickey started to tell us of the elder blues band that was on stage, and we quickly struck up a healthy conversation. Eventually he told us that he was a professional tap dancer for a living.
On my way to meet Hickey for an interview one Saturday afternoon, I noticed a couple of younger folks practicing a tap dancing routine in an open, concrete area. Tim was excited to know about this. “Hey, maybe I will know who they are, or I can even jump in and join them. I have my tapping shoes in my bag. I carry them everywhere.” We didn’t get within 50 yards of the duo and Tim identified them both. This would be a common occurrence throughout the day: Tim seems to know people everywhere he goes.
We sat at Cafe Zingaro for nearly two hours, and Tim must have seen six people he knew in the place, talking to a couple before we even sat down to chat. He really is a people person, and lives to entertain. Tim is very long-winded and he can go very deep into conversations. When I asked him what he does in his spare time, he said, “My mind never stops. My mind is always on performing, in one way or another. I don’t tire from it.”
Originally from Boston, Hickey played football in college for two seasons until he discovered acting. He wanted to get on a stage and be in front of people. When he was 24 he saw 42nd Street on Broadway with Jerry Orbach. Thats when a shift began: “It changed my life. I knew right then I wanted to do tap dancing for a living.”
When Hickey went home and told his dad about this, he was told that his uncle Freddie had been a tap dancer in a Vaudeville act called Lowe, Hite and Stanley. Tim’s grandfather was a magician. His ambitions quickly started to more sense as he discovered the artistic lineage in his family. This was very shocking to Tim, though, because he expected his father to call him crazy.
Tim did as much research on performing and tapping as he could. He watched tons of film from the likes of Gene Kelley, Fred Astaire, The Nicholas Brothers. “I could never top what they did. I’d die.” So he studied every one of them and tried to take integrate as many elements from their performances as he could into his own shows. “But you can’t just watch video tape. It’s a very hands-on, feet on thing. It takes lots of practice.” In the early days, when Tim went to bed he would place a board under his feet so he could rehearse and tap combinations as he fell asleep.
Hickey started classes soon afterwards and within two years was dancing professionally. His first live performance was with The Peter Nash Orchestra back in 1986. It was a 17-piece orchestra on the beach, and he brought some plywood down to dance on. That was also the first time he ever improvised, and the crowd went crazy.
Within four years he had moved to New York and got a lead role in 42nd Street. The part took him on the road throughout the U.S. and Canada, eventually landing Tim in Tel Aviv for two weeks also. The following year, his company put on a production of My Fair Lady and he traveled to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In Malaysia, the company even performed for the king and queen. “They trained us how to bow; how to not speak until spoken to.” The king especially liked Tim’s performance (though it didn’t seem like the queen had). He came down to shake Tim’s hand afterwards. “I couldn’t believe I was shaking hands with a king. For the first time, I was speechless.”
42nd Street was a good paying gig, but tap dancing has not always been an easy way to make a living. Rice and peanut butter were often on the menu in his earlier days. During the 42nd Street tour he met his wife and had a baby. Tim gave up the tour after that. He moved to San Diego, where his wife was from, and then they eventually moved on up to Seattle.
Hickey was in Seattle when grunge music broke, but he didn’t pay attention to it. He was really into jazz and blues, though that’s not to say that he didn’t like that early 90s era of music. He once even tapped to “Down In It” by Nine Inch Nails. He likes music like Lady Gaga and hip hop, but he doesn’t follow them, and won’t buy their cd’s.
Tim feels like tap dancing has always been the black sheep of dance styles. “Tap…is so individualistic, yet so musical because you’re actually tapping percussion and not just being there from a visual standpoint.” In fact, he says that if he ever lost the ability to tap, then he would likely play drums, if able. “Buddy Rich was actually a tap dancer before he became maybe the greatest drummer who ever lived.”
Tim broke his foot once while performing and had to have it casted for three months. Bills still had to be paid, so he just kept teaching, trying to use his left foot as much as possible. He has old football injuries that make him ache once in a while, but he just pushes through them and keeps in shape by lifting weights, walking and tapping every day. He says yoga might be in his near future.
Throughout his career, Tim has taught tap dancing nearly as much as he’s danced. He was lucky enough to be able to teach tapping on the side when not performing, rarely having to work day jobs other than when he was starting out. Tim has taught and performed in every state in the United States. Today he runs the 459 tap dancing company in Seattle.
Tim’s choice of shoe is the Capezio K-360 but he has them rebuilt especially for him; the soles are double thick, the heels are a little higher, etc. Danny over at Swanson’s Shoe Repair in Wallingford (Seattle) gets him set up.
Hickey has been married once and divorced once. He says he will never get divorced again. Tim’s only regret is not getting a degree. “I could still do a lot better financially if I had that degree, but I don’t.” There was a job in a theatre he could have gotten if he’d had a degree. He is thinking about studying language, as he likes to travel abroad a lot, and intends to do so more. Regardless, he still makes a good living and gets to do what he loves.
Right now Tim is working on a movie script that he started about ten years ago, and about a year ago he decided to start working on it again. “A few of my L.A. friends love the idea and think I should finish it.” He has never actually written a script that has been produced, but he has written material that has been used in stand-up comedy, and for other stage projects. He would love to produce it locally in Seattle, but he doesn’t really have the money for that, so he might just have to go with whoever listens on this film project.
Tim constantly says that the future of tap dancing is with the youth and that they need to be continually educated because once he’s gone, they take over. He showed off some of this by inviting me to a tapping gig at Las Margaritas in Seattle, performing with The Full Circle Jazz Ensemble as he does every month. Tim had four class members performing with him that night, ranging from teenagers to a Seattle Seahawk Seagal (cheerleader). He started off the number with the two, standing in the middle of the crowd, smiling and dancing to many crowd cheers. Then each student got the chance to solo, with Tim joining back in at the end, leading the way to the big finale.
Watching him dance alone was the real treat. Hickey has a way of really grasping the attention of everyone in the room, and he moves really smooth. Up and down the aisle Tim went, with his feet moving incredibly fast, getting the crowd more and more pumped up as he called out notes for the band to play. Like he said before, his moves are never scripted, but it seems hard to believe that anyone could create his steps by impulse. When the performance of Tim and his crew was complete, once again he had pleased a crowd.
Hickey often makes it clear that he really does not like negative people and that he tries his best to avoid them. When he was younger he would sometimes fire back at them to protect his ego, but he’s moved away from that through the channels of wisdom. Football made him very aggressive. “When you work for 12 years with coaches screaming at you to do better, you tend to be too hard on yourself.” In his early days, his instructors had to tell him to stop swearing so much and to take the tobacco out of his mouth. “I think a lot of us have problems because of the expectations that we set for ourselves or that others have for us. Do the best you can and continue to grow.”