Transcript, Episode 45: How TV Sees Ballet, the “Great Cultural Depression,” and Jared Grimes

[Jump to Jared Grimes interview.]

Margaret Fuhrer
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about “Tiny Pretty Things” and “On Pointe,” the two streaming dance shows that premiered over the holidays, which present almost diametrically opposed views of ballet. We’ll discuss the new mental health program that Point Park University and the advocacy group Minding the Gap are developing for dance students. We’ll totally stress ourselves out with a look at the impending great cultural depression, but then we’ll talk also about the glimmers of hope we’re seeing as we head into 2021. And then we’ll air our interview with the multitalented Jared Grimes, who is in the process of choreographing the New York City Center encores production of The Tap Dance Kid. That revival was first announced in September of 2020, so it’s fully a pandemic show, and Jared offers great insight into what that collaborative process has been like, since obviously is a little different than if we were doing this in non-pandemic times, and also why audiences need this particular show at this particular moment.

But before we dive into this week’s news, I actually want to brag a little bit about just how good our upcoming interview lineup is. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be airing conversations with standout choreographers and dancers and dance teachers and dance entrepreneurs, and some artists who fall into more than one of those categories. This beginning-of-the-year time is a naturally reflective moment, and all of these smart artists shared deeply reflective thoughts about how we dance world folks can use the lessons we learned in 2020 to guide us through 2021.

So, what we’re actually saying is we hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast, because we don’t want you to miss out on any of these great conversations. You can do that on your listening platform of choice or at thedanceedit.com/podcast. And while you’re at it, go ahead and leave us a rating and a review if you have a minute.

So now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, our first headline rundown of 2021. Cadence, take it away.


Cadence Neenan:
The all-male dance company 10 Hairy Legs, which has been on hiatus since April 1st due to the pandemic, has made the decision to legally dissolve as of December 31st. The company’s eight-year history will be fully archived in the Library of Congress and 10 Hairy Legs leadership hope that their work will inspire future generations of dancers and dance enthusiasts.

Courtney Escoyne:
On a more cheerful note, a New Year’s Day virtual benefit performance of Ratatouille: The TikTok musical—aka Ratatousical—brought in over $1 million in ticket sales, which will go to benefit The Actor’s Fund. I mean, you just love to see it.

Cadence Neenan:
Russian dancer, Natalia Pronina, was shot dead in Moscow in what is being investigated as contract killing. Pronina, a ballroom dancer who won several international dance competitions, was 30 years old.

Margaret Fuhrer:
One of those headlines that I could not believe was real, it was so horrifying.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right, again, taking it back to more cheerful news: Dance Magazine kicked off the new year with the announcement of its 2021 “25 to Watch” list. The annual list has a pretty stellar track record of predicting the dance stars and leaders of the future. And I have to say, as the editor in charge of pulling it all together, I am very, very glad that it’s finally out in the world.

Cadence Neenan:
Major snaps to Courtney for pulling it all together.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, your baby is born!

Cadence Neenan:
Six months after her husband, beloved Broadway star Nick Cordero, died from complications connected with COVID-19, dancer Amanda Kloots has found a new path as a host on CBS’s “The Talk.” And I just have to say I’m so excited to hear more from Kloots, who is just a gem of a human being and a ray of sunshine in almost everything she does.

Courtney Escoyne:
There’s also been lots of news about dancing robots lately, from pint-sized “smarticles” at Northwestern University to a new video from Boston Dynamics of their Atlas, Spot, and Handle robots doing a coordinated dance routine. I want to make a joke about your 2020 bingo card but we’re in 2021 so…

Cadence Neenan:
No more bingo cards guys, we’re just bringing stuff into existence.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, no more bingo cards.

Cadence Neenan:
Speaking of 2021, in case you missed it, we are officially in the new year, which among other things means that the 2020 Tony Awards did not occur in 2020. Members of the Broadway community seem to be unsure about when the awards will be held. In a recent interview with Broadway News, Tony nominee Aaron Tveit mentioned that he was still unclear on when the awards, originally slated for early December, would be held. Here’s to hoping the performers will get their rightful props in the coming months, or at least in 2021.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Pretty wild.

Cadence Neenan:
I got ghosted by my favorite awards show, and it hurts.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the dance world mourned the passing of Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quiñones, who got his start on “Soul Train” but is perhaps best remembered for starring in the film Breakin’, and Barbara Weisberger, a protégée of George Balanchine’s who went on to found Pennsylvania Ballet. Sort of a mournful note to end our recap on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, those are significant losses, even from a year in which there were a lot of significant losses in the dance world. I think Shabba Doo’s death in particular, because it was so unexpected, hit a lot of people really hard. There were a ton of beautiful tributes to him on social media from today’s commercial dance standouts.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think I saw that he had posted the day before he was found that he was finally COVID negative. It’s just heartbreaking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So in our next segment, we’re going to talk about the fact that since our last round table recording session not one but two big ballet shows have premiered on major streaming networks. On December 14th, “Tiny Pretty Things,” a scripted drama based at a fictional ballet school, debuted on Netflix. And then four days later, “On Pointe,” a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, came out on Disney+. That’s a lot of ballet on mainstream platforms. And the fact that both shows are reaching so many people makes it especially important to consider how they’re presenting the ballet world. The sort of TL;DR summary of that is: in very, very different ways.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. So I was going to start by talking about “Tiny Pretty Things.” Dance Spirit had the chance to talk with some of the creators of the show. And I think, hearing from them, I was really excited about the potential that the show had. The creators spoke about how they were committed to making it feel authentic to dancers, they were casting dancers who could act instead of actors who could pretend to dance. They were consulting with real dancers on little details like how the shoe room might look, how the studio is set up, how dancers might tie their point shoes. They even hired some really legit and well-known choreographers like Guillaume Côté, Tiler Peck, and Robert Binet.

