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It is a Saturday afternoon at the Washington Monument, and performance artist/hoofer Carol Vaughn is preparing to tap dance down the tower’s 897 stairs. The 42-year-old tap-dance maven doesn’t fear the $50 fines meant to discourage “creating a nuisance” on any of the Monument’s 50 landings. Nor does she fear bad puns. She’s titled the event—a promotional fundraiser held to benefit her Tap America Project (TAP)—“I Ain’t A’fraid A’stairs.”
The dancer and her five-member entourage gather on the Capitol side of the Monument to discuss last-minute strategy. TAP’s mission, it seems, has necessitated considerable advance preparation: “I’ve been up and down this god-awful phallic tower four times!” Vaughn complains.
With collaborator Phillip Raskin, Vaughn plans to take a “walk-down” tour of the Monument. But at the top, Vaughn and Raskin will linger behind the group while three associates run interference. The duo will then change into tap shoes and click-clack down flight by flight, pausing on each landing for a different tap routine. The pair have selected several traditional pieces for the event, as well as some interpretive ones. (Most notable among the latter is Clinton on Gays in the Military; “it involves a lot of shifting,” Vaughn quips.)
But the group gets no farther than the tower’s base before it meets its first challenge. “None of you are going to tap dance down the Monument today, are you?” a National Park Service guard asks.
It turns out that Vaughn did an interview about the “guerrilla action” on NPR earlier in the week, and a vigilant member of the Monument’s public affairs office alerted the troopers. Asked why tap dancing is prohibited, the guard explains: “The feeling is that small things like this only lead to bigger ones. First you have dancing, next thing you know there’ll be singing, and then who knows what else!?”
He looks suspiciously at the group. “Show us your shoes,” the guard demands, and finding nothing amiss, he moves on.
Vaughn is no stranger to this sort of thing—in 1988, she got 88 tappers dressed as piano keys to shuffle along the steps of the Jefferson Memorial for Fred Astaire’s 88th birthday—and so she hastily amends her plan. At the top of the tower, she and Raskin decide to keep their street shoes on after all—it’ll keep the noise down. “You don’t think that we’re being too wimpy, do you?” asks Raskin as he pads silently down a flight of steps.
Perhaps: Instead of a clackety-clackety-clack all the way down, the pair create a subdued shuffle. The tour guide seems to have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: He can hear scrapes and thumps in the dark, but keeps on lecturing. And by the time the tour is halfway done, everyone knows what’s going on.
One hour and 10 minutes later, Vaughn and company emerge rather anticlimactically at street level. And since she wasn’t threatened with a Park Service citation, Vaughn didn’t even have to use the semantic subterfuge suggested by her lawyer. “Walking artistically,” Vaughn laughs, “that’s what my attorney says.”