UPAJ: Improvise Documentary: Interview with Jason Samuels Smith

By Shruti Iyer

In less than a decade, Jason Samuels Smith (performer, choreographer, director) has emerged as a multi-talented leader in the Art form of Tap. He began his professional career as a Tap dancer at a young age with the Broadway Dance Center in New York City.  At 15, he was cast as an understudy to the leading role in Tony Award Winning Broadway show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.

He received the 2009 Dance Magazine Award and won both an Emmy and American Choreography Award for “Outstanding Choreography” for the opening number of the Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon in a tribute to the late Gregory Hines. He has created the First Annual Tap Festival in Los Angeles and has received a Proclamation from the City of Shreveport, Louisiana declaring April 23rd “Jason Samuels Day.” Some of his recent television appearances include a special guest spot on Fox’s hit series ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ a choreographer for Grammy Artist Mya on ‘Secret Talents of The Stars,’ and as an associate choreographer for ‘Dancing With The Stars.’

Jason Samuels Smith joined Pandit Chitresh Das in 2005 to premier their collaboration, India Jazz Suites (IJS).  IJS has since received extensive critical acclaim and has toured around the U.S. and India.  The 2009 tour of IJS instigated the production of the documentary, Upaj: Improvise, by The Center for Asian American Media in association with Hindipendent Films.


Jason Samuels Smith graciously took the time to talk about his involvement in the documentary, UPAJ: Improvise, his experience with IJS, and performing Tap to the larger world audience.

We are presented with two, very different cultures in the film: ancient Indian and modern American traditions. Aside from the artistic differences in the dance forms, can you talk about the cultural nuances brought out in the film?

I should first say that my introduction to Chitresh Das and his company was my first introduction to the classical Indian arts as a whole. Even though I grew up in New York, which is so culturally diverse, I wasn’t introduced to Indian culture on that level until I attended the American Dance Festival and participated in the Festival of the Feet in 2004, which featured Tap, Flamenco, and Kathak. Since my introduction, I’ve definitely noticed a lot of differences in culture, tradition, etiquette, etc. I learned about a lot of those cultural nuances on my first trip to India (which was when the filming of Upaj: Improvise took place). It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I had to humble myself in the process. I had to have an open mind to take all of that in. And that touches on the theme of the documentary; the word ‘Upaj’ literally means ‘improvisation.’ Improvising requires being open minded and being able to adapt to numerous situations.

Being watched on stage is certainly not a new concept for you. What was it like being watched and filmed off stage and behind the scenes?

It was certainly a new experience! Having the cameras following me around constantly was a little uncomfortable at first and took some getting used to; I’m more familiar with live stage and theater. But working with Dadaji [Pt. Das] during the filming was interesting. He seemed to be pretty comfortable with the entire filming process. I wouldn’t say the filming changed our interaction or performance off stage, so to say, especially since Dadaji [Pt. Das] seemed to be in his comfort zone, but it took me awhile to get used to.

Much of the filming of Upaj: Improvise took place in India. Although you have since been to India several times, your first trip to India was during the filming of this documentary. At the time, what was that like – being in, performing, and experiencing a new country?

India is a country of extremes and has such a diverse collection of cultures, languages, history, and religions. When you first visit, I think it can be a stimulation overload and a bit of a shock – there is so much to see, smell, and taste! But, in terms of actually traveling to a new place, both geographically and culturally, it wasn’t a new concept to me. I grew up moving a lot, so getting used to something different or outside of my comfort zone is not new to me. The life of an artist requires constantly being on the road, meeting new people, encountering new situations, and constantly improvising. Everything I had done up until that point of visiting India had prepared me for that moment. I still wasn’t completely ready when it happened, that’s why it was so special and intense.

What sort of response did you get from the local audience in India, some of who may have been seeing Tap for the first time in their lives? What is the element of Tap (or any art form) that reaches a variety of audiences?

The crowds were great in India! They were highly receptive and responsive. Most of them were extremely educated and knowledgeable about what they were watching. At first, I thought they would be more conservative in their reaction, but that notion quickly changed. I realized that there was a common ground that really spoke to them; rhythm is really a universal language and the crowd had a great understanding for what was being performed in India Jazz Suites – by the both of us.