So there was a lot of high hopes for this show, but I think as dancers started to watch it, it may not have lived up to all of those hopes. I think that there was some feedback that while it’s great that they hired real dancers and they wanted to investigate the dance world and talk about some of the real issues within the dance world, they may not have delved into those issues with all of the authenticity that they could have. It seemed like they were relying on the classic stereotypes of dancers, bloody toenails, Black Swan-esque rivalries, overstepping dance moms, and not doing very much to investigate those stereotypes.

Courtney Escoyne:
I feel like I know I at least need to give a disclaimer here: I have not seen the show. I’ve mostly just been seeing reactions on Twitter, we’ve read a couple of thought pieces I think that have been going around. So again, grain of salt, but I will say just from my initial impression from the trailer and also just looking at these reactions I personally did not have the highest hopes that it would be the most nuanced treatment of these issues. I think obviously there is a history in film of showing ballet and showing the glamor but also wanting to show that like gritty underside, Black Swan probably being the most famous contemporaneous example of that.

But I think oftentimes you’re using the trappings of this world that the filmmakers are using essentially to titillate audiences, not really coming at it from a place of, “We want to understand.” And so what it sounds like to me at least from what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been hearing is that there were a lot of really good intentions about these real issues that exist in the ballet world, from racism to eating disorders to other mental health issues—but it sounds like it comes down to a question of, is the writing actually nuanced enough and informed enough to be able to do that? And it sounds like the answer has been a resounding no.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So I’ve seen the first two episodes because that was all I could stomach. I did go into it with some hopes because like Cadence, after doing that Dance Spirit story—there were people that I respected who were involved, and I thought maybe they would help moderate the whole Black Swan-meets-“Pretty Little Liars” angle that, it was obvious from the beginning, Netflix was pushing pretty hard. But Courtney is right, the writing just is not up to snuff. And if the writing were better, maybe I would have been a little bit more patient with it. But there was a big pacing issue; it seems like they just wanted to cram in as many of these stereotypes as possible. So there was no breathing room to investigate them in a meaningful way. And also, to be totally honest, the dancing itself, which is what I was most excited to see, it wasn’t at the level that it should have been. It didn’t realistically represent what dancing at a top-tier school should look like—with the exception of Daniela Norman, who plays June, who is gorgeous and I want to see her dance forever and ever.

That said, I have heard from some friends that they appreciated the way the show portrays one of its gay characters, Shane, who is allowed to be multi-dimensional and have a storyline that goes beyond “sidekick to the central female character,” which is where gay men usually end up in pop culture portrayals of ballet. And I also of course appreciated the casting of a Black female lead. I think that Kylie Jefferson, she’s not the strongest dancer on the show, but I think she’s a very gifted actress. I also thought, for what it’s worth, that she was one of the best parts of the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker documentary—which you should go watch, it is excellent. So I’m excited to see where her career goes. But her storyline, too, what I saw of it, was very two-dimensional. In many ways it’s actually a retread of the Eva storyline from Center Stage, where it’s like, “sassy underdog of color gets her chance to make it big.” Since her character is right at the center of the story I was really hoping for more, just more nuance, more subtlety, more honesty. So, yeah, disappointment.

But anyway, let’s talk a little about “On Pointe,” because in many ways that series bends over backwards not to be “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Courtney Escoyne:
Right. So “On Pointe” is the docuseries following what was going to be a full school year in the lives of some School of American Ballet students. They were actually filming whenever the pandemic hit, and so instead of ending with the end-of-year SAB workshop, it ends up ending with, I believe it’s showing how they actually adapted to, all of a sudden New York City is in lockdown so they’re not going to classes anymore. This is another one, I again, have not gotten around to watching. You guys would think I would have because we’ve been off for the holidays, but no.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. I have to say, full disclosure, I haven’t gotten the chance to watch “On Pointe,” but I do have to say I think that this is the kind of show that has like a little tiny trina, I would have gone absolutely bonkers for. Just getting an inside look into one of these prestigious ballet schools, it would have been everything I would have ever dreamed to have. And just even reading about it, hearing the filmmaker Larissa Bills who created it talk about how she was kind of inspired by the book A Very Young Dancer, which is all about being a ten-year-old student in the School of American Ballet, it reminded me of my own childhood, when I read Royal Ballet School Diaries—I don’t even know if anyone’s ever heard of that book series! I bought at the Scholastic book festival and it was everything to me. And it’s just one of those things where you get a real inside look into what it’s actually like for dancers, without all of the trappings that Courtney was talking about before that are so often overlaid onto these stories. It’s just the kind of thing that I think young dancers especially crave so much. So I really do need to get my Disney+ subscription back so I can watch this one.

