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Dance: The rhythm of truth

Created On March 21st, 2007 by PiNKe
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PiNKe

Member Since : Feb, 2001

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It’s not a rhythm; it’s a language that is born from every sharp blow of metal on the brambly-cemented surface. It’s not just a language; it’s a story that speaks the truth. What truth? The truth of tap. The spontaneity, the impressionism, the lingo, the roots, the rawness, the frenetic energy, the sweat, the tears, the punctuated broken silence and the impassioned storytellers that have used their feet as catalysts for expression, culture and history. Inside the painted vibrant walls of Rhythm N’ Grooves the feet of Grant Swift are burning with a story and language of their own.

“I don’t know…it was just a feeling of destiny that I thought and hoped I could be good at,” says Grant as he stares down at his feet tapping out the story. “I always wanted to be good at something and to be known and respected for it. Just like when I was boxing as a kid – I wanted to grow up and be a champ. Something just rang in my head to tap.” It’s a destiny now realized. As a master of his art, Grant Swift has certainly reached a level of notoriety around the world for being an innovative tap dancer. His feet speak a distinctive language thriving with an energetic, spontaneous and punchy vibe that is constantly evolving but always remaining true. “It’s so different every time – like making love or having an argument,” he says smiling coyly whilst discussing the dynamics of his style. “It’s so different depending on who you’re playing with, who you’re performing to or your feeling on the day. Basically I try to be respectful to the players I’m playing with but also to show them that I am a killer when called on at the same time. I try to be conscious of breathing throughout the performance, which keeps the ears open and opens the mind. I also try to say something that’s on my mind. If I say something I can back it up with tap, even if I say it in my mind.”

With full awareness of the importance of using his art and space to convey messages and create understanding, Swift has harnessed his ability to transcend the natural modes of communication. “If I am performing as a solo I’ll have a few plans and subjects in my mind that gives me a starting point for a tap conversation. For example, if I know I’ve got an audience that has no knowledge of tap history and in their minds they stereotype tap as soft, then I’ll try and let them know that it ain’t. Whereas if I’ve got old legends in the audience I want to show them I’m ready to go to war for them or that I could’ve maybe mixed it with them back in the day.” Thinking about other examples of his multifaceted approach, Swift continues: “You know if I’ve got an audience of kids I know they love the flash stuff – the splits and funny stuff. If I perform with my kids or my students then I want to try and bring their beauty out, and if I’m with my troupe then I’m hoping that they’re representing themselves well and doing my steps right. Recently I performed in America and I came out and told them their president was a piece of shit and then tapped up a storm. You just never know and that’s what is so exciting. Some days are better than others, but really as long as I can dance they’re all good.”

It was, perhaps, Swift’s adventitious and chromatic pathway to tap that has moulded his fresh approach and made the pieces of the puzzle fit together. “Well you know how I ended up boxing and I still really love the sport. Stripping was just a fluke. I came to Australia as a seventeen year old who had hitchhiked from Melbourne to Surfers Paradise with a few stops and stories along the way,” he says with a reminiscent tone. “My plan was to work as a waiter and eventually hook up with a good boxing trainer so I could turn pro. It was just by accident that I walked into this club asking for bar or waiter work and ended up a stripper.” Swift’s accidental fall into stripping was at a time in the mid-eighties when the word ‘ladies night’ was still a foreign language. It was the initial wide spreading of American culture and influence that brought the male review to the land down under. “I had never heard of it but thought I’ll do it. As it turned out I liked it so much I never really seriously went back to the square ring again apart from a few sparring sessions now and then. By the way, that first show was ‘Hollywood Heroes’ and I was James Bond,” he says with a hearty laugh and continues. “From there I went back to Aotearoa and started the first ever male review show which toured the country twice. It was a real buzz. We were on the news and in the papers with women’s groups picketing outside the clubs shouting ‘we don’t want this here’.” After travelling around England and working in London Grant Swift rapidly garnered the reputation as a top shelf performer. He knew it was to be short lived. “I always knew it wasn’t forever though and I was constantly being told what a natural dancer I was and that my talent was going to waste so after a few years I gave it away.” Shying away from temptation Swift made some suddenly large lifestyle changes. “It was a big lifestyle change and a sacrifice but I knew in my soul I had to do it. I shaved off my blond locks and moved to Melbourne from Sydney where it was cheaper to rent and there’d be less temptation to go back to doing a strip gig.”

