Zachary Kelley said he doesn't know why more people don’t tap dance. “You tell me,” he shrugged last Friday morning at a Scottsdale cafe. “I’ve been doing it almost all of my life, and it’s just super-exciting to me.”
Kelley, for whom “super” is a modifier of choice, wanted to talk about his upcoming tap competition in Germany. He’s headed there this week as a member of Team USA and will compete for gold medals in three different categories at the Tap Dance Olympics.
“There are 30 countries going, and they’re having over 10,000 people in the audience,” he said. “I’m one of only three men in the country who gets to perform a solo number.”
Tap is Kelley’s thing. “I always understood it,” he said. “The patterns really intrigued me, and I was always drawn to it. Tap dancing just always kind of clicked with me.”
Kelley discovered tap, he said, in Buckley, Washington, a “super-small town near Seattle” where he was born and raised. “My sister was in a dance recital, and I watched her, and I was hooked. After a couple of years of debating, my parents let me start studying tap. I got really good, really fast.”
By age 10, he’d transferred to Allegro Performing Arts Academy, a “super-recognized school” where he studied tap until moving to Phoenix. “I came here to study biology at Grand Canyon University,” he said. “Of course, I ended up dancing, too.”
A man in a GCU sweatshirt at the next table looked over at Kelley, then went back to buttering a bagel.
“I started taking master classes in tap out here,” remembered Kelley, who’s 25. “And I was spotted at a workshop and I literally just started getting phone calls from people wanting me to teach them tap or choreograph for them. One thing led to another.”
Eventually, he said, things led to an audition for Nancy Chippendale, founder of the American Tap Company. “She’s a legend in the dance industry,” Kelley explained. “And she runs Team USA. I got asked to audition for the team, and I got on there. I will have, like, three opportunities for gold. It’s the Olympics of tap dancing.”
In Germany, Kelley said, his solo routine would be distinctive. “It’s a monstrous dance, and that really excites me,” he offered. “I went a very classic route with my routine. A lot of people are really going to fight to do something current, but I wanted to perform something that will look good 20 years from now. Class never goes out of style.”
He couldn’t recall the composer of “Moanin,’” the song he’ll perform to. “It’s an actual piano solo,” Kelley said as he stared into his espresso. “I can’t remember the guy’s name. But he’s phenomenal, like super-good.”
Competing in Germany would be expensive, Kelley said. He’d been looking for a sponsor to cover his costs, but so far hadn’t found one. “Regardless, I will still go. I’ll just have to pay for everything myself.”
When he isn’t competing or training, Kelley teaches tap. “I’m at Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale. People come from all over the world to train there. Tuesdays, I’m at Tempe Dance Academy, Wednesdays at Dance Connection in Scottsdale,” he said. On Thursdays and Fridays, he teaches at a place in Queen Creek.
“People are surprised to learn that you can have a full-blown career as a professional dancer,” Kelley said. GCU Sweatshirt looked over again. “But, yeah, you absolutely can. I’ve only ever supported myself by tap dancing. People fly me all over the country, all over the world to teach.”
His students aren’t just children hoping one day to be Ruby Keeler. “One of my oldest tap students is 80,” Kelley whispered. “I think that’s really awesome. Tap dancing is super-good for the brain. They say it’s a huge factor in helping prevent Alzheimer’s, because of all the memorization of steps. It’s brain exercise.”
Kelley said he doesn’t understand why tap dancing isn’t a category at the Olympics. “And I disagree when people say it’s a dying art form,” he admitted. “I think it’s super-popular, but people are just holding onto that past expression that tap was nearly dead when the rock ’n’ roll era started.”
Tap is not dead for Zachary Kelley. “I even tap dance in my sleep,” he confessed. “A few of my routines I’ve done in the past have come from dreams. Tap dancing just makes me super-happy. It makes me just feel super-creative. It never gets boring.”