Tap virtuoso and choreographer Jason Samuels Smith brought New York City audiences to their feet in 2009 with his Charlie’s Angels, inspired by the music of Charlie Parker and the dancing of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Michelle Dorrance, and Chloe Arnold. While preparing for his debut season at the Joyce Theater (July 3 – 7), Samuels Smith spoke with L.J. Sunshine about the new show, bebop’s uncredited inventors, cross-cultural duets, and the future of tap.
L. J. Sunshine (Rail): The members of your company, Anybody Can Get It, have changed over time. Who’s dancing in the show at the Joyce?
Jason Samuels Smith: Dormeshia, Michelle, Chloe, Baakari Wilder, and myself. We’ll also have a five-piece band and two actors. The show opens with me dancing with the band. Then that turns into the “Charlie’s Angels” section, which will feature some of the pieces that I did originally to Charlie Parker’s music at the Kitchen in 2009. The third part is “Chasin’ the Bird,” which is being developed into a full-length show. It’s scripted. What we’re presenting at the Joyce is the beginning of the story: the journey of an artist.
Dormeshia plays the main character, Diamonds. Diamonds is an artist who has somewhat reached that perfect beat—or understands where it is—and then gets seduced by this other side of entertainment: popularity, luxury. So Dormeshia will be featured in the “Charlie’s Angels” section and the “Chasin’ the Bird” section. She’s somebody who—not just in the tap world, but in popular media—should be recognized and celebrated. And she hasn’t been, at least not the way she should be. This show is an effort to feature her.
Rail: Charlie’s Angels at the Kitchen certainly brought Dormeshia into the public eye.
Samuels Smith: Definitely. And there are so many other great women in tap who should be recognized. To begin breaking the ice in this generation, we should have at least one production that gives women an opportunity to perform and have something to reach for. In my generation, Bring in ’da Noise did that for a lot of the young guys. We had something to practice for and work for and audition for. There should be something for the ladies in terms of that. Now, Dormeshia sets that bar by herself. But I’m trying to add my choreographical two cents to just put the icing on top.
Rail: With a lot of tap performances I’ve seen lately, it’s either the soloist or it’s the ensemble—usually in unison, a 42nd Street production kind of thing. The whole range in between is missing. That’s part of what was so special about Charlie’s Angels: We saw these three dancers and how unique each artist was individually. We also saw very subtle relationships between them one-to-one, and then between them as a trio. Those dynamics kept reconfiguring. They seemed completely spontaneous but only emerged through performing the choreography.
Samuels Smith: Camaraderie. It’s true. It’s interesting you say that. Because most choreography is—even in my group stuff, mainly it’s everyone in unison with variations on canons. But in this case, everything the dancers do is choreographed based on the structure of the music, which is a solo or duet or trio. But, yeah, those relationships within what the dancers are doing. Also, the relationships between the musicians playing those tunes in those sessions on those recordings relate to how the dancers are relating to each other.
Rail: What led you to Charlie Parker’s music?
Samuels Smith: When I started the whole Charlie’s Angels process, I was very frustrated with popular music. I didn’t feel it was inspirational with what the dance was doing. Dance—particularly tap—has been evolving consistently. But I feel like some popular music has de-volved. And it doesn’t encourage the tap dancer to create for that music. Tap dancers of the past have had great popular music to work with. In the heyday of tap, obviously, the popular music was jazz and swing. But then even as Gregory Hines was popular, he had rock and funk and hip-hop, and all these styles that were just cutting edge. He was doing something old but adding something new to it, which made it cutting edge. And then you had Savion who came in with the transition of funk and disco and rock into hip-hop, and he had the golden era of hip-hop. Now I don’t really know where music is. It’s kind of like “dance” music: Everything has a club-techno feel to it and it’s kind of monotonous. In the ’90s, there was a broader range of popular music and styles to choose from. I think it also just goes with getting older. I’m starting to look at the music like, [growling] “What are these young people doing here? They don’t know what they’re doing.” At the same time, I’m not that old, so I can’t be that standoffish about it. It’s still my generation that’s creating this music. But the music of bebop, this is still encouraging me to create right now. And that’s really where the whole thing about Charlie Parker came from was to say, “Wow. We can still innovate by going back to this.” Not to say we can’t create something new and go in a whole new direction with music. But that era was so incredible and those musicians, they were inspired by tap dancers. So that cycle, as well, is really obvious to me. When I hear their phrasing, I’m like, “That sounds like tap already.”
Rail: Honi Coles claimed it was the tap dancers who started bop.
Samuels Smith: I heard Max Roach say it.
Rail: Oh really?
Samuels Smith: I did this tribute for him at the Riverside Church four or five years ago, right before he passed away. I ended up dancing in the backstage area and I got to be around him a little bit. I started dancing. I got his attention—he was in a wheelchair. He turned and he said, “Aah . . . just like Baby Laurence.” And I was like, whoa. He said, “I went to school with Baby Laurence.” I was like, oh! I’m just blown away just hearing those phrases! And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he says: “You know, tap dancers started bebop.” I was, like I’m done! That was all I needed to hear right then. I heard it from the horse’s mouth! When Max Roach says that, you just—I mean, come on!
