The award-winning tap dancer Derick Grant, 38, is a veteran of Broadway and international stages. He’s also among today’s tap vanguard—improvising, choreographing, producing, and sharing his expertise with beginner and professional students alike. Fresh from teaching and performing in Berlin, Grant spoke with L.J. Sunshine about his life and work.
L.J. Sunshine (Rail): You started dancing when you were two years old and soon began performing. Do you remember that at all?
Derick Grant: I remember the little tuxedo short pants and the jacket and the afro squished by the top hat. Just a whole lotta cuteness. Otherwise, most of my early childhood memories have more to do with family functions than they do with recitals. I remember barbecues and family gatherings where the music would be cranking and the cousins would take a turn and my grandmother would do her thing with her sisters and then the kids would get up and do their thing.
But dancing was also the family business. My grandmother helped my aunt run the studio, Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts. I can remember being on studio floors as a child while company rehearsals were going on: constantly watching rehearsals, hearing the same music over and over and learning that way before it was my turn to dance. By the time I was in class, it was already pretty natural because I had spent so much time around the dancers. Then, when I was about eight, my mom moved to L.A. to pursue an acting career. I spent the school years in Boston with my grandparents and at my aunt’s studio, studying with Dianne Walker. In the summers, I was in California with my mom and at Universal Dance Designs, the studio of her childhood friends, Arlene and Paul Kennedy. So I was dancing all the time. That was their way of keeping me busy. After school I would go straight to the studio.
Rail: Today when you teach, you stress sound over steps. At what point in your own training did sound become the priority?
Grant: That’s really extremely new—“new” in the past 15 years. [Laughs.] For me, it absolutely starts with Savion Glover and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk—being invited to the show and being invited to a new way of tap dancing. Up to that point, it was crystal clear to me that tappers were performers and I hadn’t really considered myself a musician. From that period on, I spent a great deal of time just learning music—learning the language of music—studying musicians, seeing any relationships that I might be able to piggy-back. The drummer’s role is very different than, say, the piano player’s role and that’s based upon the style of instrument. So knowing that, then what’s my instrument and what is my role? All of that has been the direct result of whatever journey Savion started on in the mid-’90s and made available to the rest of us young dancers who were following his lead.
When I grew up dancing, I did all forms of dance. So using every part of my body to express myself has always felt the most fulfilling. But: Savion’s call to focus on our sound and technique made sense to me. And eventually I realized that when you can hear somebody training in the room and know who it is before you get there, that’s because they have their own sound—whether that’s how they phrase or their intention behind the notes, you can hear it. So I try to get the dancers to pay attention to the fact that I can hear them. And knowing that, try to listen to yourself and see the qualities that you tend to go to. Do you like to be boom-y? Do you have a more subtle approach? Really develop that and manipulate that and own that.
Now there is a need to get back to the complete person, to re-visit the ideas of style and performance and an entertainment quality that hasn’t existed for a little while. I enjoy that and I think the audience really enjoys being connected in more ways than just the musicality of tap dance.
Rail: Your piece Beautiful Love (2005) has all those qualities. How did it come about?
Grant: I had a student who was studying to be a jazz singer and she brought the music, “Beautiful Love,” to me. I created a whole idea, a world, based on that tune. It starts with my solo—an improvisation—and then it becomes a duet with me and a young lady; then it becomes a guy section—showing off for the girls; and then a ladies’ section; and ends with a whole ensemble number.
Rail: The piece has such choreographic range! But it never feels cluttered or contrived even though the concept of each section, the performance styles, and the composition of the phrases are so diverse. Are you consciously determined to include such a wide range of stuff or is it just, “This is how I work”?
Grant: It became very conscious for a number of reasons. I had written an article for the International Tap Association newsletter about labels, because people would see me, see my dress code, and assume that my dancing was “hip-hop tap.” After a while, I got kind of bummed out because people weren’t listening. I don’t teach with music, so you can’t say it was the music that made you think “hip-hop.” And I used the same ingredients as most tap dancers did: cramp rolls, tap turns, flaps, and shuffles. So to say that my tap dance was more Savion Glover than Randy Skinner kind of made me upset because I could be both.
We had created so many divides that I didn’t think tap dancers stood a chance as a community. There were wedges between men and women in tap. There were wedges between black and white, straight and homosexual. Now, as I mature as a choreographer, I just want to create an umbrella. In fact, I wanted to use Aaron Tolson’s and my show, Imagine Tap!, as a platform to showcase tap in its entirety: everything tap. Not just a hard-hitting style of tap; not just a musical theater style of tap; not just a feminine side or a testosterone-driven—but just all of it.
I feel like we’ve been a bit self-destructive in that way. There have been people who have been experimenting with tap over the past 10 years, and as audience members, we haven’t received those experiments very well. We’ve been very quick to say: No, tap is not that.
