Constance Valis Hill is author of Brotherhood in Rhythm: the Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000), Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010), and Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Dance on Stage, Film, and Media (http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/tda/tda-home.html)
Perhaps the most precious tradition in tap dance is honoring the elders, reflecting a belief that dancers cannot tap a sound without re-sounding the steps of the masters. This show of gratitude is not nostalgic but regenerative: the practice of realizing the future from the past while making one's own inscription on the tradition.
And so it is with Sarah Reich and the release of her debut album, New Change, a mix of original tunes composed of percussive tap rhythms performed by Reich and an ensemble of jazz musicians. The tunes are dedicated to and named after jazz tap masters—from Harold Cromer, the tap dancer/vaudevillian who was Reich's decade-long mentor, to such notables as Ted Louis Levy, Arthur Duncan, Ivery Wheeler, Jason Samuels Smith, Brenda Bufalino and Dianne "Lady Di" Walker.
What is "new" in New Change is the common-sense idea that tap dance is music—and that it can be composed by tap dancers.
Writing in Dance Magazine in 1969 about Tap Happenings, those weekly tap dance jams at the Bert Wheeler Theater in New York City, critic Patrick O'Connor commented on dancers Sandra Gibson and Leticia Jay, the two sole female performers: "Gibson, the first of the red hot 'soul' mamas does a number, as does Leticia Jay, but face it, the evening belongs to the men."
Hunched over, arms splayed and eyes glazed, a skullcap covering his head and a Coca-Cola T-shirt and basketball shorts flapping like flags in a hurricane around his wiry body, Jared Grimes is in the zone. WHACK dap da diddley dap cat cat cat. Da diddly dee DAP DAP da didly dat dat—blasting out rhythms, conversating with his feet.
At 23, he’s already taught jazz tap and hip hop at Broadway Dance Center, toured with Mariah Carey, performed with Salt-N-Pepa, Common, En Vogue, The Roots, and Wynton Marsalis at Dizzy’s, and formed the group TADAH (tap, acting, dance and hip-hop). And yet he’s spewing out beats like he’s got only one more minute to live.
He’s in a seventh-floor classroom at Marymount Manhattan College where he’s called an impromptu rehearsal for the cast of dancers in the next installment of his monthly show, Broadway Underground. He is squeezing in one last hour in New York City before leaving for Philly to rehearse Stormy Weather, a new musical in which he plays the old-time comedy dancer Aching Bones.
But there’s nothing cranky about the steps that keep spilling from Grimes’ feet. If you want to know which tradition of tap you fit into—old school rhythm-tap or new school staccato-and-funk—try doing a stutter of shuffles on the inside rim of your tap shoe, flaps on the back edge of the heels, and crossover steps that scrape the toes along the floor until the leather wears off.
“People are always trying to come up with a name for what I do, like Tap Hop,” says Grimes. When I teach hip hop, people say, ‘Wow, it’s like you’re tap dancing with your body.’ My style of hip hop, or street jazz, is linked to musicality—the moves are from the sound and the texture of a musical instrument,” he says. “It’s like scatting, counts don’t do it—it’s womp, womp crack. Everything evolves around the music.”
Grimes says that while the older generation performed a swinging “breathe-and-relax” style of tap with a through-line in the rhythmic phrase, he performs freestyle. “My generation prefers to conversate—it’s more like speaking, going anywhere. When you’re conversating, your through-line is where you want it to be. It’s unpredictable, it’s living dangerously. We can have a conversation and suddenly I burst out into another thought.”
Tap virtuoso Jason Samuels Smith, who calls Grimes “one of the most talented young dancers in tap today,” says he does both. “He has a swing pocket but also a harder hip hop core, and when he gets into that pocket he brings the funk out.” And according to the veteran master Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, Grimes does that and more: “Did you see him in Tappy Holidays? Jared stopped the whole show! Why? Because he performed—he sang, he danced, he had two girls backing him, and when the people saw him they stood up and cheered because they were seeing performers.” Grimes is a renaissance man and a triple threat—he can act, sing, and dance. And that, Cromer says, is back to the future.
Grimes’ father was a Vietnam vet and his mother a school teacher and dancer. She bought him his first pair of tap shoes when he was 3. And with them, he says, “I liked making noise.” His first tap teacher, Mirian Harper at Auntie’s School of Dance in Queens was the first dancer to impress him. He says she was like a Dianne (“Lady Di”) Walker. “She had syncopations that were aggressive, and I said, ‘Wow! I want to do that.’” At that time he was also dancing with his mother’s Sunshine Dance Company at P.S. 155.