So, that cycle is clear. And then reading about Parker, his father—even though he didn’t have a great relationship with him—his father was a vaudevillian performer. He was a dancer, which most likely means he was a tap dancer. So the connections were there. Clearly tap dancers were hanging around with those cats as well and influencing them in some ways—not for all their music. But the inspiration and the vibe are there. So I felt like that vibe is still strong. Bird lives, right now. That spirit. It doesn’t have to be in the musical form of Bird, but that spirit is what it is. It exists in tap.
Rail: Also that innovativeness. So can you say that tap is still a traditional dance form?
Samuels Smith: In the American sense it is. If there are American traditions—of which there are only a few. If you really think about things that have taken place here by this culture of people, yeah. It is one of the few that you can say is truly American.
In collaborating with Chitresh [Indian Kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das], he always talks about innovation within tradition because innovation is part of tradition. The form must progress; it must move forward in order to exist and survive. You can’t have tradition without innovation. Improvisation is such an important part of it, and that’s all about creating in that very moment. It’s not about creating for that moment leading up to that moment. It’s about what is happening right now. That’s the rawest side of art: when you can improvise and do it anywhere, at anytime, on the spot. That’s it. If you can do it at a certain level, that’s really it. That’s the hardest part. Anybody can improvise any time. That doesn’t make you good. You have to have something to say and clearly say it.
Rail: Is performing an improvisation different from jamming in the studio?
Samuels Smith: It is and it isn’t. There is an improvisational zone, and it always exists. It’s there whether you’re entering into the zone or not. It’s there. Now, can you tap into it and can you get there every time? That’s not so easy.
Rail: Do you have certain avenues for getting into that zone?
Samuels Smith: What I go to now for a structural idea when I’m improvising is a song. Any type of song that I’ve been thinking about or humming or that’s on my mind, I try to dance that tune out. That leads to the steps. For me it’s about the melody or the rhythm, in particular. I might go into a performance with one rhythm on my mind, and I might want that to be the basis of the whole improvisation, so I’ll keep coming back to that one rhythm.
And then, if I just don’t have that feeling—because sometimes you’re not in that zone and you’ve got to go back to the basics, the things that you’ve done your whole life: time steps, paddle n’ rolls, cramp rolls, flaps, pull-backs, draw-backs. Anything basic that brings you back to the point of inspiration. You’ve got to find that again.
Rail: What are you working on with Chitresh Das?
Samuels Smith: I’ve been working with Pandit Chitresh Das with Kathak and classical Indian music. We’ve toured India at least eight times. And recently I’ve been working with Juan de Juan, a flamenco artist from Spain.
Rail: Has saturating yourself with these other cultures affected your tap dancing and choreographing?
Samuels Smith: Working with classical Indian music, I’m playing in odd time meters or half-beats, and then using the element of the tihai, which is the phrase that repeats three times. I started to incorporate the half-beat count into a lot of the tap stuff I was doing—and even teaching in class, getting the tap dancers to start counting differently. People start to realize there are so many layers to what we’re doing. We can dance for an hour or we can sit and count for an hour, and that will be equally beneficial to the process. Yeah. It’s definitely affected me.
And then, with Juan de Juan—just being able to jam or groove in a twelve pocket comfortably. We dance to twelves here, but the way they’ll accent it in flamenco is different.
Rail: So you’re talking about this twelve pocket. What is a more conventional tap pocket?
Samuels Smith: A 4/4 or even a 3/4—like a waltz, even more so. But most western style jazz and swing is mostly 4/4. We do dance to twelves here, but the way they’ll accent it in flamenco is different. One of the phrases might be: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—so the accents are three, six, eight, ten, twelve. There are so many ways you can sit in that, chop it up, subdivide it, play with it. It’s just a different pocket. But once you get comfortable with it, it’s playtime. As a tap dancer, I can then improvise with a kathak or flamenco artist because it’s just about phrasing and timing. It’s not about the actual vocab that you’re using to communicate.
Rail: You’re known as a leading advocate for tap. What does tap need?
Samuels Smith: There are so few tap productions in major venues—maybe one a year. And that’s one for all the different styles of tap that are out there. So what’s happening at the Joyce is an incredible opportunity for me. But every tap dancer I know has four or five projects in mind. They just need time, money, space, producers, press coverage—the same funding and support that other dance companies need.
And I’d love to see a center for tap, a building. I used to teach at the Alvin Ailey Center. I’d go in there and be like, man, this is it! This is what any art should have, especially tap.
Tap is an American style. America has a rough relationship with tap because it has a rough relationship with its own history. It’s like looking in the mirror when you look at tap. You’re like, “Oh, man—it’s ugly! This is not pretty.” But, you know what? That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve come through. And at the same time, it is beautiful because we’ve managed to create something completely out of the restraints of oppressive environments. Jazz, tap, blues, hip-hop: these things are so crucial and vital to American culture. And to be honest, if we didn’t have our culture, America would be gone right now. We’re not the world power that we used to be, economically. But culturally, we still are. We still have influence when it comes to art, film, music, and dance. People still look to us for what we’re doing. So that should say something to the country. It should say that if we are in the forefront of the world right now, culturally, we should at least embrace the culture we’re creating here. At least. And nurture it, take care of it, make sure these kids have access to it and are provided what they need to do it if they want to. We’re just not doing that as a society right now. We’re not embracing art and culture in the way we need to, to really sustain it and nurture it. That’s the sad part to me.
On the other hand, there’s hope. As grim as it all sounds, we’re here. And I encourage all tap dancers to do their part. We just need to keep nudging and keep pushing forward and putting the pressure on these presenters and producers. We need to present our work.