An Apprenticeship in American Tap Dance
San Francisco-based tap dancer John Kloss is a current participant in the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ Apprenticeship Program as a master artist with apprentice Charles John Grant from South San Francisco. The apprenticeship focused on several goals for 15-year old Grant’s development in the American dance tradition which fuses a diverse amalgam of cultural influences, including African drum rhythms and the jigs and reels of North Europe, evolving in conjunction with American jazz music. (For a general history of rhythm tap, see current Apprenticeship Program participant Tal Oppenheimer's profile on her apprenticeship with Sam Weber.)
Their apprenticeship goals include ensuring that Grant has the technique, information and tools "to create his own style" by developing his own artistry and creativity in the form; to increase his ability to improvise in the form; to learn progressively complex tap rhythms; and, as Grant states, "I’d like to experience the tap tradition of passing down the knowledge from foot to foot."
The apprenticeship took primary form in regular one-on-one lessons which supplemented the ongoing classes, and offered new material for Grant, who has been taking classes with Kloss since they first met in 2005 when Grant was a youth participant in the Bay Area Tap Festival, an annual event which Kloss directs through his organization STEPOLOGY which he founded in 2003. Lessons occurred at various studios in San Francisco, including City Dance, San Francisco Dance Center, and ODC Dance Commons.
Kloss began dancing when he was five-years old growing up in suburban Chicago. A doctor was concerned about Kloss' "pigeon toes" and recommended that Kloss start dancing, and he "took to tap dance like fish to water," studying for a few years until other pursuits resulted in his quitting tap dance. While recovering from a teenage knee injury and subsequent surgery, he saw a broadcast of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 classic An American in Paris. Re-inspired, he reconnected to his former teacher, Cary D’Amico, and "got serious." A dream of dancing with Los Angeles’ Jazz Tap Dance Ensemble brought him to California, which subsequently led him to San Francisco. He has trained with a variety of tap masters including Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Ted Levy, Robert L. Reed, Lane Alexander, Gregory Hines and Sam Weber.
Grant's dancing career had a similar genesis when he started dancing alongside his twin sister Andreanna as a doctor-recommended remedy for health. He began his studies at South San Francisco’s Schumacher School of Dance when he was eight-years old, primarily studying with Katie James. "I knew I liked it from the beginning." Grant describes why he wanted to work with Kloss in this apprenticeship: "I admire the confidence he has with his students… I admire his syncopated rhythms and how at ease he is when improvising. I would like to become more confident when improvising. I want to learn more of the history of the art form."
Kloss reflects that he chose to work with Grant because of Grant's "aptitude and commitment as demonstrated… both in the classroom and as a young performing artist. For his age and level of experience, he has accomplished a remarkable amount in a very short time and has demonstrated a rare potential to progress to an extremely high level of ability."
In studio, material they worked on included fundamentals like the century-old Shim Sham; the Walk Around (a two-chorus dance called the Coles Stroll named after tap legend Honi Coles), which is often used by up to a dozen tap dancers on stage to open dance performances and is linked to Bill Robinson and The Copacetics; and EB Choruses and BS Chorus which were developed by tap dancer Eddie Brown in the 1930s.
Their apprenticeship helped to contextualize them both in a longer lineage of practitioners. Comments Kloss: "I enjoyed the apprenticeship because I feel like I’ve accumulated 15 years of these traditional dances, tricks, drills, warm ups and approaches that are very important for me to be able to communicate to somebody in bulk, like we’ve now been able to do because otherwise, a lot of this stuff gets lost with the folks who carry it."
Drills also focused on grab offs, dynamic and highly physical phrasing across the floor, and time steps, cyclical steps that dancers once used to inform rhythm, feel and tempo for accompanying bands, and is often used in choreography and Broadway shows. Time steps are important in rhythm tap because of the forms emphasis on musicality. While there are virtually endless varieties of time steps, Kloss worked with Grant on time step routines developed by key tap masters from the 20th century. During the lessons, Kloss comments that together they were "able to fine tune and fix those shuffles and be able to learn greater amounts of material in the sessions" than Grant was learning prior, accelerating Grant's progress and growth. He concluded that, "We’ve both got stronger with the regular sessions."
San Francisco Performing Arts Library (PALM) and Kloss' own collection of footage also served as a resource for them in developing a viewing list of dancers and tap dance footage on file. Tap dancers whom Grant observed on screen included luminaries like Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Chuck Green and Steve Kahn. Grant had to write a one page biography on each of these artists, and watched footage with Kloss, who pointed out specific techniques unique to each artist, highlighting each dancer’s distinct style. Discussing older footage of important tap dancers became a way to track the history and styles of tap dance, and was critically linked to Grants development of choreographic content, another goal which Kloss eventually wants to push Grant towards.
"I've been having a lot of fun... that’s probably the thing that keeps me coming—it’s fun. I've been learning a lot of new steps, and was glad to come here and dance every Sunday," Grant said. "I've learned also that it is hard work. You have to practice, be dedicated and work really hard. I think that I want to continue doing this because I just love it."