Courtney Escoyne:
I will say, however, the week that it was coming out a dear friend of mine who’s also a dancer and also came up as a ballet dancer messaged me, and we had this conversation about how looking at the trailer there was this level of discomfort that we were feeling because it seemed like maybe on some level it was going to gloss over a lot of the issues that actually are at play, both broadly in ballet pedagogy, as well as more specifically in Balanchine-influenced institutions, and even more specifically at School of American Ballet. I think it’s interesting and telling that the filmmakers had been trying to court SAB for a while, and then it was at the end of 2018 when SAB reached out to them. To refresh people who don’t talk about dance news for a living, that was when Peter Martins was leaving under an absolute cloud of scandal. That was a few months before the current leadership team came into existence at New York City Ballet. And so it is—on some level, you have to consider this is calculated.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Retweet to all of that. I have seen almost all of it. And I did thoroughly enjoy watching it mostly because the kids that they choose to follow are wonderful, they’re just great. And they were very thoughtful about choosing a group of students representing a range of races, a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and actually showing their lives outside of the studio, which I thought was fantastic. But yeah, there’s no room for critique of any part of SAB in this show. Which does not surprise me at all, that they would say, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to portray the school as this beautiful diverse ballet utopia, because as Courtney mentioned, SAB is notoriously protective of its students and New York City Ballet is notoriously protective of its image. For the school to sign off on this docuseries, there were going to be limits on what the filmmakers were allowed to show.

But I wish that we could find some pop culture happy medium between “Tiny Pretty Things,” where all the teachers are grotesquely abusive, and “On Pointe” where the instructors are to a person warm and gentle and encouraging, which also doesn’t feel quite real, especially from I think, experiences that some of us have had at the School of American Ballet, or that our friends have had. I wish we could get something closer to the actual lived experiences of ballet dancers that allowed for all the shades of gray that happen there.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of that does come down to the fact that ballet as a rule tends to be quite insular. And even though there is this growing popular culture awareness and popularity of ballet in the mainstream, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the people who are best equipped to tell those stories are the ones telling those stories, because oftentimes they’re busy having a career.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Well, one thing that both “Tiny Pretty Things” and “On Pointe” emphasize is that dance students face incredible stresses not just physically but psychologically. And in our next segment we want to talk about a new program that aims to give students the tools they need to take care of their mental health. As we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, the dance world is historically pretty bad at addressing dancers’ mental health concerns, from toxic perfectionism, to eating disorders, to depression, to anxiety. But in a hopeful development, the advocacy group Minding the Gap has partnered with the dance department at Point Park University to create a mental health program for dance students, the first of its kind. So let’s talk about what they’re doing, exactly.

Courtney Escoyne:
Essentially, as Margaret mentioned, Point Park, led by the department chair, Garfield Lemonius, has teamed up with Minding the Gap’s Kathleen McGuire Gaines, who is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine, and also one of the foremost proponents of increasing mental health access for dancers and being more open about mental health issues in the dance world. So what this program currently looks like—they’re one year into a proposed three-year pilot program. At least for this year, all of the programming that they’ve done has been entirely online. And it’s essentially creating roundtables for students and teachers to discuss mental health issues as they apply to dance. And then next semester I believe the plan is to get into more specific smaller groups, and if they can get funding for it—right now, they’re only funded through the end of the semester—they’re looking at increasing to one-on-one mental health offerings for the dancers themselves within the program. So it’s a start.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Dance Teacher did a story about this, and I thought it was interesting they pointed out that younger, Gen Z students are much more open, generally speaking, than previous generations were in terms of talking about mental health—but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable raising these topics with their teachers, which is a critical breakdown. And then of course the teachers, as the ones with real power, need to be educated in the best practices for developing students with strong self-esteem and then making sure that mental health is destigmatized in the classroom environment, which yeah, again, we’re just at the beginning part of this process.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which I do think that pop culture destigmatization of mental health, like the fact that the students are much more willing it seems to discuss it. It means that those efforts to destigmatize are actually working and making a difference. So our institutions need to catch up and be able to actually support an environment where the healthy dancer isn’t just about their bodies, it’s about their mental and emotional wellbeing as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely.

Cadence Neenan:
I’m so excited about this program—I believe that mental health is so critical to dancers. I think as someone who has anxiety disorder, it just seems like something that is so obvious to me and has been for so long. But I do have to say that reading this story and seeing that this program was coming out of Point Park’s dance department, for me it dinged a couple of bells. I’m pretty involved on dance Twitter, because it’s my whole job. And I was seeing some criticism coming at Point Park’s dance department after a new student had tweeted a photo of their ballet syllabus. And the syllabus listed that 10% of a student’s grade in the class depended on “attitude and weight,” and even went so far as to include a passage that read, “Students of dance are expected to maintain proportionate ‘best performance weights appropriate to their body types at all times.'” So for me, seeing this article, I had some questions coming up. But I will say that Garfield Lemonius, the dance department chair—who was heavily involved with creating The Minding the Gap program—said in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that once he caught wind of the requirement he moved immediately to change it and make sure that those requirements were no longer permitted within the dance department. I think there was action taken once that kind of conversation began, but I do think it’s important to still recognize the past of this institution as they’re moving forward.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think it’s also important to note that they are nevertheless making this effort because, let’s face it, no institution has perfect policies around any of these things, otherwise we wouldn’t be having the conversations at the scales that we are having to have them continually. And so I think acknowledging that like, yeah, this is imperfect but we’re going to keep working towards making it better, that’s true of everyone.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So in our next segment we’re going to start out pretty dark, but then take a new year’s-befitting step back toward the light. The New York Times recently published a story about a looming great cultural depression brought on by the pandemic restrictions that have hit the performing arts incredibly hard—and it feels like we’ve just been saying that on a loop for the past 10 months, but—it’s hit them incredibly hard. The story included some terrifying statistics, and then also this idea that we’re at a point where artists are no longer just losing jobs, they’re now losing careers.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. I think what I thought was the most interesting about this article is, I think we’ve been hearing for months that dancers aren’t working right now, performing artists aren’t working right now, but this article pointed out that this may have longer-reaching consequences than we had originally thought. Like you said, Margaret, it’s not just this temporary loss of jobs but it may be a more permanent loss of careers for performing artists, including dancers. And as you also mentioned, there were some really scary statistics in this article. They mentioned that while the overall unemployment rate is a little below 9% for Americans, for dancers it’s 55%. And while there was supposed to be a $15 billion stimulus relief package for struggling performing arts venues, that has potentially been slowed by our soon-to-be-former president’s response to it—he was questioning why venues like the Kennedy Center were set to receive relief despite the fact that they weren’t open.