Rail: Any examples?
Grant: One of my favorite dancers is Josh Hilberman. And Josh performed this piece, The Warrior (2002). Did you see that piece with him wearing a mesh costume, making rhythms with the taps at his forehead and heart and knees, and, okay, I think he even had a thong on. Do I have the courage to even wear that outfit? Personally, no. But Josh does. And he presented a piece like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Well, the next night, during Omar Edwards’s performance, Savion stood up in the middle of the audience and starts thanking Omar and denouncing Josh’s performance. But the same way I’ve known Josh my whole life, I know Savion has known Josh very intimately his whole life. He could very easily pull Josh aside after a performance and address any issues he has. To have this guy up there trying something new and to have an established dancer in the audience—someone people look up to—bashing it just seemed like the ugliest kind of crime to me. I work hard to see that something like that doesn’t happen.
Rail: Has that rift been resolved?
Grant: I don’t think so. And as of late, because Savion does not have open lines of communication with many of us, it seems like he’s been using his work to address certain issues. Maybe that’s the perfect place for it.
It’s kind of ironic because here you have the person who Gregory Hines dubbed “the future of tap dance.” But as “the future,” he’s now out there as an island, doing his own thing. And the world recognizes that as tap dancing. So much so that when they interview him and they say, “We think that what you do is great. How come there’s nothing else out there?” or “Who else is doing what you’re doing?” He says, “There is nobody else. I’m the last. This is it.”
To have your poster child out there fending for himself and denying anything else is tough. But as a result, we’ve developed so many more muscles and so much more strength. And now we’re changing the guard. We’re trying to popularize tap so that when the Broadway shows pop up, they might have room for a character who can tap his butt off. Then you can get these young people to have careers on Broadway.
Rail: Going back to your comment about hip-hop tap—in a Jazz Tap Ensemble performance of 1992, you did a challenge dance with Sam Weber—
Grant: Taxi [Laughs.]—I remember that.
Rail: This was before Noise/Funk.
Grant: Long before.
Rail: Your dancing in that performance does look very hip-hop influenced.
Grant: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s fair. I would say mostly because at that point in my life I was still doing a lot of hip-hop dancing.
Rail: You were doing that separate from tap? Were you break dancing?
Grant: Yeah, sure. Growing up I did a lot of break dancing. Eventually I did more house dancing, which is more free-spirited and inclusive of salsa and sambas and tangos and tap dance—all the genres blended—which always suited me because dancing is dancing is dancing. I liked to do it all.
Rail: Did you dance in clubs?
Grant: Yeah, big time. And in that time period in my life—being in L.A., on my own—I had recently met my own group of guys and they were going to the clubs three and four times a week. That was the “young man, D. Grant.” I was in the clubs all the time. Rehearsal all morning; maybe a show that evening, maybe not, but definitely going to the club either way. So constantly dancing—which was normal for me.
A lot of the dance was confrontational back then, so it was even a way, socially, to gain brownie points and gain favor in the eyes of the young ladies and respect from some of my peers. Without that, I would have relied on some kind of street credit or gang affiliation to raise my stock in that neighborhood. Even growing up in Boston, because I was known as a kid who could really dance, I had a very safe way of earning that same credit. If you were in the ’hood and you weren’t in the gang and you weren’t selling drugs, then what were you doing? You were a victim. Because I danced and my friends saw me on television from time to time and I got to tell tales of going to California, which was very exotic back then, or even going to Italy—which was unheard of, as a kid—it always made me sound cool.
It’s something I try to share with my kids as well: you don’t have to want to be a dancer for a living, but just knowing how to dance can open doors. It has for me. As an adult, it’s given me a voice, globally. I find myself on these stages across the world sharing who I am. Well, that’s a huge privilege: to come from the inner city of Boston and find yourself across the world sharing who you are with people who otherwise wouldn’t care, wouldn’t even know that you exist. So that’s been empowering and awfully fulfilling.
Rail: In these other parts of the world, do you see very distinctive tap styles that are different from what you see in New York?
Grant: Yes and no. You have some of the dancers in places like Russia, Italy, Spain who learned a great deal of their tap dancing from films. So they have a very classical style, which for me means Hollywood tap dance: top hat, cane, singing, and dancing. Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers—It’s not derogatory for me. For many years, that was some of my favorite stuff. That’s what I see in Europe. Asia is a bit different. A lot of the Japanese who came to New York to study in the ’90s were learning Savion’s style and his style, only. Kazu Kumagai—a young, amazing Japanese dancer who I consider one of my brothers—was one. By the time that I got to Japan, any of the younger dancers were dancing Savion Glover. Very heavily. That was his brand out there.
