Bob Fosse’s ‘Riff Brothers’ Dance Partner Gives Old Routine New Life

The new TV series “Fosse-Verdon” just wrapped up on FX.

Bob Fosse, the award-winning choreographer and director who is one of the subjects of that show, grew up in Chicago and got his start in the city. And there is one man who knows that part of his life better than anyone – and he’s helping recreate a dance they performed nearly 80 years ago.

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From the ages of 12 to 17, Fosse and his childhood dance partner, Charlie Grass, performed as The Riff Brothers.

The two met when they were 7 years old at a dance school on Chicago’s North Side. The owner put the boys on stage together when they were 11.

By age 12, the two were making money. It was 1939. Vaudeville theaters were showing movies, but still had stage shows.

“We’d go to the theaters and watch the same movie over maybe two or three times and watch them perform to pick up ideas,” said Grass, now 91 years old.

Dancers Bob Fosse, left, and Charlie Grass perform as The Riff Brothers. (Courtesy of Charlie Grass)Dancers Bob Fosse, left, and Charlie Grass perform as The Riff Brothers. (Courtesy of Charlie Grass)

By the time they were 15, The Riff Brothers were occasionally sharing the bill with women who removed their costumes while dancing.

“We walked through the dressing room and, you know, ‘What is that?’” Grass recalls. “Well, those are called pasties.”

Grass admits he and Fosse may have been a little young for that, but he has nothing but respect for those dancers. 

“They were women making a living. It was an art and a skill,” he said.

The end of The Riff Brothers came when Fosse graduated from high school in 1945, a semester ahead of Grass.

Fosse was itching to leave Chicago. He encouraged Grass to skip that last semester and join him on the road. 

But Grass stayed in Chicago.

“I don’t think I would’ve wanted that life,” Grass said, looking back. “It was a hard life, a gypsy life, living out of suitcases and that. I was sort of a home guy, you know, family guy.”

Soon after high school, Grass badly injured his leg. But he went on to have his own long and busy dance career, as ballet soloist, choreographer and – especially – as a beloved teacher.

Two dancers he’s working with today are recreating an old Riff Brothers dance. Jenai Cutcher, who runs the Chicago Dance History Project, and Heather Brown initially learned the steps from 75-year-old dance notation, but needed Grass for things like style and upper-body movement. He had no trouble remembering those details.

“Because we did the act for about five years, you know, the same steps and all that. So, it does stay with you,” he said.

One thing that makes this more challenging is that tap dance has changed in the last 80 years. Cutcher says that today, upper-body movement is not a big priority.

“We prioritize sound and energy,” she said. “Wherever your arms go and wherever they need to go in order to make the sounds you want to make, that's perfectly acceptable. But for this … there are arm placements that we have to think about while we're thinking about the steps.”

“Nowadays, the feet are the instruments,” Grass says. “You can put your arms wherever you want. Anything goes.”

Fosse’s wildly successful career and controversial personal life ended in 1987, when, at age 60, he died of a heart attack on his way to a rehearsal. 

Back in Chicago, Grass married, had six kids, and in his 40s when the dance work dried up, he worked as a pipefitter like his dad until he retired. He lives in a house next door to the one where he grew up. 

“I guess Bob’s waiting for me up there to finish the routine,” Grass said. “I personally think that the happiest part of his life was with me. Those 10 years from 7 to 17 as teenagers growing up together, it seemed that the rest of his life was -- as he wrote me, he said, ‘It’s dog eat dog.’ But, that was his life.

“God bless him. And he gave up his life for it. Really, he worked hard. He was abused by the industry, that’s all I got to say. He was an all-American, nice person. Growing up with him, you’d like him. Everyone would like him.

“I’m proud of him, and a little bit of The Riff Brothers went with him.”

More on this story

The recreated Riff Brothers dance was performed in May at a dance symposium. Watch the video below.

Note: This story was originally published May 29, 2019. It has been updated.

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