For six nights (March 19-24) at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, the American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF), in association with the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, will feature a look back at classic nightclub and cabaret hoofing, singing and swing. The two programs, “Rhythm is Our Business” and “Rhythm in Motion,” will feature performances by the Duke Ellington Center Band, Ali Bradley, Brian Davis, Khalid Hill, Jason Janas, Mable Lee, Andrew Nemar, Hank Smith and the Shufflettes, Michelle Dorrance, Kazu Kumagai, Max Pollak, Lynn Schwab, the Tap City Youth Ensemble, Cartier Williams and Derick K. Grant, who will be directing and choreographing “Rhythm is Our Business.”
Derick spoke with the AmNews about his preparations for “Rhythm is Our Business.”
Amsterdam News: Why did you choose to go back to the golden age of swing?
Derick Grant: Mainly because it’s familiar to people. They think of tap dance and their minds go there first; it’s a safe place to start. But it’s really when we were at our strongest in terms of the energy of the music, the dance and the connection between the two. It was a magical time, and it’s fun to go back there and visit that moment. We are trying to cap off a run where we are able to bring tap to theaters more often; this is kind of the beginning of that journey, [and] starting there in that moment in history was appropriate. It works for a lot reasons.
AmNews: You say “we,” who do you mean?
DG: Myself and Tony Waag [artistic/executive director of ATDF]. I met with Tony to see how we could get a new audience and create a platform for the talent that exists in the community. I asked, “In New York City where there are thousands of theaters, aren’t there any that could suit our needs?” He interviewed different theaters to find one where we could have a lasting relationship–one in an area that was happening, one that people wanted to go to, small enough that we could fill and get the energy up and one that people would come back to. He was able to do that, and we are excited about the product we are about to bring to the stage.
AmNews: The 14th Street Y was the choice?
DG: Yes. It’s perfect in so many ways. The size is perfect and the people were eager to have us. It’s really hard to get into a lot of theaters because people are afraid of what we will do to their floors, so we like to bring in our own floors. We consider the floor 50 percent of the instrument. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a long relationship.
AmNews: Is “Rhythm is Our Business” your take on history?
DG: I don’t know if I will say it’s my take on history. I’m inspired by that time period, and I’ve been watching a lot of pieces from that era. I think it starts there. “Rhythm is Our Business” was a song that I enjoyed watching Gregory Hines perform, and I was inspired by his performance and his relationship with the audience and the band. That got the juices flowing. When I mentioned it to Tony, he pointed out that the title suits us because the truth is, rhythm, quite literally, is our business. [Also,] Greg means a lot to this origination and to the tap community as a whole, so to have him loosely in our creative circle was fun as well.
AmNews: Are there other inspirations like Hines for this show?
DG: Bringing style and including flash tap dance was certainly something I wanted to accomplish. For maybe the past 15 years or more, we’ve been trying to focus on technique and musicality and get away from flash and entertainment, so I wanted to revisit an era when flash was a big part of selling what we do. [It’s about] still being strong technically and musically, but also having that balance of delivery and giving people something fun to look at as well as listen to. I also wanted to bring back the idea of show girls, the chorus line, because that’s deficient. That time period really lends itself to all of those ingredients, so that’s why it’s fun to start there.
AmNews: Can you give an example of a flash act?
DG: Sure. The Nicholas Brothers are probably the most popular flash act.
AmNews: Tell us a bit about the Shufflettes and Mable Lee, who is now 92 years old.
DG: (laughs) It’s a concept that Mable has never given up. In fact, a lot of the performing that she has done in the past 10-15 years has always included a line of ladies, so I thought of her immediately because she has been an inspiration. Also, the movie “Been Rich All My Life,” based on the Silver Belles and how strong a presence they had, was one of the best things we had going in tap. The fact that that no longer exists is a bad thing, so I wanted to revisit that. We certainly have a great deal of tap-dancing women in our tap community, and they were dancing their butts off.
AmNews: What has the process been like?
DG: The process is my favorite part. Once it gets on stage, that is for the audience. This is for us. Living with each other every day, working hard on something, watching it improve, putting our blood, sweat and tears to make it move forward, make it the best it can be–those relationships are what we are in it for; it’s the biggest payoff for us as the performers, directors and choreographers. It’s something that I hope the community will continue.
We need more shows so that people can live through this process and enjoy being professional tap dancers because sometimes it’s hard when you spend your young lifetime just learning and the only thing you can become is a teacher. You spend your life just teaching without having a career in the middle, but [hope for] the opportunity to go out and perform, find yourself–your style and voice–and maybe teach at the end of the race.
Without that middle, it’s tough, so I hope this is the beginning of us being able to produce more shows and live in the process to really enjoy our careers.