Now if you travel to places like Brazil, Australia, India, you see more Jason Samuels Smith, more Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, more Derick Grant—styles that resemble the rest of us because we’ve started to make those pushes to different pockets of the globe. So we’re evolving a little bit.
But I couldn’t say that I went anywhere and saw something completely different, with the exception of Irish step dance. Which I was fascinated by. I spent four or five months as part of Riverdance and before that, I had my own prejudice, being a Noise/Funk guy—
Rail: You went from Noise/Funk to Riverdance?
Grant: Yeah. And there was so much tension just for things like the Irish dancers being taped; they never did live sound and we took pride in having mics on our bodies and being responsible for our sound and being clever and in the moment. They could make all kinds of mistakes and it still sounded great.
Then I started to develop relationships with the Irish dancers. We often had jam sessions in rehearsals and would go out to pubs to jam and throw down. The kind of technique they were developing and the direction they were taking—a lot of the younger ones who had experienced tap dance first-hand had been influenced by tap and were already starting to bend their legs and step out of formation in a way that they had never done before. I developed a lot of respect for the Irish dancers’ style, for their dance. I can see how it played a part in developing what we call tap dance in America. I don’t know if I would have said that 15 years ago.
We spend so much time arguing who created what and who invented what. It’s no mystery to me that whatever we were doing as Africans when we came to this country and started to hear Irish music and see the Irish jig, that we would steal some of that and incorporate that. In turn, they would steal some. It’s no mystery to me that there became a fusion of the various percussive styles to create what we call tap dance today. I am certain that when they do their little Irish jigs to the back, those are steps that I’ve been doing my whole life—no matter what we called it. It’s directly from them. So I know we’ve stolen some of that stuff.
Rail: One of your most recent projects is Tap2You, a tap competition and workshop series which you co-founded with Aaron Tolson. What attracted you to competition?
Grant: It starts with the idea of creating a bridge. Before teaching at Steps, I was strictly in my world of rhythm jazz tap dance. But very early on at Steps, I noticed that the dancers came from many different tap worlds. A lot came from the competition world of tap.
Rail: What is the competition world of tap?
Grant: As a child, whenever I went to Los Angeles during the summers, I competed as part of the Kennedys’ studio. The whole studio would bus to the competition and spend all day competing. We’d take home our little trophies and, more often than not, win Best Studio. We were very proud of that, of all the work that we put in and having something to show for it.
Then, somewhere down the line—and I think it had to do with focusing on the musicality and the technique of the dance—competition became a bad word. The idea of having these kids that were smiling and using their arms and really selling a lot of non-tap things to get the gold became a bad thing. To add to that were judges who weren’t required to have a tap dance education deciding which dance got the gold or the silver, mixed with a lot of places not having the proper tap floor to dance on, and blaring the music loud so you couldn’t even hear what was being done. It just seemed like the focus had less and less to do with actual tap dancing and more to do with the show-business side of it all. “Competition” became a bad word; “competition” became like “those people.”
But, teaching at Steps, a lot of “those people” started to come to my class—and they had chops! They could dance! Rather than complain about the state the competition world was in, I wanted to figure out a way to become part of it, to infiltrate it and learn about it, and change it from the inside out if I felt that change was necessary. And to introduce myself to that world of students and possibilities.
Right away I was impressed with the level of performance that the children were reaching for. It reminded me of myself as a kid—all of my days where it really mattered what we looked like. It impressed me to see these kids showing up as a team and helping each other get their costumes right, and taking pride in standing together and trying to win it all as a group. And I had to learn how to judge it. You know: “You were out of line, you’re out of formation.” Those kind of things didn’t matter to me. But it matters big time to them. So I had to be on point with those kinds of aspects.
Rail: So now, the criteria for your judging—is it the same as what the kids come in expecting?
Grant: I think so. And with our workshops, we’re able to share with the teachers and students the things that are important to us. As a result of doing this a few years now, I’ve seen changes in their choreography. They’re making attempts to choose their music differently and relate to the music differently. Certainly they still have a lot of the old qualities, but I think that they have opened their minds to some of these new things that we’ve offered.
Rail: And when you’ve choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance?
Grant: I only did that once. They haven’t had enough tap to bring me back. What I learned most from that experience is how to look through the eyes of non-tap dancers when critiquing or judging tap dance. You have to focus on things like line or, when you’re turning, where’s the leg, where’s the focus. They’re going to go for that because they don’t know about the rhythms and “did you accomplish that riff correctly?” Rather than feel the need to educate everybody about the nuances of tap dance, I thought it would be a lot easier if we educated ourselves as choreographers. If we did the non-tap aspects really well and underneath it had strong tap dancing, too, we could really show them what we consider strong tap dance and create complete works, complete products. It’s very possible. It’s always been done. I just think that this whole ‘tap is music’ thing took us off track for a second. Now we’ve got to get back on track.
Rail: It’s about balance.