Busker What’s Your Story? Grant Swift

Grant Swift – Rhythm Tap Melbourne

“It’s awesome, when a crowd gathers at the exact time as your jam starts to cook and a lot of coin goes in the hat, but the nature of what I, and my boys, The Swift Brothers, do is up and down like life. It’s a matter of enjoying the process. Jam, find a flow, dance for yourself first and let the audience choose to come to that (or not). But when they do, hit them with the good stuff.”

Grant Swift

He’s been a state champion boxer, a male stripper, a street performer and an acclaimed tap dancer. Melbourne’s Grant Swift is a really cool guy, with a really cool story.

The son of a boxing pro, Swift spent his young years observing the rhythmic beat of his dad’s skipping rope tapping on the wooden verandah of their home in New Zealand. He said his father would then disappear into the fog on a run. “It was very romantic to me as a kid, I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. If your Dad’s a brickie, you’re going to lay bricks.” So Swift became a fighter, and though he was a natural, he says he was a lazy trainer who got by on talent, without his heart truly in it.

Even now, there’s a very sweet authenticity in Swift’s demeanour. A genuine naivity from a man who is (you would assume) anything but naive.

In the early eighties, at 17 years of age, Swift left New Zealand for Australia, looking for a boxing trainer. A sliding doors moment with a guy sweeping the floor in a bar in Northern Queensland somehow led to an offer to be a part of Australia’s first ‘Ladies Nights’ (something brand new in America, which the floor sweeper was bringing to Australia). Within a month, Swift found himself performing as a dancer and male entertainer in a show called ‘Hollywood Heroes.’ He played the character of James Bond.

Swift performed for around a year in Australia before returning to New Zealand and starting his own ‘Ladies Nights’ there. He says he knew stripping was a young man’s game and though a lot of fun, it wasn’t the ‘thing’ he was really looking for.

At 21, another fateful meeting with a kitchen-hand in Sydney introduced him to that ‘thing.’ “This lady was a tapper, she showed me some flaps and a time-step and I picked it up pretty much on the spot and then she went out for the night,” said Swift. When she came back, he had taught himself 32 bars of what she’d shown him. The seed was planted.

Next, Swift met a young tapper who showed him a video of ‘The Nicholas Brothers.’ He recalled watching the African American tappers on black and white tv as a very young child with his father. “What’s that Dad? How are they doing that?” he had asked, fascinated by the art form. He says his Dad, a typical London cockney replied: “Well, it’s trick photography, i’nit Son.”

Swift practiced his new passion for around eight hours a day in Australia. He spent a year busking on the street and then bought a ticket to America in 1990. His plan was to go to New York.

In a transit lounge in L.A., another chance meeting sealed his fate. Talking his way through customs with an ineligible ticket, he said: “I want to come in, I’m a tap dancer, I really need to get in here and learn, because this is where tap’s from, and where I’m from, there’s nothin!” Curious, the customs officer peered into his backpack and realised he had next to no luggage. “Well, first of all, you don’t want to go to New York, you want to go to New Orleans!” That sliding door slid wide open once more. Swift was in.

He spent a couple of nights in a hostel in L.A. where he found himself, a 22 year old white kid from New Zealand, busking on the street along Venice Beach.

Swift landed in New Orleans with $20 in his pocket and a thirst to tap. To really tap. “I hit Bourbon Street and that was it. I was there for a month and slept in Jackson Square with the locals and tapped on the streets. I got arrested twice, the coppers were horrible then, they didn’t like black and white together at all. That was the South.”

Swift met an old local cat called ‘Uncle Willy’ who observed the ‘spirit’ in Grant’s dancing and introduced him to a few more cats in New Orleans. He soaked up the invaluable gifts of their art. “It was only a short time, but it was prettty deep there,” Swift says.

Living in London for the next three years, Swift tapped on the street with his young daughter Calisha, together they paid the rent. He returned to Melbourne and set up a tap school in St Kilda where he later brought dancers to Australia from all over the World.

Were there many other tappers busking on the street when you started out? 

 When I started busking by coincidence there was another guy starting out and busking too, his name was Locky. We were both pretty basic with our technique. Locky was a great spirit, always looked happy, he danced from the waist down mostly, he didn’t move his body around much, it was all legs and feet and he used to jump up on the chairs in Bourke Street mall and dance on them.

My Style was a bit more athletic. I did flips and split drops and used a few dance moves, the flips and splits used to hurt by the end of the day, but it filled the hat, so I kept doing it.

A few times Locky and I teamed up and shared a hat.

Where do you busk in Melbourne today?

 My sons and I have only been busking in St Kilda lately because we have an arrangement with the Acland Village and it’s convenient living locally. We still like to dance in the Bourke St Mall or along Swanston St. I love the buzz of the city (we haven’t been into the city for over a year though probably). I’m teaching quite a bit lately.

So here you are, a 22 y.o. white kid in L.A. and you think: “I might go busk on Venice Beach today.” Tell me about that – it must have been such a buzz, but scary too?

Was I scared ? I suppose nervous is more the word. I always get nervous, about everything, (there’s that sweet authenticity again), but I’ve grown to embrace and enjoy the emotion over the years. There was some amazing acts along the strip and I remember feeling the big difference in the level of intensity of everything, the buskers, the crowds, the locals, everything was more intense.

Looking back, I think I just had a whole lot of energy and curiousity and belief in Tap dancing as being my destiny. So I just danced and usually I’d be so into it, I would be too tired to be worried. I was too busy trying to keep time and stay on my feet.

The key to tap, apart from having natural rhythm, seems to be to make it look effortless – would you agree? How do you do that?

Making it look easy is definitely a good thing. With tap dancing, it’s good to also be able to communicate to the audience that what you’re doing is hard, then do it with flair and personality.

