When I asked the age-old question “What’s in your dance bag?” I expected Keith Clifton, an exceptional tap, ballet, and jazz dancer and educator of over thirty years in the Los Angeles area, to produce dance shoes worn down to the nitty-gritty from hours upon hours of tap dancing, leaping, and knee slides. Anyone who knows Keith knows his technical skill, discipline, and enthusiasm in bringing music theory and rhythmic awareness to all fields of movement. So, typical of his irrepressible sense of humor, Keith instead produced drumsticks!
Keith Clifton has developed generations of dancers in the professional and student industry, a studio owner, an international master guest artist who opened our teaching trade to New Zealand and developed the NZAMD [New Zealand Association of Modern Dance] syllabus. He was also awarded Dance Master’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
I’ve never seen a bored child in a rhythm class
Keith was born from classically trained musical parents; his mother was a pianist and his father a percussionist, 4th chair drummer in the Marine Corps Marching Band. “That means a lot if you understand Marine Corps Marching Band. You’ve got to be really good.” It would be safe to assume his favorite tap dance music would be highly rhythmic.
“I played guitar before I learned to tap dance… and I couldn’t sit still. My dad, me, and my brothers were always tapping [hands] on the table. My mother noticed the rhythms…” and allowed the constant play and noise in the house. To Keith, practicing and working on rhythms was for him, as joyful as any form of play could offer. “Every one of my brothers played drums and had or owned a set of drums at one point. I still have two sets of drums. The tapping, you can’t stop it!”
Early on, Keith’s mother directed the energy of the siblings into dance. She drove from Huntington Beach to Al Gilbert’s studio on La Cienega just north of Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles. Al was considered the pied piper of [tap] dance, and recognized for developing the world’s most used tap technique syllabus. Here, she was able to exchange piano accompaniment for dance classes for her six children.
Keith developed his formative tap, ballet, and jazz studies under Al. Later, as a young adult with a solid foundation in dance and a healthy dose of confidence, Al acknowledged Keith’s expertise and suggested him to fill a Dance Master’s teaching slot. And to this day, Keith is sought out as a leader in the dance education industry. It is his wealth of knowledge and passion in both tap and ballet technique that is his hallmark.
With his teaching career taking off, and sporting an inborn determination, Keith landed his first Los Angeles commercial for Dr. Pepper. The video is a capsule of information about industry process and shows the gears necessary to turn in making a film. Specifically, it captures Keith’s energy -the essence of what-drives-him.
In the late 80’s, Keith’s commercial and teaching careers solidified. Working for Roland Dupree, “they recognized immediately I like being in front teaching,” and established LA Danceforce with his [then] business partners. In the mid-nineties, he opened his own dance studio, Clifton Dance Project with his wife, Linda.
When his son Cory - also a tapper - was thirteen, he and Keith attended a performance of 'Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk'. On the drive home, they couldn’t stop pounding the dashboard. This motivated his new creation, the performance group Drum Tap Trio that included Keith, his son Cory, and brother. “I was evolving as an artist.”
Keith’s tap dance expertise comes from his musical background. His comfortable understanding of polyrhythms is engaging, “everything leads to South America and Africa, because,” he places his hands over his heart, “this is where the pulse is coming from… South America, they don’t count things in four, they just go ahead and play. We get so used to patterns and we teach kids patterns, and you have to learn patterns, you know, learn a scale… but I’ve never seen a bored child in a rhythm class.” Keith is notorious for using Pink Floyd, Rush, and Dave Brubeck in his classes.
“The better you are at tap, the better you are at dancing, overall. Because you hear music more clearly and can better identify where the phrase is going. [It’s] that ABABC phrasing; your verse, your chorus, verse, chorus then C, the bridge. Usually, you go back and play a chorus again, or BB and out.”
“The Beatles taught us form, and kids can identify with it.” But it’s the thought of Freddy Mercury writing Bohemian Rhapsody that breaks form and excites Keith. “Then if you’re Freddy,” he says with quiet, drawn out tones to suggest large emotional impact, “it doesn’t matter. A cappella, lyric opera, musical theatre, a rock song and a ballad are all in this song. Who told him to do it? Nobody. He just didn’t play by the rules.”
Keith teaches a twenty-five to thirty-minute tap warm-up. “I use a lot of shuffles, eighth notes, dotted eighth notes. I teach quarter, half, sixteenth notes, triplets, and thirty-second notes.” Then a good round of progressions. This is where, “I start picking their brains. What if we did this? If we did that?’” speaking about accenting steps to re-create and extend the value of a phrase. He uses a mix of Bach and Brahms “to get them to listen.”
In the hot summer months, “I have my dancers sit down [cross-legged] and I give them drumsticks. I have enough drumsticks to open my own store. We start by doing tip-el-lette, trip-el-lette, beating [the sticks] out-in-in, out-in-in. Then I’ll give them a pattern that breaks it up. Such as 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6, then 1-2-3-4-5-6.”
Any successful class will have the student wanting more. “Once they master that, then they want to do a sticks number and then a dance routine with sticks. They beg me!”
The breadth of knowledge Keith offers his tap and dance students is from his ability to find excellent resources. “Dorothea Taylor,” a talented musician who gained 24.6k followers on Instagram within a week of posting her profile and has millions of YouTube followers on her channel, “is the most talented, rudiment drummer in the world. All the famous rockers love her, tap into her [work], and know who she is. If you want to learn to tap, find Dorothea and learn your rhythms!”
The Beatles taught us form, and kids can identify with it.
Keith continues to teach at his studio six days a week, six hours a day and travel weekends teaching for convention. His endless source of energy is unsurpassed. “I don’t look to retire. I’m not looking forward to it.” He’s comfortable with and uses the younger generation’s groove. First, by taking on certain movements to accommodate the newer styles, but then, “I still resonate back to Keith Clifton. This year, I pulled out Nine Inch Nails, they use flatted fifths and the harmonies are dark and mysterious. They use counter meter.” Second, by communicating a shared human experience. “I let them see the side of me that’s weak, the side of me that [shows them] ‘I’m human like you.’ The first thing I’ll do is crack a bald joke.” He rubs his bold and glorious head. “To let them know ‘I wasn’t born this way, but I am talented, and I can share something with you if you’d like’.”
It’s quite possible with a life in dance and the joy of seven grandchildren, Keith’s ability to clown around and then get down to serious, thought provoking dance, is no surprise. “I always try to find fun in everything that I do. Because, if I’m not enjoying myself, then I’m not constructive. And when you find a child is enjoying themselves, then they are learning faster and more efficiently.”
The tapping, you can’t stop it!
In my search for a tag ending for this article, Keith offered many. His concept in teaching is to allow the student their natural inclination to dance and spin freely to experience the joy of dance, and regardless, to let them fall, even fail. Then build them up with corrections. And, Keith’s admission, “I don’t feel like I’m going to work. I’m going to the studio, but not work.” There is also, Keith’s playfulness that is all-consuming, as when he uses words like snickerfritz instead of a cuss word.
Specifically, Keith’s approach to tap is through music which gives form, function, structure, and more importantly, heartbeat - the life and energy of movement. And it is Keith’s uncomplicated approach to life in dance which speaks volumes of his essence, “I love teaching. That’s why I’m in the field.” Like his father, he says of himself in dance, “I’m a marine; I’m in for life.”