Jason Samuels Smith: Tapping Into History

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, April 2008

Jason Samuels Smith is a 27-year-old tap dance phenomenon inspired by legends both near and far. Raised in New York City’s Broadway Dance Center, Smith was introduced to dance by his jazz-dancing parents, Sue Samuels and JoJo Smith, who built JoJo’s Dance Factory (which later became BDC) in the late 1970’s. At BDC, Smith trained with Frank Hatchett and Savion Glover, among others, and went on to win an Emmy and star in Broadway shows such as “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.” Smith took a break from rehearsal for his latest project, “Charlie’s Angels,” a tap tribute to jazz great Charlie Parker, to discuss with me his life and work.

Smith is dedicated to remixing history, following in the footsteps of tap icons such as Doctor Money Briggs, Doctor Buster Brown, Doctor Jimmy Slide, Pegleg Bates, Diane Walker, the Four Step Brothers and many more. Whether teaching at BDC or the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, in Kolkata, India or New Orleans, Smith makes a conscious decision to teach his students not only phrases and rhythms but lineages too: “We have to keep the history alive.”

It is by adhering to the past that Smith carves out a new future for tap. The freedom of Smith’s go-for-broke moves is hard won. He suggests, “A tap student who wishes to become a professional dancer should practice at least three hours per day.” It took Smith years to attain a sense of abandon in his performances. Despite the fact that he began tapping at such a young age, it is the skills that come with time that Smith most admires, saying, “You get better with age. We look forward to getting older in tap because experience defines your style and ability.”

Smith has found himself looking up to tap legends such as Gregory Hines and current virtuosos like Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards for insights into “nuance, choice, and transition,” but as of late he has focused his attention on the unlikely 63-year-old Indian Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das. Kathak is one of India’s six main classical dance forms, based on storytelling and expression. Once relegated to temples, Kathak has become a popular dance form for both epic narration and popular entertainment. Like tap, Kathak is passed down from generation to generation. Smith’s current mode is both multigenerational and multicultural. Smith and Das have collaborated on several international tours of “India Jazz Suites,” a dialogue between the two virtuosos. During these performances, danced to live jazz and classical Indian music trios, both Smith and Das’ moves are completely improvised. Smith finds a correlation between jazz (and tap) improvisation and Kathak’s “upaj,” or footwork-based improvisation: “Mathematically, jazz improvisation and upaj are similar and get to the root of jazz music. The whole freedom involved in that improvisational process is the common ground we share.”

Jason Samuels
Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy of BLOCH

In “India Jazz Suites,” Smith “is not trying to do Kathak and Das is not trying to do tap. We incorporate specific elements of each others’ styles into our own art forms.” Smith explains that in certain sections of India Jazz Suites, “I execute my moves within a tap vocabulary yet in a phrasing that is popular in Indian culture.” Smith is especially fond of Kathak’s “tihai,” a three-part rhythmical cycle. “In jazz, we might recognize tihai differently than in kathak. I wasn’t conscious of doing it until I started working with Das and listening to more classical Indian music.” Smith finds that what Das has learned from tap is the “fact that we swing.”

Like tap and jazz, Smith finds that Kathak engages in a tradition of quoting movement: “We can quote a melody, a rhythmic pattern, or a routine.” This concept of quoting, also found in jazz music, is also known in the tap world as “stealing.” Smith explains, “Even when you’re in class learning a routine, you’re also learning how to steal steps. It’s part of tap culture. We watch each other and steal from each other all the time and we call it ‘remixing’ because you’ve got to change it a little bit; you can’t do it same way you did it before. You steal it; you remix it; you re-release it!”

Much remixing occurs between students and teachers. “I learn a lot from teaching,” relays Smith. He learns “from questions students ask and from mistakes. Some mistakes turn into new steps or rhythms that can only be made when you’re reaching and trying new things.” That striving consists of learning both steps and improvisation. “We’re learning that if you develop those elements simultaneously—someone’s vocabulary along with their freedom—then you basically create a monster!” Smith tells me. He says that in doing so, you are “developing somebody’s brain in two directions. By the time they get five years deep, they can improvise and say something, and they’re able to execute choreography. They help each other.”

Another important aspect to Smith’s teaching philosophy is “paying attention to the individual’s voice, through dancing, discussion, everything.” It is crucial to “know as much about your students as possible. Ask them why they are involved in dance, their personal history, what types of music, art, movies, books they read and like—anything that can guide the choreographer or teacher in a helpful direction.” In Smith’s vision of training, a young dancer’s personal history mingles with the deep history of tap’s legends. With those histories comes the ever-important element of music, especially jazz. “We are musicians even more than we are dancers,” Smith tells me. “The dance is really just a means to an end—it’s really just to create the sound. Our mission is to create a sound by doing a movement. Other dance styles are the opposite: you’re creating a movement to complement a pre-existing sound. Tap is a cycle because you’re actually dancing to your own rhythm.”

Smith’s “own rhythm,” however, happens to be deeply informed by music. “Right now I am inspired by jazz greats Charlie Parker and Art Tatum. But I’m also in a ballad mood, and even get into fast bebop songs like ‘Salt Peanuts’ and ‘Donna Lee.’” He admits, “I like to mix it up. I don’t like to get trapped in any style or approach for too long.”

As dancing musicians, tappers rely heavily on their shoes. In fact, Smith is developing his own tap shoe for Bloch, which is “extra comfortable, stylish, and has a very unique sound.” According to the multi-talent, this shoe “will be competitive because it will come out of the box the way it would after getting it back from a shoemaker” who typically adds extra features for each tapper. Accessibility is important to Smith, so he is pricing the shoes affordably. He recalls, “When I was young, my mom bought the worst five to ten dollar shoes; then my jobs bought shoes for me.” He urges students to remember, “Shoes are merely the amplification, not the technique. They are an extension. Students without tap shoes should not be discouraged from practicing; you’ve got to start somewhere.” His students in Kolkata practiced barefoot, just as Kathak is practiced.

Smith reminds his students that it’s all right to endure a few shoeless days: “You’ve got to be in it for the long haul with tap because you might not get good until thirty years into your career. It takes a lifetime to get into it. There’s something special about respecting the journey, realizing that it’s not instant and doesn’t come right away. If you have patience and put in the correct amount of work and dedication you might reach a certain level in the art form.” Smith is careful in his choice of words, always referring to tap as an “art form” as opposed to “entertainment.” If entertainment is fast and cheap, then an art form involves a journey. Smith reminds us that tap “is about the journey, about enjoying each level that you reach and realizing that you’ve got to appreciate it when you’re there. You can’t just keep looking forward and not realizing where you’re at right now.” After all, Smith adheres to the notion that “You can tap until you die; you don’t ever get to a point where you can’t execute the art form. If you are alive and mobile, then you can tap. Somebody who is 75 is still blowing and changing. Wow, I have to look forward to that experience when I’m 70 or 80? It’s great to know that I’m not the best that I can be yet, and it might take a very long time for it to happen.” For Smith, “The present moment is a wide-open door” as long as he remembers to tap back into the past from time to time.

Ariel Osterweis Scott is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, teacher and ethnographer and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.