Jason Samuels Smith taps from New York to India
NEW YORK — The path of a dancer is an endless journey. It can take the performer farther than he ever imagined — or bring them back to their own backyard.
It is a road of personal growth, assisting in the enrichment of the lives of others.
Jason Samuels Smith started his journey around age 7 under the guidance of his mother, Sue Samuels, a jazz dancer with her own studio, and the support of his sister, Elka Samuels Smith, a student of dance.
Since then, Smith has traveled the world, appeared at dance festivals, won an Emmy and has built an impressive — almost intimidating — roster of titles and awards to his name.
The 30-year-old native of New York City pleasantly got an unexpected chance in 2004 to participate in a series of performances that would immerse him in Indian culture and bring him to the Bay Area.
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It was pure happenstance when he noticed Marin-based Indian dancer Chitresh Das mimicking his moves as he prepared to dance for an audience at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina.
The pair fed off each other effortlessly, creating a near-instant partnership. Together, they embarked on a quest to bring “India Jazz Suites” — a performance meshing the rhythmic flow of India with the exuberant style of NYC — into fruition.
Smith said the meetings and travel needed to bring the pieces to life created a bond between the two men, who have now been friends for nearly a decade:
“It was a complete learning experience. Chitresh is a fun guy who loves to crack jokes and talk trash. He really knows how to push people’s buttons to bring out the best in them. He’s a really inspirational guy who doesn’t have to be motivated to be better because he’s already a master, but he still … tries to move forward to reach another level. It’s dope being around that cat.”
Smith’s experience in the Bay encouraged him to open his eyes to a way of being that can get clouded in the hard-headed, individualist lifestyle of the Big Apple, he said.
Getting lost in a sea of people, marked by a contrast of languages, cultures and religions in the streets of India humbled Smith and opened him to many ideas, and ultimately, a mantra of togetherness:
“Really the overall philosophy (of India) is to be together as one. And I saw that in Chitresh. He doesn’t follow any one specific idea; he’s into many philosophies and ideas. I got to be a part of all types of experiences that were all life-changing.”
This sense of unity can be seen in the way the two dancers perform together in a work of art. Smith says he never had any specific goals for the collaboration, other than to share this work with the masses and grow as an artist.
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The term humble as it relates to Smith is in no way feigned modesty. The renowned tap dancer considers his greatest achievement the chance to share his dance, what he’s learned, and what he’s carried away from it with others.
Smith views his travels neither with pomp nor arrogance, but as a way to connect with the world and his audience:
“(The Bay) inspired me to learn as much about culture, language and history as possible. New York exposed me to different cultures, too, but I can’t say I’d ever seen Indian dance until I met Chitresh, saw India and collaborated in California. You know, it took going to all of these places to make it happen for me.”
Still, Smith never forgets his roots. To this day, he and his mother’s lives as dancers often cross over, as she sometimes provides lighting or other assistance for his shows. He also hosts events at her studio.
As for his future plans, Smith simply says:
Specifically, though, he hopes to use dance to bring about a sense of community and show that his art is not dead or consisting of people rehashing the classics.
Bringing in fresh blood and encouraging art and dance in a bigger way — such as fostering a sense creativity in elementary-school children that helps them succeed in other aspects of their life — would be ideal for him.
Smith is still inspired by Chitresh and the connections he made in India, aspiring to also be able to help people “in the most basic of ways” like a man he met in India, who provided food, shelter and an education to thousands of people.
Being unsure of what dance can offer should not discourage people from breaking into dance, Smith said:
“Just create it. I’d say to the next generation to work hard, don’t be afraid to be original, and if you see something that’s not happening, then make it yourself.”
Though his pursuit of everything may be daunting, Smith hopes to hit a spark that carries him further into one particular direction. For now?
“I’m just gonna ride the wave.”