Music and dance are universal and reach people from all over. The thing that makes Tap special, is that it’s constantly evolving and being defined by those involved in it. We’re still changing and forming the identity of Tap- it changes with every generation that contributes to it. We use our history and take what we can from the legends of the art form to create our own representation. It’s really exciting to work with artists like Dadaji [Pt. Das], who have reached a level where they can express themselves and improvise freely by being in the moment. I think creating something new at that moment in time really speaks to people; I don’t think you have to translate that for anybody. Audiences appreciate the improvising or the upaj, because we’re all experiencing that creation together at the same time and for the first time! And the type of energy and sound that you can radiate by Tap dancing is incredible, regardless of where you are performing, whether it’s at a theater or outside, in India or back home in New York. It’s not about a particular type of step or the vocabulary of your art form. People really relate to the vibe and essence that you are trying to create.

The documentary is not only about your onstage production, IJS, but also about your relationship with Pt. Chitresh Das and how that develops through the course of the tour. Can you talk a bit about that evolution and how it affected your tapping?

Dadaji [Pt. Das] and I started out wanting to create a vibe and energy from our interaction on stage; creating something new each time. That’s what’s truly inspiring about our production, and as IJS has developed, so has our relationship. It’s given us experience, let us get more comfortable with each other as artists, and speak to each other on that artistic level. It gets more and more interesting every time we do the performance and is a constant surprise for the both of us. No two performances are ever the same. We challenge each other as artists on stage and that has definitely brought us closer off stage.

The culture of Tap dance is to challenge yourself and others; that’s how you improve. It is a constant challenge. It has always been about always being on top: having the most vocabulary, knowledge of music, style, range or versatility. So if you can prove yourself and battle someone successfully on stage, you’ve really hit the core of Tap. At first, battling someone from a different style on stage was very different. And you might think that you have to approach that challenge in a different way, but the type of energy Dadaji [Pt. Das] creates when he is dancing or challenging another artist, is very similar to the type of energy we create when we are tapping. So we didn’t have to adjust or adapt to each other; the challenge that we posed to each other came naturally and it is what makes us better as individual artists. We are constantly pushing each others limits.  If Dadaji [Pt. Das] doesn’t push me to that next level, I might not even know I’m capable of it, and vice versa. So I feel that we’re developing an even stronger bond and relationship by challenging each other.

Upaj: Improvise shines light on your artistic differences, but also on your age difference! Pt. Das was 63 and you were 28 during the filming. Did that affect your performance or interaction off stage?

I should say first that, another special thing about Tap dance culture, is that we have such great respect for the elders in Tap and for our teachers, mentors, and leaders. When I was first coming up in Tap dance, most of our elders were 85 to 90 years old. They would hang out and interact with us like they were 20! That really prepared me for developing a relationship with Dadaji [Pt. Das]. Even though there is an age difference, we’re still able to connect on a spiritual, intellectual, and physical level as dancers. So, my Tap roots definitely prepared me for that, and allowed me to bring my own perspectives to the conversation.

You talked about your artistic evolution with Pt. Das on a shared platform, like India Jazz Suites. Has your experience with IJS and your relationship affected your solo performance?

Definitely. It tremendously affected my approach to Tap and music, because Dadaji [Pt. Das] uses ways of rhythmical counting that are new to me, particularly the use of half beats. The use of half beats in dance completely shook my whole foundation and made me question everything again! It opened up a whole new world and [rhythmical] vocabulary. So I try to apply what I learned with the concept of half beats and also the concept of tihais in my own performance. A tihai is a rhythmical pattern that repeats itself three times. So, during solo performances, I may add in a tihai at the beginning or end of a phrase.

What was your most memorable moment during the filming?

The most memorable part of filming was when we were in Kharagpur. We were on our way to the performance and we ended up experiencing every delay possible. The road was completely blocked, the traffic wasn’t moving at all, and the only way to get there was hopping the median and driving up the wrong side of the street. On the way there was a bridge that wasn’t completely built, but still, somehow, there were two lanes of traffic trying to get across. That whole experience was insane. What amazes me about India, is it’s complete chaos- you never know how things work out there, but somehow they do. I experienced that over and over during my trip. There was no order or organization, but somehow everything would work out in the end. Dealing with India is like dealing with upaj in a way!

As the March 18th screening date nears, are there any final thoughts you would like to leave for viewers?

I’m just really excited for the film’s release and I hope the viewers enjoy it! Like Dadaji [Pt. Das] always says, “Life is Upaj.” It’s all about being in the moment and not planning too far ahead, because you never know what’s going to happen. So the more open minded you are the better off you’ll be.

The documentary, Upaj: Improvise, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival.  Jason Samuels Smith will be performing along with Pandit Chitresh Das on Friday, March 18th at 7:00 PM, after the screening of the film.

Click here to purchase tickets to the documentary screening and performance