It was here that Grant Swift’s feet started to learn how to speak their own language. “I had already picked up a few tap steps from a lady called Megan Hanley who was a great dancer. She also got me focused on stretching. To cut a long story short – I put a piece of wood under a tin roof in my back yard and drove the neighbours crazy eight hours a day for one year straight while living off the dole.” With a defiant streak Grant had no qualms about turning the bureaucratic tables around. “I figured that the government dish out heaps for the ballet dancers and other artists to study full time so they can help me become a hoofer. So after a year I went out on the street and started making a living. Through dancing, one way or another, I would avoid working for the man and do my own thing. Not that I’m knocking working,” he says quickly. “I’ve worked and worked hard. I still do work real hard, as a tapper. I also worked as a brickies labourer many times on my tap journeys around the world. In England during my smoko I’d tap on bits of wood while the other boys were checking out the page 3 girl. I had their respect because it was good dedication and when it was time to work I went for it. I got so used to tapping in work boots that for awhile I was wearing redbacks with tap plates on when I was doing gigs in pubs. This was back in 1990, way before tap dogs hit the scene!”

In his hearty laugh, however, you can see more than a lofty joke. It was before tap dogs hit the scene that Swift was seeking refuge in the metal plates. “I grew up idolizing my father, which was both good and bad. My dad was a professional athlete boxer and a good one. He was always in good shape and I’d watch him skip rope and shadow spare in front of the mirror so I always had a strong sense of what physical determination was,” he says with an equally determined expression. “Sadly like many British immigrants to Aotearoa my dad was a racist white supremacist, although he doesn’t think he is. You know the line – he’s a good Maori with out a chip on his shoulder. Anyway, of course I grew up thinking like a racist and had to find my own wisdom and truth as I grew more independent. It was tap that really opened my eyes to the great white illusion. Why was I so drawn to this art form? I loved it and the more I learnt the more I discovered how misled and ignorant my upbringing had been. Elvis wasn’t the king and I knew there was a reason why Hollywood movies gave me the shits and my sisters’ tap dance practice was annoying. So really tap has saved my life in many ways and it keeps me reaching for truth and keeps me fit and inspired as an artist.” Looking back on his childhood Swift can now see the importance of becoming a hoofer and imparting his love and knowledge. “It gives me a sense of duty to share my knowledge and pass it on. You know I was a rebel kid and went to fourteen schools because I kept getting kicked out. My dad left home when I was eight and mum was a real softy. She had a hard time trying to keep me out of trouble,” he says with a slight smirk. “I used to climb the tree in our back yard in the morning so I didn’t have to go to school and mum couldn’t get me down and had to go to work. I used to be able to see the whole neighbourhood going off to work and school and I’d be up there choofin’ on a cigarette. When I’d come down I would go inside, put music on and dance all day. What I’ve realized is that I was always dancing. I never had lessons, but I was always making stuff up.”

It is this energy and inspiration that shines through when Grant Swift performs in the here and now: a fighting spirit that grew beyond the ring, beyond the racism and beyond the review. “Dad was a fighter so I fought as well, but my dad could’ve been a carpenter and I would have followed that, but the special energy that flows through me has always been through what we call dance and I am just grateful that destiny found a way for me to, in some way, fulfil my god given talent. So when you see Grant Swift tap dance you’re seeing a person who knows he’s doing what he was born to do. I mean I could have been a ballet dancer, but the fact that tap is where I ended up shows me how blessed I’ve been because tap fixed my racist head up… you see dance really has been a complete gift to me.” Through tap dance Swift also realized the social and historical presence of African culture on the ancient and modern world and it was through the feet of African-American dancers that he learnt to talk the lingo that had mended his ways. “Firstly and most importantly I realized that it was an African-American thing and not Hollywood, Irish or anything else. I watched videos of who ever I could get hold of back then before internet. It was mainly the Nicholas Brothers, Bojangles, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Gene Kelly, the Condo Brothers and the movie Tap! It was awesome because it had lots of greats in it like Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Arthur Duncan, Sandmann Simms, a 13-year-old Savion Glover, Steve Condos and my hero Gregory Hines. The Nicholas Brothers had a huge influence initially and I still think they’re the most complete dancers ever seen,” he says with absolute conviction. “So I’d sit and watch them all night and then practice all day. I’ve never been able to work out moves and steps from video, but I’d just absorb their feel and spirit. I used to travel around the Melbourne pub circuit with a jazz band called ‘Hot Café’ as well and ended up being flat mates with them. That was great for my learning too, but going to New Orleans and living on the street there tapping with the locals was really crucial! I really learnt a lot there, not just about physical steps but about the evil that gave birth to our beautiful art form.”

