Art Talk with Jason Samuels Smith
At the 2009 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert, Chitresh Das, a master in the art of kathak (classical North Indian dance), was among those honored with the highest award the nation gives to folk and traditional artists. After performing solo, Das brought to the stage an artist with whom he had been collaborating for the last several years---renowned tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. As the two dancers performed, both separately and together, they revealed the distinctiveness and similarities of their styles, with Das using his bare feet and ghoonghroos (footbells) to stamp out a rhythm while Samuels Smith used his tap shoes.
For Samuels Smith, this collaboration with Chitresh Das is an important part of his quest to find new experiences in the art of tap dance. Samuels Smith began dancing at a young age at the Broadway Dance Center, performing on Sesame Street as a child and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk as a teenager. He is the recipient of an Emmy and American Choreography Award for Outstanding Choreography, and created the first annual Los Angeles Tap Festival in 2003. We spoke with Samuels Smith about his collaboration with Chitresh Das on India Jazz Suites, the impetus behind the founding of the tap company A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It), and his work as a self-described ambassador of jazz.
NEA: What's your version of the artist life?
JASON SAMUELS SMITH: It's crazy. It's all encompassing. At this point, because I work almost the entire year, I work and I play simultaneously. Me and my friends say it like this: we burn the candle like a log. Sometimes I don't get a lot of sleep, but I think it's all worth it---being able to travel, and experience new things, and just live an exciting life. At this point, I don't have any set schedule. For the most part, every job is kind of a different experience and it enhances my perspective as an artist. Then I'm able to be more creative because of that experience.
NEA: What’s your earliest memory of being engaged in the arts?
SAMUELS SMITH: I remember taking a class when I was young. That was probably my first encounter, just being around the dance studio, being around the Broadway Dance Center as a kid. My mom, Sue Samuels, would teach jazz classes. It exposed me to the dance world and music. There were musicians there as well, just all kinds of creative people. From my class experience, it led to my first professional job, which was Sesame Street. The studio environment was my first taste of the artist life---being around art, being immersed in it, in a place where people were constantly being creative and motivating each other and inspiring each other and pushing each other to try to get to another level. Broadway Dance Center in the late '80s and early '90s was a really serious environment for dance---for every genre of dance. It was a breeding ground for great dancers. I was really lucky to be coming up around that time and being exposed to that experience. Because of that experience, I think it's made me comfortable in most environments, because I think dancers are some of the wildest, craziest, fun people to be around. If you can be around dancers, you can pretty much blend with anybody.
NEA: Do you remember the moment when you decided, yes, this is what I'm going to do professionally as a career?
SAMUELS SMITH: I think it was probably around the age of 16, when I was on Broadway doing Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk and I felt like there was some consistency in the work and also just in the general environment. Being around those dancers in that particular show just really inspired me to want to pursue tap in a more aggressive manner. Around 16 I made that decision, and I decided to make a serious commitment to the art and put everything into it. I think since that point a lot of good things have happened for me, and I've gotten a lot of opportunities because I've made myself available for a lot of things.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about ACGI (Anybody Can Get It) Tap Company? What are the mission and goals of the company?
SAMUELS SMITH: I started the Tap Jam in Los Angeles around 2001, and there were a lot of dancers that kept coming pretty regularly to these jam sessions. After a while, we decided we wanted to kind of create some pieces of choreography to have available to perform or just to feed off of, or maybe to pull out at jam sessions or different shows or performances, and that just kind of developed into having a repertory of pieces. It [ACGI] just came from this specific group of dancers that were all around each other at that time period in Los Angeles. It's the kind of thing where there's no real specific membership and people interchange within the group. Different people learn the choreography and people come in and out depending on the job, depending on the opportunity, and the location, and the availability of the individual. The idea is really to represent the dancers on a level where they can showcase their individual skills as soloists, but also show their ability to execute challenging, high-level choreography. Pretty much everybody just has to be able to hold it down. It comes from the competitive environment in tap where we constantly challenge each other, whether at jam sessions or on a personal level. Anybody can shine on any given day; you never know who's going to take it to that next level. That's where the idea of "anybody can get it" comes from. Everybody has to have the ability to hold it down---individually and as a collective.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about how your collaboration with Chitresh Das came about?
SAMUELS SMITH: I was invited to go to the American Dance Festival in 2004. They had an idea to feature all rhythmic dance forms---flamenco, tap dance, and kathak. And really that was my first exposure to any classical Indian dance, especially kathak. There were different moments backstage where I would practice, and [Das] would come and meet me and just kind of start messing with me. We'd trade steps backstage. We developed a little camaraderie. What it led to was him suggesting that we put together a show from scratch where we could feature each other's styles, but then also feature our conversation within our dance forms. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and he was based in the Bay Area, so we would just go up and down the coast and create different ideas and brainstorm. He taught me a lot about the structure of classical Indian music and dance. It enabled me to be able to work with a lot of classical Indian musicians that he features in his show. It was really an educational experience with me, in terms of learning about Indian culture and history, music, and dance. It just opened up my mind and my whole creative side to a whole other world that I wasn't exposed to as a youth. It got me excited and it gave me a whole second wind of wanting to learn more and travel more and practice more and just really changed me as an artist. I'm really grateful to have crossed paths with Pandit Chitresh Das. Also having the ability to tour in India has been a huge gift as well. It's been amazing, and I can't believe we've been doing it now for almost ten years together.
Every time I have an experience where I meet someone from another place that does another style of dance, especially if it's a rhythmic style of dance or it's something I'm not aware of or am uneducated about, I get really excited. For instance, I just went to Argentina three or four months ago, and I got a chance to learn about malambo, which is a rhythmic style of dance created in Argentina, similar to flamenco and tap dance in a some ways, but in a lot of ways very unique. It just blew me away to learn about another style like that. Working with Chitresh has definitely opened my mind up and opened my perspectives. I feel like a student of his and I'm so blessed to have that experience.
We just have this chemistry together that is unexplainable. It's strange because we're from completely different generations and completely different regions of the world, but we've walked such a similar path in life. I think we recognize our similarities more than our differences when we're together. It works out. It seems like our production is just like an ongoing conversation that keeps getting more interesting every time we do it. We're actually going to India again next week to do another tour. I'm really excited to go back.
NEA: Do you have any advice that you would give to young dancers or young tappers?
SAMUELS SMITH: You can never practice enough. So, practice nonstop. Practice, practice, practice. Definitely make sure you always find a joy in what you're doing and a love because that will keep you passionate and keep you driven. I would also say, be creative with what you do with the art form. Don't be limited to what's already happened in the past. Use technology, use history, use everything. Be innovative. Walk your own path. Try to be unique---well, don't try to be unique, be unique. Be different. And just have fun.
NEA: What do you think overall is the role of the artist in the community? Why do we need our artists?
SAMUELS SMITH: That's interesting. I feel like the role of the artist is similar to an ambassador in the sense that we're able to cross all boundaries to connect people in a lot of ways. I find myself in a lot of circumstances---whether it's at these rich black tie affairs or at an underground basement party---and I feel like I'm an ambassador of my art form, my culture, of my generation. I think we're able to go places that other people aren't, and speak to people that other people aren't [able to]. We have a profound influence on society and we have a responsibility. I think artists definitely should use their visibility and their voice to try to affect the people in a positive way.