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One good turn deserves another

L.A. Tap Fest aims to foster an exchange between dancers young and old.

August 05, 2004|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

It's been said that the late Ann Miller could tap 627 times a minute. Jason Samuels Smith, a lightning-fast tapper himself, isn't likely to match that speed any time soon. But with his long dreads flying and his feet pounding out rhythms of Einsteinian complexity, the 23-year-old is following in the, well, footsteps of Savion Glover to help define a new generation of this quintessential American art form.

The youngest tapper to perform the lead on Broadway in Glover's Tony Award-winning "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk" in the late '90s, Samuels Smith now is directing the second annual L.A. Tap Fest, along with partner Chloe Arnold.

The event, one of about 24 tap festivals held annually around the world, begins Monday at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and includes master classes, lectures, two dozen instructors and a panel discussion. It ends with a performance Aug. 14 featuring tap masters such as Arthur Duncan, Skip Cunningham, Fayard Nicholas and Dianne Walker, as well as Samuels Smith's group ACGI (Anybody Can Get It).

"I'd been participating in tap festivals in New York, Amsterdam and Brazil," Samuels Smith says, "so when Debbie suggested doing one at her studio, I thought about how many great dancers were already living here.... We could invite them and promote L.A. and the tap community."

Last year's celebration, which was to have featured Gregory Hines, instead became a tribute to the entertainer, who had died of cancer the week before.

Although Hines' death was a huge blow, Samuels Smith says, it also proved "a blessing, bringing attention to the art form."

Indeed, the festival was a cross-generational hit, with participants coming from 15 states (and as far away as Japan), ranging from 6-year-olds to nonagenarian Leonard Reed. (Creator of the shim sham shimmy, Reed, who died in April at 96, managed to teach class with a broken foot.)

"Our mission," says Arnold, another tapper with sizzle to burn, "is to connect dancers from all over the world, to unify tappers of different styles, genres and generations."

The dance gene is obviously at work in Manhattan-born and -bred Samuels Smith, whose parents, Jo Jo Smith and Sue Samuels, were professional jazz dancers and teachers. As a youth, Samuels Smith originally wanted to play drums and began tap only after his sister started class.

"Tap dance was the best alternative," Samuels Smith recalls, "because it was the same idea of creating rhythm and music with an instrument, except your instrument was your feet and your body."

As an 8-year-old, he studied with Glover, then 15, who invited him to perform on an episode of "Sesame Street." After Glover achieved fame with "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," Samuels Smith joined the cast.

Beginning in 1996 at 15, Samuels Smith was with the show for three years. He eventually snagged a major role, performing the lead as an understudy about 10 times.

"Being in 'Noise' made me realize it was possible to have a steady income as a dancer," Samuels Smith says. "Savion was so generous in passing on his knowledge, which he'd gotten from Gregory and other masters, like Jimmy Slyde, that that was an inspiration too."

Allen, who is slated to teach five master classes at the festival, saw Samuels Smith perform in "Noise/Funk." In 2002, she invited him to teach at her then-new Culver City school. Currently instructing 300 students weekly in 15 classes, Samuels Smith is also a deft organizer.

"Jason's a master," Allen says, "and what he can do here is wide-open territory. He's so young and already understands how to make a festival work. It's important with his talent that this is happening now because L.A. should be a center for the art of tap dancing."

The hard work paid off when Samuels Smith received an Emmy nomination last month for choreographing the opening number on Jerry Lewis' 2003 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

Still, Samuels Smith's ability to rock a room with his dancing is what continues to draw the most attention. Whether he's vamping in a mercurial solo, improvising with partner Arnold or trading polyrhythmic riffs with the legendary Duncan, the spring-release floor gives under his atomic footwork.

At a recent Tap Fest rehearsal, he and Duncan, who danced on "The Lawrence Welk Show" for 17 years, talked about their collaboration. It has extended beyond the festival, with the two starring in a short film, "Tap Heat," made last year. The film, written and directed by veteran TV producer Dean Hargrove, screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

"I was born 40 years too soon," jokes Duncan, 70, about the age difference between him and Samuels Smith. "But we're having fun because Jason's style takes tapping to a different level."

Replies Samuels Smith: "If it weren't for people like Arthur, we wouldn't be able to do what we do. We have so many hidden treasures in L.A., and the Tap Fest is a way to learn from these artists who have contributed a lifetime of creativity, as well as to pay homage to them."

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