TAPPING INTO ART: “Hey,” Jared Grimes said after his foot landed with a resonant thump on the stage’s marley. The word was actually grunted.
He followed the expression with a James Brown-like “Uh,” as the heel and toe taps on his shoes perpetuated a percussive groove. I found myself tapping my own foot and slapping my knees to Grimes’ beat.
The Saturday evening performance at Emmett Robinson Theatre was part of Spoleto Festival USA’s opening weekend. There will be about 160 performances in Charleston over two weeks, making it one of the largest in Spoleto history.
The festival runs through June 9, and I’m sure Grimes will be one of this year’s best reviewed performances. (Charleston City Paper’s reviewer gave Grimes an A.)
Feet become an instrument in tap dancing, which is believed to have originated in the mid-19th century minstrel shows. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr. are just a handful of performers who have tapped their way to fame from the stage and screen.
In recent decades, tap dancing has declined, at least in a pop culture context, in such a way that one couldn’t be faulted for not being able to name a tapper other than Savion Glover.
“Happy Feet,” the 2006 animated musical film which won an Oscar for best animated feature, featured a dancing penguin. Glover performed the routines.
Instead of a drummer, the indie-pop band Tilly and the Wall uses the tap dancing of Jamie Pressnall for the drum beat.
At Spoleto, Grimes, who was raised in North Carolina, linked tap’s past and future through a four-part exploration of the genre. The show began with Grimes dancing a solo routine. A core principle of tap is a dancer’s ability to improvise, and Grimes’ emphasis on staccato fluidity was apparent as soon as his feet hit the floor.
Grimes frequently smiled with uncontained glee, though facial expressions are easy to miss when something below is the focus of attention.
DeWitt Fleming Jr. joined Grimes on stage, sitting on a stool behind a snare drum and ride cymbal. Grimes sat down for water and to wipe sweat from his face as Fleming brushed a beat on the snare.
“Come on,” Grimes said. “Right there. We gonna come back to that.”
Grimes sang a snippet of the jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” before, essentially, jamming with Fleming. They swapped notes and leads. It was not unlike the discourse that a honking saxophonist has with a pursuing percussionist.
Next Grimes addressed classic tap seen on Broadway. Karida Griffith and Robyn Baltzer, two female dancers, were introduced to the audience. A highlight of the section — and the whole show, really — was the duet Grimes performed with Fleming, also an exceptional dancer, to Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm.”
It began with Fleming and Grimes playfully trying to one-up each other in a tap version of the schoolyard game H-O-R-S-E before breaking into a synchronized routine. The comedic intro to the duet is a vestige of the vaudeville performances when blacks weren’t allowed to perform solo before Robinson broke the mold.
Broadway gave way to a segment titled “Blending and Commercializing.” Anchored by EDM loops, the segment was an illustration of how easily the movements in the streets and clubs can be adapted for the stage. Grimes, who entered wearing high top sneakers before changing back into tap shoes, added contortions to his movement that invoked the spasmodic beauty of Les Twins.
For the final segment which combined elements of the previous three, Grimes, Fleming, Griffith and Baltzer took turns soloing in a dance equivalent of a street cipher. And they had fun with the runs each other made.
Grimes, who has danced with Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen, revisited an earlier move — balancing on the side of one shoe while tapping with the other foot — that exhibited the grace and strength of the tap.
By then, Grimes didn’t have to express anything more. He had me at “Hey.”