Meet Jason Samuels Smith
“I dance because I have to … I dance because my soul needs it.”
Jason Samuels Smith—award-winning tap dancer, teacher, choreographer, and humanitarian—is a multi-talented leader and lifelong champion of tap dancing.
His numerous accolades include an Emmy, a Dance Magazine Award, an American Choreography Award, and the Gregory Hines Humanitarian Award—one of his most cherished honors. He has also received a number of grants and residences to support his new projects.
Jason was born in New York City on October 4, 1980, to jazz dance masters, Sue Samuels and Jo Jo Smith—so performing arts was a way of life. It was also a gift he inherited from generations of dancers, musicians and visual artists. They include his great grandmother, Tempy Smith of Harlem Renaissance fame and grandfather, Joseph Benjamin Smith—a Harlem tap dancer. He and his sister Helena were a tap act and regulars at the Apollo Theater.
Additionally, the culture-rich environment of his father’s dance studio, Jo Jo’s Dance Factory (later known as Broadway Dance Center), was foundational for his future.
Jason’s first professional job as a tap dancer was on Sesame Street at age eight. He appeared in several episodes with then 15-year-old tap sensation Savion Glover, one of his teachers and mentors. Being on Sesame Street was a dream for Jason and even more exciting, since the studio was just a few blocks from his childhood home in Hell’s Kitchen, NY.
As a youth, Jason actively pursued dance and sports, focusing more on the latter in middle and high school. But the choice became clearer when he attended a rehearsal for a show in which his friend, tap dancer Chris Scott had a role. Chris injured himself, and Jason was asked to be a part of the production. The director, Michael Blevins offered to help purchase a pair of tap shoes so Jason could perform in the show. This was the moment he went from the basketball court to the stage, and never looked back.
Tarik Winston, a performer and choreographer, provided an opportunity with his youth company Teen With a Positive Attitude (TWAPA), which helped Jason solidify his path. He worked in productions such as the Tony Award-winning 1996 Broadway show Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk, as of age 15; and performed at the White House and beyond in the ‘90s with Savion’s group NYOTs (Not Your Ordinary Tappers).
A distinctive style
Savion taught Jason the importance of acknowledging the tap greats before him and studying their work. Seeing films with tap icon Gregory Hines made Jason believe he too could become a successful tap dancer. He first worked with Gregory on Sesame Street.
Jason is confident that the distinctive approach of Black tap dancers sets the bar for the genre. Beyond technique, footwork, vocabulary, timing and rhythm, their dancing is about exuding raw essence—a vibe.
That is what he aims for when he performs. Jason draws from a deep understanding of historical and musical knowledge. His style is dynamic; at times energetic and aggressive, while sophisticated and playful—mixing it up and giving nods to master hoofers that have influenced his craft.
When Gregory agreed to perform as a headlining guest at Jason’s 2003 Los Angeles Tap Festival, hosted and produced by the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, it was an honor and a validation he greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, Gregory passed before the event.
Jason’s opening number of the 2003 Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon, in a tribute to Gregory Hines, won him an Emmy and an American Choreography Award for “Outstanding Choreography.”
In 2001, Jason also worked with tap lover Michael Jackson, appearing in the music video for “You Rock My World.”
Jason later appeared in several films and television series, including Dean Hargrove’s award-winning short film Tap Heat in 2004 and his documentary Tap World in 2015; Black Nativity, Outkast’s Idlewild, CBS’s Dancing With The Stars, USA’s Psych, and his cousin Debbie Allen’s Cool Women.
In 2009, when Jason debuted at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow for the Dance Festival gala, writer Brian Seibert described his performance as “a feast of rhythmic brilliance, a nearly fifteen-minute flow of ferocious technique and astonishing invention.” He returned to that stage in 2016.
Jason has appeared both solo and with company for performances at some of the world’s most prominent venues, including The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Teatro Municipal in Brazil and Beizhan Theater in China.
More than a personal pursuit
Jason continues to be inspired by the beautiful complexity and cultural significance of tap. It’s manifested in his transformative work as an educator and mentor, impacting youth in underserved neighborhoods in the United States and around the world. He has also helped to launch the careers of many of today’s successful tap dancers.
In 2005, Jason’s expertise and commitment to the craft transcended the stage to create the most important tool a tap dancer can own—tap shoes. As the first official tap representative for BLOCH, he meticulously designed, tested, and developed an original professional tap shoe.
Today, Jason continues to tour the world, performing with his company A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It), India Jazz Suites, Dormeshia’s And Still You Must Swing, Chasin’ the Bird and many others.
In his humanitarian endeavors, Jason has supported various organizations including Dancers Responding to AIDS, Tied to Greatness, TapTakeOverHarlem, Groove With Me, and Tap Into A Cure.