One of the classic lines I heard, I think came from the great Bill Bojangles Robinson. He would go into a time step and tell the audience: ‘Here’s one I sat up all night trying to get.’ Then he would do a really cool step. I think Tap is like a lot of art forms, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it (great song that).

So to answer your question how do you make it look it easy? It’s just practice, just like watching someone who’s been making pizzas for years, they can flip the doh up in the air, spin it etc with ease, but it took a lot of practice. I still practice, always will, I love it.

Tell me about your kids – they are amazing!

I’ve got four kids. Calisha, the oldest, is 30 now, Harry 24, Oscar 22 and Teisha 15. Yes they all tap, lol.

Calisha was an absolute gun when she was a kid and partnered me on the street and in jazz gigs, festival shows etc for years, but when she got into her later years of school and then into work she stopped tap dancing. It’s been a while since she had her shoes on, but she is very gifted. She’s getting married in April.

My sons Harry and Oscar have danced all their lives and continue to enjoy it and make a modest living. So I’m happy because it keeps them fit and it keeps us close.

My youngest daughter, Teisha, is also a good dancer with great timing and groove. She’s been gifted with a good singing voice, so she has fallen in love with singing and her tap dancing is taking a back seat for now. I hope she gets back into it, but it’s up to her.

You asked do I think do you have to be natural or can you be taught?. It’s a hard question to answer. I do believe though if you have passion, dedication and work hard, you can be good, and even great, at anything.  A natural gift only gives you an advantage at the start, it’s just a head start. 

What is the most difficult thing about tap dancing?

The most difficult thing about tap dancing is making a living!
It’s an art form that takes years to become fluent in, to have good flow and a style that you can adapt to different tempos and styles of music, knowing when to improvise and when to pull out a move.

Are there other tappers busking still?

I don’t know of any other tappers regularly working the street in Melbourne these days. Over the years, quite a few of my students have gone out and done time on the street. I’ve always encouraged it and try to take the kid tap dance students out at least once a year to work the hat.

It’s great to see their little faces light up when they see money going in the hat and people applauding them for doing what they’ve been practicing in the studio.

What are your standout memories from performing or busking?

The greatest moment for me was meeting my hero, Gregory Hines, in New York, then dancing while he was in the audience and him coming up to me after, and being so happy with what he saw, it always lights me up remembering that. 

Busking highlights have been just people coming up and saying I’ve made their day, really cheered them up, I find that really rewarding. A few times $100 notes have gone in the hat, which is always a financial buzz.

Do you still feel joy dancing, even when the audience may not be showing their appreciation in your hat?

 I do still enjoy the street, even if there’s no money going in the hat or people stopping. I’ve been doing it long enough to know the appreciation doesn’t always have to be right in front of you. I’ve had people come up and give me money and say “I’ve been watching you all year from my office window and really enjoyed you.”

Sometimes you’ll catch the look in a kid’s eye who has suddenly become intrigued. A few of my students who have gone on to become successful tap dancers first saw tap as kids walking past me in Melbourne City and they asked their parents to stop and then they came to my school.

So yes, it’s awesome when a crowd gathers at the exact time as your jam starts to cook and a lot of coin goes in the hat, but the nature of what I, and my boys, The Swift Brothers, do, is up and down like life. It’s a matter of enjoying the process. Jam, find a flow, dance for yourself first and let the audience choose to come to that (or not). But when they do, hit them with the good stuff.

Would you have survived those early days without busking?

Before I became respected in the dance community, the street was my main income. I wouldn’t have survived without busking. I used to knock about with a few jazz musicians and pick up a few bucks performing in bars as well, but it was mainly the street. Over time, I started to become more known in the dance world and I was able to set up my own classes and now teaching is my main income and busking is more for the love of the dance.

What advice do you give a young person today who wants to try tapping on the streets?

My advice to young (or old) people is to just do it!

Practice on your tap board so you’re used to the size, face away from the mirrors in your studio, turn your music down low cos on the street your music is much quieter than when it’s blasting out of your studio stereo and definately if you can talk, don’t just dance. Say hello, thank you, etc. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. Believe in yourself. Dancing for people is a good thing to be doing. 

If you could change something on the streets, what would it be?

The homeless, it’s become a lot more common now than when I started busking.

These days, we’re competing for patches with homeless people holding out a hat. I’ve always got on good with the homeless or people of the street and I’ll share a bit of my coin around.

I figure the street is a stage for me, but for some it is their home, where they sleep and dream. I hear there are some modern countries where there is no homelessness so it is possible…

If you could choose a song that sums up life for you, what would it be?

God made me Funky .. it’s a cool song by the Headhunters.

What’s next for Grant Swift and Rhythm Tap Melbourne?

I have no idea, it’s really just day to day. I just like to see people coming in, new faces, old friends.

I haven’t produced an event for a few years, like a festival, jazz or tap night or theatre show and I haven’t travelled for a while either.

Perhaps I’ll put a show together as I’m getting older, with a bit of history, maybe I could allow myself to make it personal, like a bit of a telling of my story.

Keeping fit, healthy and seeing my kids thrive is what drives me. Being able to enjoy tap dancing without being obsessed with hours of practice is a good place to be now. I’ve done the 12 hour and 8 hour practice years, now it’s all enjoyment. I practice for a couple of hours now and get what I need to be happy, it’s my therapy.

Grant, Harry and Oscar Swift

So that’s Grant Swift, a very humble guy, with a really cool story. If you want to watch further videos or find out more about Grant and his sons, The Swift Brothers, or if you want to learn to do what they do, visit their socials here:

Web: http://rhythmtapmelbourne.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/australiantapdance/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rhythmtapmelbourne/
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/AustralianTAPdance