How I teach a rhythm turn
“In my class, you can hear yourself, says Derick K. Grant, who teaches 95 percent of his tap classes a cappella. “Students tend to hide behind the music, and it’s a false sense of security. I take out the music so that people can really hear the sounds they’re making and be in control of them.” Emphasizing rhythm-building and tone and sound development, Grant’s classes focus on elements that can help dancers develop their own styles. “I always tell them, steps don’t make the dancer; the dancer makes the steps,” he says.
An athletic and dynamic hoofer, Grant trained early on with master teacher Dianne Walker and performed alongside bandleader Cab Calloway and tap legends Chuck Green and Bunny Briggs at only 10 years old. It wasn’t until his early 20s that he became aware of his own rich sound and began developing it. “When I started dancing with Savion [Glover], he had such a strong sound. A lot of us used to stomp to compete with his volume, and we’d joke that his big, size-13 feet were behind it,” says Grant. “I started to research how I could get the most from my own feet, a humble size 11. That’s when I realized range: For as much stomping as I was doing, I could be equally as effective by lightening up. I saw how many shades there were between dark and light, soft and heavy. Once you find those nuances, you start to be responsible for your sound.”
Though his classes hardly use music, much of Grant’s inspiration comes from musicians. “I started paying attention to horn and piano players to see what I could learn from them,” he says. “I’m completely fascinated with pianists’ ability to play the bass line and melody at the same time.” Grant draws on this concept for the warm-up exercises: He sets a steady bass-line rhythm with one foot, and gradually layers onto it with the other foot. Students follow along, picking up the rhythms and mimicking his melody.
Grant doesn’t speak for much of the warm-up, challenging students to figure out the steps by listening to their sounds. And for a few minutes each session, he asks students to face the back wall and repeat the phrases that he taps in an exercise he calls “no peeky-peeky.” “They need to learn with their ears as much as they learn with their eyes,” he says. “At its basic form, this activity is about rhythm, but eventually, I want them to hear the highs and lows. It’s not enough to do a ‘boom, boom, boom,’ if I’m tapping a ‘di, di, di.’” While the individual steps aren’t important—one student may choose a flap over a shuffle for example—it’s about finding the right notes that fit the rhythm.
This exercise also helps students develop improvisational skills, since they have to think quickly to imitate Grant’s phrases. “New students often get frustrated with the fact that they constantly choose the same three or four steps,” he says. “But I say, that’s a good thing. To know yourself is power. If you feel you’re about to do the same step, change which foot you use, take a note out or try to make it a turn. Use the same ingredients to make a different dish.”
Here, Grant teaches a rhythm turn, and he offers two variations to the beginning of the basic step that challenge students’ balance and ability to transfer weight.
Originally from Boston, Derick K. Grant studied with Andrea Major, Dianne Walker and Paul and Arlene Kennedy. After graduating from high school, Grant moved to L.A. to work with Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble. He received a Princess Grace Award and later performed in the original production and national tour of Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. He was choreographer and director of the 2006 Chicago-based show Imagine Tap!, and his work has appeared on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Grant currently teaches at the American Tap Dance Foundation and Steps on Broadway in New York City, as well as countless workshops and intensives, including The School at Jacob’s Pillow, Chicago Human Rhythm Project and the DC Tap Fest. He is a founder and co-director of Tap2You, a five-city tap convention and competition.
Photo by Matthew Murphy at Steps on Broadway in NYC