When he was 6, the family moved from Queens to High Point, North Carolina, where he grew up playing basketball—and dancing. While he remembers seeing Gregory Hines in the movie Tap, it was Fred Astaire tapping amidst a splatter of firecrackers in the film Holiday Inn (1942) that got his attention. “It wasn’t just his feet, it was his whole persona.” Grimes says. “He had elegance, he had line, and he was graceful. Nobody did it for me like Astaire. I was stuck on him until I was 13.”
Gene Medler, the director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, whom he studied with for six years through middle and high school, was the closest Grimes came to an Astaire. “He was a tall Caucasian man, masculine, with a balletic background, who presented himself in a very entertaining manner.”
But on a visit to New York City, lightning struck when he saw Savion Glover’s Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, a tap/rap discourse on the staying power of the beat. “I saw people my age that were like me, how I felt as a young African-American cool high-schooler,” he says. “Here I thought that tap was ‘Putting on the Ritz,’ Fred and Ginger. But no! It’s whatever you want it to be! It’s self expression—if you want to smile, if you don’t want to smile, if you want to look at the floor, if you don’t want to look at the floor. It’s who you are as a person.”
Fast forward to 2001 in New York City, where Grimes enrolled at Marymount Manhattan College as a communications major but was all the time seeking out the hard-hitting brothers of the Noise/Funk school, like Dulé Hill, Bakaari Wilder, and Jimmy Tate. “I wanted to know about everybody in that show, where they’re teaching, what styles they like, which dancer everybody’s feeling.” In the Fox 5 television broadcast of 30 Seconds to Fame in 2002, Grimes looked and sounded like those guys. Dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirt, shoes untied and bowl of dreadlocks crowning his head, he blasted out his taps with flagrant indifference and was headlined “Intense Tap Dancer.” As a Star Search finalist in 2003 he declared to national viewers, “I’m a Tapaholic!” and hurled himself into a well-choreographed display of fireworks that had the basketball star Magic Johnson (one of the judges) awarding him top scores for rhythm, style, and attitude.
“I wanted to be noticed. I wanted them to know that I was here, that I was worth something. I wanted to gain their respect—challenge someone, try to be like them, pull out all the nasty stuff, try to be like them more.” When Jason Samuels Smith invited him to perform his Emmy-Award-winning tap choreography for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in 2003, Grimes stepped up. Dancing with a mixed crew of youngbloods and veterans like Arthur Duncan, Arlene Kennedy, and Fayard Nicholas, he was given a brief solo spot and in the span of six seconds made his mark. “Jason,” he says, “gave me my first break into the new generation.”
But having gained the respect of peers, Grimes dug deeper still to realize the kind of performer destiny was to make of him. A new image began to emerge. Hank Smith’s The Story of Tap at Dixon Place in 2005 saw Jared in a spic-and-span clean two-piece suit, his head shorn of dreadlocks, singing Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and dancing a smooth and full-bodied style of jazz. Deliciously sophisticated, he looked incongruous only when trading hard-hitting steps with his baggy pant and T-shirted partners, DeWitt Fleming and Calvin Booker of the Young Hoofers.
“I started seeing a character that had been my true idol from the age of 3 but didn’t know it, and that was Sammy Davis, Jr.”—an all-around entertainer who sang, danced and did comedy.” Grimes says that just the way Sammy sang “Once in a Lifetime” made him a great tap dancer. “That’s when I realized that the beat of my heart is tap dance—that’s what I feel I was born to do—but I’m gonna do everything. I want to reach out and say, ‘How ‘ya doing? My name is Jared Grimes, and this is what I have to offer.’ ”
In Derick Grant’s Imagine Tap! at Chicago’s Harris Theater in July 2006, Grimes showed just that. He was a standout in “Three Chefs,” strutting, slinking, and sliding alongside of Jumaane Taylor and Joseph Wiggan, but also falling head-over-heels into a mad solo of flips, splits, and somersaults. “Jared is one of the most innovative artists of his generation,” says Ayodele Casel, who starred in Imagine Tap! “I love that he doesn’t pigeonhole himself into any one category and is always looking for ways to express his many talents.”
Broadway Underground, held monthly in midtown Manhattan (see www.projectdance.com/broadway) is just one of the many ways that Grimes continues to discover and distinguish himself. Billed as a variety entertainment, the show combines rhythm-and-blues and hip hop, rhythm tap and street jazz, bucket-drumming and trumpet playing, rhyming and crooning, with co-hosts Grimes and Fleming playing comedy off of each other.
“Everybody does everything. It’s all the arts tied into one,” says Grimes. “The title comes from me saying that Broadway is this—it’s like, what’s hip and what’s cool and what could be on Broadway, but isn’t there right now.” Broadway, listen out!
Constance Valis Hill is a jazz tap dancer and choreographer and the author of Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (Oxford University Press 2000).