How I teach tap

Grimes letting loose at New York City’s Broadway Dance Center

“What do you think about when you count?” Jared Grimes asks his intermediate tap class. The small but focused group begins in a circle in one of Broadway Dance Center’s wood-floor studios. Grimes is leading the students, one by one, in an eight-count improvisation to warm up. He asks dancers to count aloud on the beat of the music; it challenges them to keep an even beat with their voices while tapping out syncopated rhythms with their feet. They go several times around the circle as he encourages them to satisfy themselves musically while also thinking about syncopation, phrasing and getting those numbers out of their mouths. He is a human metronome, keeping the beat with his foot. With an ear-to-ear grin of concentration, eyes nearly closed, head cocked to one side, he visibly takes immense pleasure in each student’s progress. Then he changes it up and asks them to keep the beat and count as he taps out complex phrases to challenge the count.

Grimes first connected with dance through sound, as a drummer and a tapper. According to him, putting on tap shoes was the natural outlet for his innate musicality. Now, he is a quadruple-threat artist, moving seamlessly from singing to dancing to acting to choreographing as the workday schedule demands. In 2014, he won an Astaire award for Outstanding Male Performer in the Broadway show After Midnight. He also has numerous performing credits with artists like Mariah Carey and Common, choreography for commercials and off-Broadway musicals and the new single “PB&J” with his band The Jared Grimes Feel. Last month, he made his debut in Radio City’s Spring Spectacular as a lead in the role of Marshall.

Though Grimes was always confident in his performing abilities, he had to overcome youthful impatience before he found success in the arts world. The Queens native developed a competitive drive early on, thanks to a mother who was a jazz dancer and teacher and a father who encouraged him in sports. Whether it was “tap, drums, gymnastics, karate or baseball, I always wanted to be the best,” he says. He won frequently at dance competitions but sometimes met with failure when he moved up to the younger end of a new age division. “If I lost, I would smile, but then I would go straight home to practice and make up new moves for next time.”

As an adolescent, his learning accelerated when he began training under Gene Medler and performing professionally with his North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. “He hit me with a big book of tap history, from mainstream performers to the most minor Broadway characters,” Grimes says. “He taught me about the culture of tap and music.”

Grimes toured internationally with Medler before moving back to New York City to pursue a communications degree at Marymount Manhattan College. Dancing in subways—some days from 9 am until midnight—to pay for rent and books, he schooled himself in stamina, endurance and showmanship. He expected doors to open to him as a solo artist in the tap world. Instead, he felt angry and dumbfounded by the unreturned phone calls and lack of opportunity he encountered as a newcomer to the scene. And then one evening while eating cereal for dinner, he asked himself a life-changing question: “Why have I been neglecting all the other things I can do?”

A week later, he booked a commercial at an acting audition. More opportunities followed, including landing the role of Ivor in Randy Skinner’s Babes in Arms at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. He spent a decade booking regional and off-Broadway theater shows before he made his Broadway debut as a tap dancer. He completed his college degree during that time, too. “I let bitterness and my feelings of offense make me work harder,” he says. To challenge himself, he’d even seek out auditions that opened with a ballet class, just to try to make it to the next round. “I had to use everything I had to get my tapping through the door,” he says.

Grimes requires the same versatility and rigor from his students that he continues to demand of himself. For instance, he refuses to dumb it down when a combination seems out of reach. Instead, he’ll push his dancers to use their frustration as a tool to go further. “Don’t get discouraged, but feel free to get annoyed. Let it bother you until you get it. Lose sleep.”

Back in the studio at Broadway Dance Center, just when his young musicians begin to get his long phrase in the center, he asks for more: “We are missing those colors. Don’t just get it to get it. And whatever you do, do not dance in the gray.” As the personalities in the room become more individualized and palpable, he nearly shouts above the loud spanks, “Now that’s got something to it.” Only then does he begin to digress into more technical notes. With Grimes, there is always one more layer, or color, waiting to be revealed. DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Photography by Matthew Murphy

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