Dad Man Dancing

He's a father, a Vietnam vet, and a competitive tap dancer. You got a problem with that?

Rick Zavatchan: Postal worker, bowler, Lord of the - Dance.
Rick Zavatchan: Postal worker, bowler, Lord of the Dance.
Rick Zavatchan is the kind of guy you'd call to help you move. He's 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds. His thinning hair, thick beard, and a hard-to-miss paunch suggest a man who'd be happy to spend Saturday afternoons shuffling around the garage, belching the alphabet and reminiscing about great carburetors of the 1970s.

All of which makes him a rather conspicuous figure on this early summer afternoon. He's standing on the Independence High School stage wearing a black fedora, a shiny shirt with puffy sleeves, and a red-sequined vest -- an outfit that makes him look like a waiter at Wayne Newton's Christmas party.

The getup only serves to highlight an even more unlikely sight. As a big-band tune comes over the speakers, Zavatchan unfurls his meaty frame and begins to move across the stage, spinning, kicking, tapping, and smiling along with the rest of entry No. 4007 in the Creations dance competition, one of the area's biggest amateur dance contests. The crowd -- mostly prepubescent girls and their parents -- roars its approval.

"Some people get really nervous up onstage," Zavatchan says. "I'm pretty comfortable with it. It probably doesn't hurt that I'm a ham."

A 52-year-old postal worker, Zavatchan is a solar eclipse of the dance world these days: a committed, competitive tap dancer who happens to be a husky, middle-aged dad. "Rick is an exception," says Margie Kowalski, Zavatchan's teacher and proprietor of the Rocky River Studio of Dance. "He's one of my stars . . . You just don't get guys at the level he's at."

That's if you get any guys at all. Save for superstars such as Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, contemporary tap has largely become the province of young children and old women. It's no coincidence that the latest tap-related movie, Bootmen, revolves around a young man trying to get his father to accept his passion. Like asking strangers for directions or expressing an interest in The Bachelor, the art form maintains a prominent spot on the list of "Stuff Guys Just Don't Do." Kowalski can't even recall the last time she saw another adult male at a competition. "A lot of guys are worried about how they'll come across," she says.

A former high school jock and a Vietnam vet, Zavatchan began his trip from leadfoot to heel clicks four years ago, when his two daughters began taking lessons from Kowalski. After announcing plans for a father-daughter dance at the year-end recital, the assertive Kowalski hounded him to participate.

Such are the rituals of the modern suburban father. Contrived years ago as a way for guys to bond with their pirouetting daughters, "Dancing Dad" troupes have become a mainstay of recitals across the country. Fathers get an opportunity to perform with their daughters. Everybody else gets a chuckle.

"There must have been 75 guys that came out," says Kowalski. "It turned out to be a wonderful number. It was the highlight of the recital. Tears, the mothers were wailing. It was beautiful."

And that, usually, is as far as it goes. But something happened when Zavatchan got onstage. He didn't want to leave. "I got up there and realized, 'Hey, I kinda like this,'" he says. Since he was spending so much time at the studio anyway, he figured, he might as well get something out of it.

It didn't come easy. He and Dennis Walsh, another father recruited to start tapping, were both new to the vocabulary of dance, and they often had no idea what Kowalski was talking about. But Zavatchan learned quickly, and his athletic ability started to emerge. "He has great musicality, great rhythm," says Kowalski.

Not everyone is so encouraging. A lot of people think he's joking when he tells them. "They look at him, and they're like 'What?'" says wife Ann. When news made the rounds at the post office, his co-workers didn't believe him. There were repeated requests for a demonstration. Then they saw a tape of his recital from last year. "People were surprised I could move like that," he says. "A lot of guys came up and said, 'Man, you're pretty good.'"

"I was absolutely amazed," says friend Brett Kraus. "I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. My big, burly buddy was so light on his feet."

It wasn't long before Zavatchan's dedication went from distinct interest to mild obsession. After Kowalski entered the studio in a series of competitions this spring and summer, Zavatchan installed a makeshift practice area in his basement. He embarrassed his daughters by performing his routine as the family trawled the aisles of the grocery store. He showed off his moves to his buddies on bowling night.

Says Ann: "I think at first his enjoyment was to do something to connect with his girls, but now I think it's just the enjoyment of tapping. He's really into it."

Zavatchan's work -- and that of his fellow adult tappers at the studio -- paid off this summer. The group placed first in all three competitions it entered -- in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Independence.

Now that the competitions are over, he has some time off before practice will begin again this fall. He golfs. He bowls. He hangs out with his daughters. Yet even in the waning days of summer, he finds it hard not to think about dancing. About getting better, faster -- even trying something a bit different.

"I'd like to do hip-hop next year," he jokes. "But with all that rolling on the floor, I don't know if I could ever get back up."