But moving on from that, it pointed out that in most areas arts venues like theaters, concert halls, performance spaces—they were the first businesses to close and they’re likely to be among the last to reopen. Since the beginning of the virus it seemed likely that a vaccination was the only way for performing arts venues to come back.

Courtney Escoyne:
I wish I could remember who to attribute this to, but there was a story I was editing for Dance Magazine where there was a comment made that, essentially, there’s a pretty decent chance that we’re going to be seeing dancers change careers entirely because they need to eat, which is harrowing and remains true.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And not just freelance dancers, who obviously are in huge trouble, but there was another New York Times story pointing out the difficulties that larger nonprofits are having attracting donors. They have no tickets to sell right now, so they desperately need funding, but clearly there are many urgent causes soliciting donations. I mean, if you’re an arts nonprofit, how can you respectfully acknowledge that you’re not feeding the hungry or working to improve healthcare, while still underscoring the stakes of your own situation, which is that without adequate support you will die. It’s dire, it’s dire.

But—and do we ever need a “but” after all that—as we head into 2021, there is reason to hope. And that’s how we want to conclude the roundtable portion of this episode. We want to talk about what the dance world has to look forward to this year, and about what we can do to better the odds for the dance artists who are still valiantly making art.

Cadence Neenan:
I mean, I think it’s everyone is feeling this right now, but I do just want to say it because I’m so excited: I think for me seeing that a vaccine was approved and being distributed felt like the first light at the end of the tunnel that I’ve seen in so long, in particular for performing arts. Because if anything has become clear in these conversations, particularly around Broadway possibly reopening, it’s been made clear by the Broadway League that vaccination is really the only way that we’re going to get people back into theaters. So that was one of those tangible moments where I started to think, at some point I will be able to see Hadestown again! And that for me was a huge, huge moment of hope.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, we also over the course of 2020 got this crash course in making and distributing digital work. We were forced to grapple with some of the big picture problems that have plagued our field for a long time. We stopped taking anything, almost literally anything, for granted. So the thought now is how can we apply those lessons—lessons from the digital transformation, lessons about diversity and equity and inclusion, lessons about what dance really means to us—in this new year as dance slowly begins to return to theaters. There is hope, as we’ve been saying a lot, there is hope in that this year we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to rebuild stronger and better.

All right, we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back we’ll have our interview with Jared Grimes. Stay tuned.

[pause]


JARED GRIMES INTERVIEW

Margaret Fuhrer:
Our guest on the podcast today is the one and only Jared Grimes. Hi Jared.

Jared Grimes:
Hello!

Margaret Fuhrer:
He is a renowned tap and hip-hop and street jazz performer. He’s a teacher, he’s a choreographer, a singer, an actor. I mean, talk about a multi-hyphenate talent—that is many hyphens. His long list of credits includes directing and choreographing the Signature Theatre production of After Midnight, and he also performed and contributed choreography to the Broadway production of that show. And you can currently see him as the mysterious Adrian on NBC’s show “Manifest.” So welcome, Jared. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jared Grimes:
Thanks for having me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The reason we’re talking right now is because you’re choreographing the New York City Center Encores! revival of The Tap Dance Kid, directed by Kenny Leon, who you worked with on A Soldier’s Play on Broadway. Congrats, that is super exciting.

Jared Grimes:
Thank you so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we’re all about to learn a little bit more about the show via the Encores! Inside the Revival digital series. Its next episode, premiering January 13th, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the production’s creative process. But to get started: The Tap Dance Kid, the show has a pretty incredible history. What was your connection to and your experience with it prior to the Encores! production?

Jared Grimes:
Oh man, it was a show that I was too young to actually probably experience when it was in its heyday. But I think the first recollection I had of the show was knowing that Carlton from “Fresh Prince,” that was his big start.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Alfonso Ribeiro.

Jared Grimes:
Yeah! So Alfonso Ribeiro, who I just met this past year—that was bizarre—but it was funny because he would dance every once in a while on “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” or sometimes they would let him tap. I was like, “Wait a minute.” I was like, “That’s awesome.” I thought that was super cool that at a young age somebody that I saw on TV every week and thought was a great actor, a great comedian, great TV personality—I was like, “Oh man, he does other things.” I had grown up at that point—I was 10, maybe 11, 9, when that show started coming on. And to actually see somebody who was maybe somewhat close to my age or appeared to be close to my age that was a triple threat, that was something different than what I had actually seen in all the movies that I was watching. Because I was watching old men be triple threats. You know, the Fred Astaires, the Sammy Davis Jrs, the Nicholas Brothers, the Bill Robinsons, the Gene Kellys and the Gregory Hines and stuff like that, they were older men. Alfonso was one of the first kid stars that I saw who sang, tapped and danced and was a great actor. I was just like, “Oh man, cool.”

