Talk to Jared Grimes about tap dancing, and it’s only a matter of time before the topic turns to basketball.

In fairness, the original topic doesn’t really have to be dance. When he talks about his film career, it relates to basketball, too. His childhood split between New York City and High Point, N.C.? Lots of basketball references. His first appearance on Showtime at the Apollo? Oh yeah.

“I met Nipsey Russell,” Grimes recalls. “But performance like that was easy for me. Basketball was always a challenge.”

So let’s get the basketball thing out of the way first. Grimes is the only child of a middle-class family from Jamaica, Queens. Mother taught kindergarten. Father worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Worried that city life might lead their son astray, the Grimes moved back to Carolina, uprooting 6-year-old Jared and enrolling him in every activity they could find: gymnastics, karate, baseball, dance classes.

“It was a huge change,” Grimes says. “I went from all the kids looking like me to all my friends having blonde hair and blue eyes.”

And in that urban-suburban Piedmont world where life revolves around hoops, young Grimes found his way through adolescence via round ball. He was good enough to start for Southwest Guilford High School, and might have had a future in it. If he’d ever grown past 5′ 8″.

Which might have something to do with why, all these years later, with his musical stage career on the rise and a bright future as one of the most critically acclaimed tap artists on the modern scene, basketball seems to relate to so many subjects for him. It’s practically the only thing he’s ever tried that he couldn’t take to the top level.

Grimes’ mother, a former dancer herself, was a classic stage mother who raised him on Manhattan auditions and classes, a routine that didn’t stop simply because the family moved to High Point. “By the time I turned 18, I’d done commercials for Cheerwine, Kohl’s,” he says. “I did a video for some company that made education videos … and at the time it was released, I was still in high school, so I’d be walking out at the end of the day and kids would say, ‘Didn’t I just see you?’ So I had that hometown celebrity vibe going on.”

Several colleges offered him dance scholarships, but Grimes turned them down, attending Marymount Manhattan College instead, and spent his college career working professionally in New York as an entertainer while he earned a degree in communication arts. For a while, it appeared that television would be the route for him, but then “the musical theater world completely consumed me.”

What often set him apart from other competitors was his ability to tap. He’d taken his first class at age 5 and stayed with it ever since. “Tap was something I could be a boy with, you know. It was loud, aggressive, noisy. And so I did everything else … but my home base was tap.”

But tap could also work against him. “It was known [in the musical theater world in New York] that tap dancers just tap. But I wanted to be like Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines, guys that could do it all.

“I am a hybrid when it comes to the arts,” he adds. “I’m a tap-dancer at heart, first, but through tap I can breathe everything else. I’m coming to Spoleto as a tap dancer, but one who can blend everything else through that form … [Dancing] is the only time I can surrender anything that I have in that moment when I’m up on stage, creating. And I’m anxious to get on stage. I still have that basketball mentality, where I’m trying to conquer the audience, trying to prove that I can be the biggest little guy on the team.”

His idols are Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jr. “I like to think of myself as a hybrid of those two, but maybe just a bit more aggressive,” he says. “There’s a coolness and a sleekness and an agility to them that I’ve always admired, but my attack is aggressive. They came from the vaudeville circuit … but I do everything because of that competitive thing that comes from basketball.”

Consequently, Grimes’ tap performances and choreography often trip across genre lines that can leave audiences scratching their heads or scrambling to keep up. In addition to dancing the cool classics from the American songbook, he’s tapped Wynton Marsalis’ improvisational jazz and street-danced live on stage with hip-hop acts at small venues, tossing jazz and tap and concert dance into a hyperactive, whirling blender of movement and ideas. Critics and audiences didn’t always understand what he was thinking, but his force was undeniable.

Given the generational argument that’s going on about hip-hop’s place in American popular music, Grimes accepts that there are elements of his emerging style that probably wouldn’t fly with an older arts festival crowd. His five-dancer Spoleto show blends multiple musical and dance traditions into a performance that he calls “intense,” but it’s also something he’s tailored for a Spoleto audience.

Just don’t mistake that thoughtfulness for mercy. Grimes sees himself as a man on a mission to redeem this original American art form from its minstrel-show past, to make it modern, to make people notice. “I despise that [tap is] at the bottom of the artistic food chain,” he says. “I’m gonna show people that I’m a tap dancer that can do all that stuff, so that I can bring everybody from all those worlds back to the tap shoes. See, that’s another one of those challenges, like with basketball.”

Again with the basketball thing.

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