By this he means the history of tap. “The origin of tap is a debated question within the tap community. To me and the tap family of which I am proud to be part of – it’s a beautiful art form born of tragedy. It is black with the root of its spirit African. I’m not saying you have to be black to do it just that you gotta know its history. It don’t matter what colour you are just that your heart and mind is coming from the right source otherwise you might as well do Irish dancing to a fiddle or knees up mother Brown or whatever. The big reason so many kids are getting attracted to tap nowadays is because the real beat and style is getting some exposure. Still not enough, but at least it’s some. When today’s kids hear and see the African beat they can relate to it because they’ve grown up with it listening to hip hop et al. You show a kid some Hollywood clip of Fred and Ginger and 95 out of 100 will flick the channel, but if you put a clip of the Nicholas Brothers who were around the same time – 95 of 100 will say ‘who are they?’” says Grant almost pre-empting the answer. “It’s because what they represent is ancient and will inspire for all of time where as what Hollywood was presenting was a trend. In fact Hollywood stole tap from the African Americans and changed it to suit their own agenda and the only way you could tap in a Hollywood movie if you were black was if you were a butler, servant, cook or street hobo with a big ol’ smile, but that’s not what tap is. It is firstly a search for a rhythm. In 1739 the African slaves were banned from playing the drum and this was the birth of tap. It was an expression of ones self as a dancer able to tell stories, show off your special ability and individuality and a release. Oh what a release… tap fits right along side everything that is hip-hop, rock n’ roll, jazz, funk, soul and every other African root art form. It’s just taking longer than most to be seen in the light of truth.”

Nowadays, Grant Swift has made it his mission to continue this historically rooted art form. Starting with Australia. As artistic director of the Melbourne International Tap Festival, part founder and owner of Rhythm N’ Grooves and creator of the two tap troupes, Swift Rhythm Kids and Swift Rhythm Hoovers, Swift is hoping to increase awareness of tap in Australia and across the borders. “I’ve performed as a solo at the NY Tap Festival in 2001 and 2004, the Maui Tap Festival in 2006 and I’ve taken part in jam sessions in the U.S. meeting and networking with hoofers, other tap festival directors and tap dance legends. I’ve held many a jam sessions around town here in Melbourne and will continue to hoping to attract more tappers to join in the jam,” he passionately states. “You see there are a lot of good tappers around Australia who have come up learning through the tap dog system of Dein Perry. A lot of these kids have got amazing footwork capability but they’re scared to improvise because they’re not used to it. It’s like someone with great vocabulary who is unable to converse and instead chooses to read speeches all the time. That’s just not tap, well not the whole picture anyway. That’s another good thing about the Melbourne Tap Festival – it really show cases the tap jam. I want to make people realize tap is on the rise!”

Grant also hopes to use the new studio, Rhythm N Grooves, as a facilitator – paying homage to the legacy of African roots in tap and other art forms whilst educating hoofers in the true meaning of tap. “Hopefully we’ll get tappers kicking some ass on the world stage and people will recognize that they came through RNG. To date I don’t know any other hoofers from here that have gone to America and actually cut it with the best at a down town Harlem jam, other than myself,” he says. “The idea with RNG is to keep it real and as soon as you walk into the place and see all the pictures and information paying respect to the great tappers and Africa – you gotta know we’re for real. Let’s keep it real and earn real respect in the tap dance community. I know that RNG will be a breeding ground for many great artists – not just tappers but drummers and musicians too. It’s a good place to meet people, hang out and develop ideas.” With his two troupes, Swift has definitely fostered some amazing talents and an amazing ideas springboard that will surely enhance the reputation of tap in Australia. “The concept of Swift Rhythm Hoofers and Swift Rhythm Kids was to get my name out in to the scene with some credentials as a teacher and choreographer because the commercial and government funded dance systems are hard to crack for tap dancers tapping from the root. It is up to us to self promote both the art form and ourselves. I really try to encourage individuality in each troupe member for them to realize their own voice with in themselves. The over all message of my troupes is to be innovative but respectful to the roots. Let’s say something and have people leaving the show not just talking about how you tapped or how they liked each persons style, but also challenge their mind with vocabulary and have them leaving and thinking about what we were representing on the night.”

His feet keep tapping away quietly closing off a story that remains open. You see… what Grant Swift is representing is not just a rhythm but a language. While the complexities of his language are equally poignant, challenging, spontaneous and raw Grant Swift’s message and purpose are simple to understand. You see there’s nothing more honest than a pair of tap shoes….

Grant Swift teaches an array of rhythm tap classes at Rhythm N Grooves and regularly performs throughout Australia and beyond its borders. To check out the teaching timetable and upcoming gigs for Grant Swift, please visit the home of Rhythm N’ Grooves


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