Everybody was like, “Yo, he got his start on Broadway in the show called Tap Dance Kid.” I was like, “Oh, that’s super cool.” You know what I mean? He was on Broadway. He was a Broadway star as a little kid and he’s a television star now and a household name pretty much. I was just like, “Man, that’s awesome.” I started to look into the show even more and learned about the likes of the Hinton Battles out there and the Dulé Hills and stuff like that. And I was just like, “Aw, man, it’s cool.” And meanwhile learning about it as a little kid, I didn’t really care about who was in the show. It was more about the kid. And I was like, “Oh man, I’d love to be that kid one day and make it to TV and stuff like that.”

And yeah, that was like my first recollection of Tap Dance Kid, just knowing that like, wow, there was a show out there that was creating young superstars. And I would love an opportunity to actually get a platform like that and see where it could take me. And as a young kid, I wasn’t doing Broadway and stuff like that, but it planted the seed in my mind that I wanted to be a performer and that I didn’t have to wait to be that. I could be it right then and there at 8, 9 years old, and yeah, I was ready for it. At that point that was like, “Oh yeah, I’m ready for this.” Like, “It can happen any day now.” As opposed to, “I need to wait and go to school and become a grown man before I actually have an opportunity to be an entertainer.” So yeah, that is what it was for me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And how did you then get involved with this Encores! production? How did you come on board?

Jared Grimes:
You know, what’s funny is like every tap dancer, they always have those shows, they say, “Man, I wish I could redo that.” Or, “I wish I could remake that, or remix it, or bring that back from the dead and revive it,” and all that crazy stuff. And I’ve never really had that bug. I’ve always had the bug to create my own show, do my own thing, write my own stories and stuff like that. And I would say maybe over the last, like four or five years for some reason I’ve had the itch to take Broadway classics and just put a different spin on them. And I don’t know what that is, but I think that may be just because of my maturation as a choreographer. I have a little bit more of an obsession now with the way things were done and maybe how I can put my spin on it.

And with that comes the tall task of classics that people think are legendary for a certain way or through a certain choreographer or through a certain lens. And I think my maturation has put a chip on my shoulder and made me competitive in terms of challenging myself and giving things a new light and a new perspective, especially when it comes to tap, with shows that don’t even have tap in them. So I had that bug for a while and on that long laundry list of shows, Tap Dance Kid was one of them now. I never thought that… I knew I could make it happen if I wanted to, but in terms of it happening in the way that I thought would line up everything in terms of everybody involved and stuff like that, that wasn’t in my mind.

And lo and behold, here come Kenny [Leon], talking about, “What do you think about Tap Dance Kid?” I was like, ” You know what? Your ears must’ve been itching or something like that because that’s been in the back of my mind for like a couple of years now.” And he was like, “Yeah, well you know what? I’m thinking about doing that.” I was like, “All right, cool. Let me know what you need.”

At that point, usually when people ask me to be a part of a project, I have to ask a question: “Well, you want me to be in it or you want me to choreograph it or you want me to do both?” Because I’m one of those people, to the grave, I’m doing everything under the sun when it comes to entertainment. And as many things as I can do when it comes to creating, I’m always up for it. So I asked him that question. He’s like, “What’d you think about choreographing? I was like, “Boom, let’s get it.” And at that point in time it wasn’t confirmed. He was just like, “All right, well, I’ll let you know.”

And then in true Kenny fashion—usually when we talk, we are talking about basketball. So he texted me, and I’m thinking, “We’re going to be talking about the game or something like that.” And he was like, “You’re probably going to hear from the agents in a little bit.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” I completely forgot about Tap Dance Kid. I thought he was maybe talking about something else, A Soldier’s Play or something like that. And they were like, “Yeah, you got an offer for The Tap Dance Kid.” I was like, “So it’s going down down down. So that’s cool.” And he’s like, “Are you down man?” And I was like, “Boom, yeah I’m down.”

So it’s something that my brain has been preparing itself for, for a while. And I’m just ecstatic that it I’ll get the opportunity to actually do it with Kenny, who I consider, I call him my coach. I consider him to be like one of my mentors and I’m always studying him and studying his greatness and his excellence and stuff like that. And it’s super cool that he’s brought Lydia Diamond in, who’s somebody else I really… I’m going to look forward to learning to, or learning from, and it’s going to be like college for me. And I’m definitely going finish my four years with flying colors when it comes to this college.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So let’s talk more about Kenny Leon, the director you’ve been mentioning, and Lydia Diamond, who’s adapting the musical. How have the three of you been working together to bring this story, great as it is, to bring it into the 21st century? And how does your choreography, especially, support that new vision for the show?

Jared Grimes:
I mean, just the fact that I’m in the building is already enough of the contemporary spin that I think Kenny and Lydia were possibly looking for. Usually my MO is I’ll never compromise the integrity of any period or any show for the sake of my own ego. I always look to fuse the way I feel about today with the way I feel about then and the way everybody else felt about then, and the way the characters felt about then as well. So I’m a big fanatic when it comes to fusing eras, fusing styles, fusing genres, fusing mentalities, fusing social mentalities, political mentalities, cultural mentalities. So that’s why I say the fact that I’m in the building, I think that already gives a little bit of a 2020, 2021 edge to matters.

