At first, Derick K. Grant wasn’t a fan of virtual teaching. “When quarantine first popped off, I was reluctant to engage,” he says. “I wanted to see how everything played out.”
Fast-forward to today, and you’d never guess that the tap dance legend was ever hesitant to teach online: Over the past year and a half, Grant has built a robust virtual tap program that’s supporting students who’ve been left behind during the pandemic, complete with improvisation, research projects and performances.
Grant’s own training started at his aunt’s school, the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Though he studied all styles, he quickly found that he had a knack for tap.
“My studio was in my neighborhood, and my friends could look through the window to see me dance,” Grant says. “Tapping in shorts and a T-shirt made it easier for me to avoid harassment. I loved dancing, and never regretted it, but people often made me question if I was soft because of it. Tap helped me knuckle up.”
Grant had his first professional gig at 10 years old, with Cab Calloway, Chuck Green and Bunny Briggs. “Shortly after that I did a tap competition with the Copasetics, and found myself on the local news,” says Grant, who began spending his summers in Los Angeles training with Paul and Arlene Kennedy.
After high school, Grant joined Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble, and from there, his career unfolded with stunning success: He was an original company member and dance captain for Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring In ’Da Funk at both The Public Theater and on Broadway (joining at the end of the Public run), created the critically acclaimed show Imagine Tap! and was appointed as the co-artistic director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Rhythm World.
For 15 years, Grant taught at Steps on Broadway, until eventually moving back to Boston. Then the pandemic hit, and after his initial skepticism, it was on Zoom that Grant found his new teaching home with tap technique classes. He soon discovered that his students had needs that weren’t being met. “I had two young students who were graduating from high school and worried that they weren’t going to have the proper preparation for professional careers onstage,” Grant says. So, he created an ongoing three-week Improv Lab program.
The Improv Labs begin with what Grant calls a “challenge.” For example, one week he asked dancers to study famous bassists, go through their catalogues of work and choose a song to improv to. “They were able to learn how to improv with nuance, musicality and phrasing through these jazz musicians’ examples,” he says. At the end of each week, dancers prepare a presentation to share what they learned, and then perform their improvisation for an audience—which for the first two weeks consists of their classmates, and on the final Saturday consists of an outside audience. “It’s been so awesome to see the kids grow in this environment, and have performance opportunities at this unique time,” Grant says.
Here, Grant shares his favorite brand of tap shoes, his fitness regimen and the guilty pleasure he can’t live without.
His go-to warm-up:
“I just dance. I take it light and move a little bit, and then when I have a little sweat going, I stretch a bit. I also try to say a little prayer or something, and get my mind ready.”
Must-have teaching attire:
“Só Dança brought me on to improve their tap shoes 12 years ago, and I’ve worn them ever since. My favorite thing about the shoe is that it’s light. A lot of shoes these days are heavy both physically and in sound. I like that with this shoe I can have nuance, dynamics and shading, rather than sound like I’m yelling all the time. I use my own strength to get the louder sounds. For clothes, I wear basketball shorts and T-shirts from adidas.”
“I’m vegan—have been for three or four years—and I’m not a good cook. So, there are a lot of almonds in my diet. I also drink as much water as I can throughout the course of the day, along with one coffee, though I’m not huge on caffeine.”
“I love playing basketball, making rap music and drawing. It’s always something founded in rhythm.”
“I’m a gym rat. I love to cross-train. Part of my education as a professional has been identifying the parts of the body I overuse. As a result, I try to work out in a way that can help balance out my muscles.”
Ideal day off:
“Honestly, I don’t even know what a day off looks like. I would say the closest thing I get to a day off is on my birthday every year. I turn off my phone and walk for an hour to reflect and give thanks for still being here.”
Current book obsession:
“I’m inspired by books that feed my imagination. Right now, I’m into Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami. It’s Japanese fiction that really makes you think about human nature.”
Item he never leaves home without:
“I never go anywhere without my Beats headphones. I’m constantly listening to music.”
His guilty pleasure:
“Twizzlers. My students have known me for being a Twizzlers hound as long as I can remember.”