Jason Kalish Is Keeping Tap Alive in the 21st Century
Contemporary and Hip Hop dance are all the rage. Tap is not required in many dance studios after the age of 12 or 13 years old. Tap is also not showcased on SYTYCD, although most, if not all technically trained dancers, started tap dancing before they started jazz and hip hop.
However, what students may not understand is that tap really does support all the popular styles of dance. Jason Kalish knows this all too well and is on a mission to keep tap alive. Jason lives and breathes tap. He has made a name for himself, and a successful career, as a tap dancer in Las Vegas performing regularly at the Rose Rabbit Lie Supper Club at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Jason sheds some light on his philosophy and his passion for this imperative art form.
How do you keep tap alive in a market where hip hop and contemporary dominate?
Bunny Briggs, one of the masters, would say “Be Commercial!” and what he meant by that is don’t lose an audience. You have to sell them on the thrill of tap; the idea that you can make music and dance at the same time. Tap dance has always been taught to the music of the day, so picking exciting music keeps it relevant. I also try to teach different styles of tap; Broadway Tap, Contemporary Tap, Hip Hop Tap. There is strength in variety! I personally like to work on the quality of the dance and how to win over a general audience. If the general audience is on your side, then tap becomes more popular!
What advice would you give to tap teachers, especially with older students?
Dancers need to understand that there is a payoff to doing tap. Tap will help their contemporary and hip hop dancing, especially their rhythm and timing! Tap will help a student be better at the styles they love doing.
You are so invested in the art of tap dance. You never stop your own education. Who were your mentors?
I had to seek out the masters. This was back in the day without internet. I found the masters through other tap dancers. During Tap Dogs, I met Jeremy Kiesman who was one of Henry LeTang’s best students and also a protégé of Buster Brown and Chuck Green. He became my mentor and still is to this day.
When did you put on your first pair of tap shoes and why?
My sister and I were in a Goodwill store and I found this pair of tap shoes on a shelf. I ran up to my mom (she was a dance teacher) and she said “Oh, those are tap shoes. You put them on your feet and make music with them!” I was sold! Making music with my feet was like having my very own super power! That day, I asked my mom to put me in tap class. Ironically, my mom didn’t want me to dance. She wanted my twin sister to dance. But being in dance class at my mom’s studio was cheaper than a babysitter.
Did you only study Tap?
No, many people don’t know this about me but I went to a performing arts magnet high school, and I studied Ballet. And then after school, I had ballet at the studio. I performed in Giselle, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to name a few. I’ve probably had more ballet training and rehearsals hours then I ever did for tap! Tap dancing was just more natural for me and I advanced very quickly.
What do you want kids to take away from your class?
I think a lot of dancers think that the “dancing” or the “choreography” has the value. I want dancers to look at it in a different way. I want dancers to understand they themselves bring the value to the dance. The artist makes the steps matter. It’s the soul of a dancer that makes a dance special. I think a lot of dancers place value on “what they are doing” instead of placing the value in “why they are doing it”. Every time a dancer takes the stage, they need to share a part of themselves with us. Chuck Green used to say “You start with a personality, and then you add the tap!!!”
What are some of your all time favorite tap dances and why?
Bill Bojangles Robinson: (1934) Without his career, there would not have been the golden age of tap dance!! This clip shows how effective you can be with clean simple rhythms and exquisite technique and personality!! The double shuffles and separated wings are just beautiful!!
Ina Ray Hutton: (1936) You can definitely see the influence Bill had on other Dancers! Ina,(from Chicago who posed as a white woman) who I believe is a teenager here at 19 or so is a band leader of her all female “Melodeers” singing about popular club and street dances of the day and just has such incredible purpose in her dancing. She is indeed charismatic! I love the finger pointing!!
Bunny Briggs: (1950) Now I was fortunate enough to become especially close with this Master before he passed a way. Bill Robinson wanted to take him under his wing when he was only 5 or 6 years old. Well, Bill would have been proud as Bunny continued to pioneer and invent a style of tap all his own using rattling and what Bunny Called “Continuation”. This is likely the most superb double time ever achieved by man. His personality and spirit are remarkable as well. He will forever be an inspiration to me!! Enjoy!