But then with that being said, I could be doing the Charleston—and we know that’s a classic move of eras long, long past—but the fact that I’m doing a Charleston automatically gives it a contemporary edge to it. Same thing with the trench, same thing with the Maxie Ford, Suzie Q, all that stuff. I can go to the club and do that stuff right now, and nobody would know the difference. They’d be like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I’d be like, “Oh it’s from the ’30s, it’s from the ’40s.” So, I’m super looking forward to working with Kenny and Lydia, knowing that they want to put a fresh take on the story of Tap Dance Kid. And I’m super open to what the texts provides. I told Kenny, I was like, “When it comes to this project, my impulses, my instincts are pretty much probably going to be right based off of what you guys give me and I’m super looking forward to you guys throwing out ideas.”

And that’s one of my favorite things about working in TV and film and in theater, is working with the director, working with a writer and accomplishing what I know is going on in their mind. Because a lot of the times they’re not dancers and I’m so intrigued with the way like a non-dancer wants to produce in dance. I’m so intrigued by that. That’s one of the most fascinating things for me to study is people who are not dancers or who have no rhythm. Now I’m not saying that that’s Lydia or Kenny, but I usually find inspiration in the furthest things from dance. And so therefore when it comes to like a director who’s not known for dancing, or when it comes to a writer who’s not known for dancing, I just automatically get super excited to meet them in the middle and make their wishes and their ideas and their visions come to life through movement.

And so that’s like the life I’ve been breathing into the beginning stages of the show, which I know Kenny and Lydia are like, “Yeah, we are going to be able to do this. We’re going to be able to do that because of J.” So I know they’re probably having a good time just knowing that I’m game for any vision that they bring to the table, but it’s definitely going to have a… Ooh! It’s definitely going to be for a new generation. I know that for sure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
For people who might be less familiar with the show, can you give just sort of a CliffsNotes version of the story? And then I know it’s very much in-process, so, which parts of that have you been able to work on so far? Which numbers have you been finessing?

Jared Grimes:
Yeah. We’ve been working on “Fabulous Feet,” so—even if you don’t know the show, you probably heard of “Fabulous Feet” before. That’s one of the most iconic songs in Broadway history. And I mean, oh my goodness, just getting to work on that song was surreal because I’ve heard it and I’ve seen Hinton Battle destroy it down so many times. Just a standard hit. I always get enamored with his triple threat nature. Like I said, those are the guys that I came up on, him, André De Shields, all those guys—oh my gosh, those guys in their heyday, and still are now, to this day, people that I look up to. And so like, “Fabulous Feet,” it was kind of like, all right, well, I already know it. I already know what was done, I know the song! So it was just like going into it, it’s just getting into the creative space with Dulé and figuring out where we want to take it based on his abilities and based on how he always wanted to do the number. And then we pushed and then we reached some outside of that.

The Tap Dance Kid is a story of a kid trying to find his way in entertainment, and realizing family is not always the answer. Sometimes you have to challenge your family to expand their minds and their mentality in order to achieve your own greatness. And what’s happening in Tap Dance Kid and “Fabulous Feet” is pretty much… That’s what the show embodies. It’s like when you have something that is an asset, when you have something that is a blessing, when you have something that is a gift, there’s no way humanly possible you can stifle that energy, you can’t stifle the possibility of connection with people. There’s no way, you just have to let it out. Sometimes you have to look down and say, “Yo, I have fabulous feet and I can’t change that. So I’m going to use it to the best of my ability and I’m going to try to create change and inspire somebody else to have fabulous hands for playing the piano or have a fabulous voice or to have fabulous vision or to have fabulous lines.”

And so I like to think that the version of this show or this iteration of the show is really going to allow people to find their own shine and never deny themselves of that liberty. Even if family’s against you, or if you have a boss that’s against you, or religion is against you, or culture is against you or customs are against you, or the economy is against you. I think that we aim to show the world that like I said, whatever it is that is your calling, whatever it is that you feel like is your passion, and is your outlet, and is your release, and your ultimate connection to the world and your connection with creating tomorrow for yourself: Sing about it. Dance about it. Write about it. Love it. Compete with it. Stretch it. Challenge it. But never deny it. That is the story of Tap Dance Kid. It was just spreading your wings and recognizing your fabulous feet.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Let’s talk for a minute—you were mentioning Dulé Hill, who’s your Uncle Dipsey. You have this great relationship with him. And I mean, he was, of course—a lot of people already know he was in The Tap Dance Kid as a kid, as you mentioned, he played Willy. And now working with him on this new production, and having this history with him, too—how did the two of you sort of vibe creatively? How do you feed off each other’s creative energy?

Jared Grimes:
It’s a party. I first saw Dulé performing on Broadway a long time ago in [Bring in ‘da] Noise, [Bring in ‘da] Funk, and I didn’t even know who he was. My favorite tap dancer, like my current tap dancer of all time and he was also in that show as well is Baakari Wilder. He’s still somebody I look up to greatly. So I was hyped to go see him in that show and everybody else in the show too, because as a young kid, 12, 13, that show was like heaven for me. And I was listening to the soundtrack and I was listening to all of Baakari’s solos and stuff like that. And I was like, “Aw, man. Mom, I can’t wait to see him.”

And I went to New York and I took class with him too. And then when I went to see the show, I was like, “This other dude.” I noticed there was something different about him. I was like, “He’s bringing like an acting edge to his character and everything like that.” And it always stuck with me because like I said, I was a musical theater kid and I was singing and dancing and acting, and so my eye always gravitated towards somebody I felt was similar to me. And that planted the seed, it was like: Dulé Hill, Dulé Hill, Dulé Hill. And I was like, “Man, that dude is… I need to put him on my radar.”

