4 May 2004
West Coast wow
Dance Magazine, May, 2004 by Victoria Looseleaf
With his long dreads flying and his complex rhythms crackling into uncharted territory, Jason Samuels Smith, at 23, is part of that new breed of tapper. His feet have been described as atomic, executing percussive blows that resonate with jackhammer force. Indeed, Gregory Hines ranked Samuels Smith among tap's greatest for skill level in feet, (see "25 to Watch," DANCE MAGAZINE, January 2004, page 47).
Born and raised in midtown Manhattan, the son of professional jazz hoofers and teachers--his father is Jo Jo Smith, his mother Sue Samuels--the youngster gravitated toward tap dancing after his older sister began taking lessons. By age 8, Samuels Smith was studying with Savion Glover, who asked his young charge to perform on an episode of Sesame Street.
If a star wasn't immediately born during Samuels Smith's six appearances, it most certainly was when he stepped into the Tony award winning Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Beginning as a swing and understudy in 1996, the teenager eventually scored a major role and performed the lead as an understudy about ten times.
"To be in that position and in a huge-budget production--I was 16 at the time--was amazing," says the tapper. "Savion and a lot of the other dancers had faith in me. It was then I saw you could actually have a solid gig and steady income as a dancer."
Since then Samuels Smith has not only performed at the White House and in tap festivals around the world, but has also appeared in other stage productions, among them Debbie Allen's Soul Possessed. Allen later invited him to teach at her newly opened Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City, California.
Instructing about three hundred students a week in fifteen classes, Samuels Smith is fiendishly busy, but not too occupied to assume yet another role--director of last year's First Annual Los Angeles Tap Festival.
The week-long event, which featured master classes, lectures, twenty instructors, film viewings, a panel discussion, and an all-star performance, took place in August, 2003. Recalls Samuels Smith, "Because I'd been participating in more tap festivals-New York, Amsterdam, Brazil--Debbie suggested we do one in Los Angeles. When I thought about how many great dancers were already here--Leonard Reed, Arthur Duncan, Skip Cunningham, Fayard Nicholas--and I realized we wouldn't have to bring people into town. Debbie said we could do it in her studio."
The director made his first call to former vaudeville star Reed, then hooked up with Hines, whom he'd met in New York.
"Gregory agreed to do it, for peanuts, because he really believed in what we were trying to do. That was icing on the cake," recalls Samuels Smith. That Hines died of cancer the day before the festival began was devastating news not only to Samuels Smith, but also to people around the world. "God has a very strange sense of humor," he says, "and even though Gregory's passing was a huge blow, it was also a blessing because it brought attention to the art form."
Hines was honored posthumously, and the cross-generational festival proved a smash. Participants ranged from six-year old novice tappers to 96-year-old Reed, who taught with a broken foot and emceed the final show. Lynn Dally, founder and artistic director of Jazz tap Ensemble, commends Samuels Smith.
"He's one of the first young African American tap artists to begin that long hard road of producing, which is so important to the future of tap. The fact that he used the festival format, and used it well, shows that his heart and mind are in the right place. He's a wonderfully gifted young artist."
This year's festival will be held August 9-14 and promises to be equally inspiring. Reed, Duncan, and Nicholas are slated to be on board, along with Debbie Allen, Dianne Walker, and Abron Glover (Savion's older brother). Also performing will be Samuels Smith's own group, ACGI (Anybody Can Get It), founded in 2001 and featuring several students plus festival co-director Chloe Arnold, who is also Samuels Smith's partner.
The pair met when they were 15, after Arnold, who worked with Glover in Washington D.C., moved to New York and saw Noise/Funk. Their relationship remained platonic for a number of years, even as they hoofed together in Allen's Soul. Last year romance bloomed, and the couple now live together.
Is it all tapping and no play with the dancer? Just about, as Samuels Smith, whose workout routine is doing push-ups at home, along with hoofing "on the wood," also keeps up to tap snuff by taking class. Last year he was in Reed's class, honing his shim sham skills with its originator. Samuels Smith insists he's still an aspiring dancer: "There's so much to learn," he says, "in life and in tapping."
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