And then I saw that he was in a movie, She’s All That. And then I saw that he moved out to L.A. and he’s on “The West Wing.” And I was like, “He’s the blueprint.” I was like, “That’s the blueprint for me,” because Greg [Hines] was gone. And when I was in college, Gregory passed away I think in my freshman going into sophomore year. Sammy [Davis Jr] was no longer here. A lot of the greats were passing on, the ones that I felt like were the blueprint for me. And I was like, “Who’s the young guy doing that?” I was like, “It’s Dulé, it’s him.” This dude is destroying Hollywood. He’s still actively singing and tap dancing. And I was like, “He’s a tap dancer.” And I was like, “He’s literally the descendant of the Gregory blueprint.”

So I just started to study him. I literally started to study him. I was watching all these projects that he was a part of. I was learning about who his agents were. And me, I’m just like a sponge, I will study the goal in mind down whatever it takes and, and I’ll study and I’ll try to figure out how to do that in my own way. And then I got to meet him when I was doing a show called Imagine Tap! down in Chicago with choreographer Derek Grant, another mentor of mine. And Dulé came to see the show and he came backstage and I was like, “Yo!” I didn’t fan out. But I was like, “Yo! Man, you’re the blueprint. I’ve been studied you for so long.”

And at that time I was doing like maybe small parts and TV here and there, but I wasn’t like a recurrent role on any show, I hadn’t really gotten my foot in the door yet. But he was one of the reasons why I first realized that it was possible, like that kind of performer is possible. The guy whose first love is tap dance can also act and sing and write and choreograph and direct and produce.

So meeting him—I think it was 2009, 2008, something like that—meeting him was just like, bang. And then he was like, “Yo, take my number.” And I was like, “What!” So I got his number, and we just kept up over the years. If I was doing a show, he would hit me up and say he was in town, he was coming to the show. Or if he knew I was in L.A. or something like that for a particular reason, he would hit me up or I would hit him up or I would ask him questions. He was always an open book for me, so he became like a big brother figure.

And then the first time we actually got to work together was on After Midnight on Broadway. And it was funny too because people were asking me about different roles and stuff like that—Wynton Marsalis was asking me about who to cast in different roles. And I was like, “I don’t know what he would do on this project but I was like he can do anything.” But they were already thinking about him anyway. So it was so cool—we finally got in the same room. And it was just cool to see how he worked. And he actually wasn’t tap dancing in the show, and I was like, “Man, that’s kind of, that’s crazy.” And it was still kind of great for me to see him be so great without actually putting on a pair of tap shoes. So I was like, yet again, I’m constantly learning from the consummate professional that he was.

And so we did After Midnight, we got like eight months out of that. We did the Tonys and everything like that. And I’m just soaking it up. Talking to him, he’s talking to me, we’re having great conversations. I’m watching him onstage every night and he’s watching me onstage every night. And then after that, a couple of years go by, and we’re still big bro bro, little bro bro. And we work again on, I think he recommended me for Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, which he was staring in and alongside Daniel Watts, who is somebody I grew up with as well too. And they were like, “Yeah, we got this big tap number in the show, we want you to come out and do it.” And I was in South Korea filming a movie at that time and I was like, “Oh, okay, cool. I got to figure out if I can get out of my contract to come there to spend like three days to just put that production number together and do it. And so I ended up being able to, and I flew from South Korea into Pennsylvania and I choreographed the number and then flew back to South Korea to go back to set to film Swing Kids, South Korean version. And that was awesome, that was great. And then they did it again at the Geffen and I got to elaborate and expand on a couple of different numbers. Yeah, we just had a good time with that project again. And it was yet again, another project with a creative team that we had a great experience with.

And here we go again with Tap Dance Kid. And I mean it was just like the universe literally dropped Dulé in the palm of my hand. I was like, “Yo, this guy is going to be somebody that’s going to be just a great symbol of hope when it comes to what you you strive for as an artist and they’ll work completely different.” We’re similar in so many ways. And like him—it’s so weird, he was like the blueprint and now he’s like big bro. So it’s so crazy even thinking there was a time when he was just like the guy on the television screen or on a stage and I was always trying to figure out how to pattern myself after, to having his phone number, to being onstage with him, to choreographing numbers that he’s a part of. So I’m always in good company with him and I’m always learning a lot from him. And it’s so much positive energy and so many laughs and so much inspiration that the movement is almost second to just our bond.

And like choreography happens—it happens super fast. It’s like, we’ll just be in a room, we’ll be like, boom, it’s done. I’m like, “Boom, this, that, what you think about this? Maybe that? We turn here and you want to double? Do a double turn. Oh, you want to try a right full? Switch that, okay, cool. Triplets? Nah, maybe take that back. I’ll add a pull back on that.” It flies, and then he just kills, he destroys, like he kills. So I can always throw anything at him. And we laugh through the craziness and we seek the stuff beyond what people expect when it comes to musicality, when it comes to music, when it comes to style, and we’re always trying to channel some of the icons that we both look up to as well.

So he’s a no-brainer for me every time, when it comes to like any project. I don’t care if it has tap in it. If he’s just there, it’s a no-brainer. I’m like, “Yeah, Dulé for whatever. ” Like, we riding horses? Dulé. Oh, we’re painting pictures? Yeah, call Dulé. Skateboarding? Call Dulé, let’s get him on it. [laughs]

Margaret Fuhrer:
So I want to talk about, too, that obviously you’re trying to create this number during a pandemic, which poses some challenges. What has that whole process been like? And have you also found that it sort of sparked your creativity in any unexpected ways?

Jared Grimes:
It’s the same, I’m not going to lie. The only thing that’s different is the laptop. I mean, for me, the energy is still the same. The fun is still the same. My process is still the same. I’m just not there. But I’m still just as effective and probably effective even more in certain ways, just because of the accent that the computer provides. So, can’t stop, won’t stop, it’s the same thing for me. It hasn’t really dampened my creative process or anybody that I’ve worked with. It’s always more fun to be in the room with somebody, but then again, I don’t have to get on a plane and fly out to Dulé to choreograph. I’m now just going to hit a button and I could be in his garage or he could be at my garage and we can get things done. So it has its advantages, it has its disadvantages, but overall, I feel like I’m still good to go.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is a big question and you’ve touched on it a little bit already, but how would you say that The Tap Dance Kid, this production of it, speaks to the issues and the challenges that are facing the performing arts world and really just the world as a whole today? Why is it important for audiences to see this show at this moment?

Jared Grimes:
Well, there’s a stereotype out there in terms of the African-American male being limited to certain things that culturally are glorified in mainstream media: rap, sports, singing, dancing. And somehow that’s… you know how the mainstream media can do, they can saturate and de-saturate things so much that it kind of strips—things with so much cultural integrity, it strips it away, and just makes it dancing, or just makes it Black, or just makes it Broadway, or just makes it a timestep, or just makes it tap shoes. And it’s so much more. The legacy of what tap dance means to the African-American culture, the legacy of what jazz music means to African-American culture and what jazz music spawned in terms of bebop and contemporary music and everything, comes from jazz. And Tap Dance Kid to me is a celebration of those two having always worked in harmony since the beginning of time, since slavery. They were two cultural bright spots for African-American people that not only gave us a voice, but it allowed people to see the beauty of what it was to be Black and to celebrate Black culture. And tap dance and singing and dancing, that’s just a few of the ways, those aren’t the only ways. But I think it’s great for us to celebrate shows like Tap Dance Kid because it shows the passing of the torch, the continuation of not just tap dance or tap shoes, but the continuation of a cultural legacy that connects with people who tapped because they had their instruments taken away. Or that was the only way that they could communicate. Or that was the only thing that they had as a personal recess to do after working tirelessly, for a world that pretty much reduced them to just work.

And so The Tap Dance Kid is a long way from that type of grip, negative grip. It’s definitely a huge departure from that. But it definitely like, that’s how far we’ve come, we’ve come this far to be able to do The Tap Dance Kids of the world, to be able to do the Jelly’s Last Jams of the world, to be able to do the After Midnights of the world. And the Sophisticated Ladies of the world, the Eubie!s of the world. Tap Dance Kid is one of those things that is continuing the tradition of not letting people forget that a lot of this world was built on jazz music. A lot of this world was built on what jazz music made people do, which was sing, which was dance, which was come together, which was tap, which was Lindy Hop, which was create and write poetry, which was to create Broadway, which was to defy segregation, which was to break down racial barriers, which was to affect politics, to affect and put an imprint on class structure and race and sex.

Everything comes from jazz, and boom, tap comes from jazz as well, the way tap kind of paralleled in harmony with jazz. And then boom, Tap Dance Kid. It’s very important for us to have a window to the past in the form of Tap Dance Kid and Uncle Dipsey and the Willies of the world. We have to have that. Without that we only have the Lil Waynes, without that we only have the Kanye Wests. I’m not knocking them, but we have to understand where that comes from. Because if we just understand that, we’ve neglected such a beautiful and rich history of a people that really sparked the foundation of the things they make so many different races and so many people happy today.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much, Jared. Please, everyone be sure to tune in to the Encores! Inside the Revival episode on The Tap Dance Kid, that’s premiering January 13th. You can find it on the New York City Center YouTube channel, which we’ll link to in the episode description, we’ll do all that. And then Jared, what else do you have on the horizon that you’d like to call out? Are you filming right now for “Manifest”?

Jared Grimes:
Yeah, stay tuned for season three. I’m not filming at the moment, I’m away for the holidays. But yeah, we are still filming. Season three is going to be crazy, oh my goodness! And of course After Midnight, my directorial debut, some directing and choreographing After Midnight, which I was a part of Broadway. And I got some screenplays in the oven that we’re working on right now, one in particular with Wynton Marsalis. So yeah. Be on the lookout for that kind of stuff. I’m just out there really trying to push the envelope, and using this time that we all have to continue to create. That way, when things get better, there’s some new kids on the block when it comes to television and film and theater as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh and I should mention, to keep up with everything that Jared has going on, make sure you’re stalking him properly on social media.

Jared Grimes:
Yes, crazy stuff.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’ve got some fun stuff! So you’re @grimeystepz on Instagram, and also on TikTok. You have a pretty good TikTok thing going.

Jared Grimes:
It’s pretty fun. I’m not trying to be a viral social media person, but I do love sharing and I do love making people happy and seeing people smile and just entertaining in whatever way I can do that. I’m always seeking that opportunity. So, can’t be onstage? Boom, I can just post a little video that makes you inspired or it gives you joy in some way or form. When I’m onstage, boom, I can still make that video. I’ll just be doing it while I’m onstage at the same time. So the performing and the entertainment never stops, and it should never stop, for anybody.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Jared. I actually was able to preview his “Encores! Inside the Revival” episode, and you get some really fantastic behind-the-scenes glimpses of Jared working remotely with Dulé Hill on “Fabulous Feet.” You can just feel the creative electricity between these two, even as they’re working long-distance, tapping in their respective garages. So be sure to check out that episode when it premiers next Wednesday.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye everyone, and Happy New Year.