When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."
The founder of the Los Angeles Tap Festival and an Emmy Award–winning choreographer, who's been referred to as the "Prince of Tap," credits his mom, Sue Samuels of Broadway Dance Center, for informing his diverse musical palate. He also studied with tap icons like Savion Glover and Henry LeTang, who introduced him to a range of styles, from hip hop to basic piano music.
"LeTang would teach a mean routine and then go to the piano and play beautiful chords and melodic changes," says Samuels Smith, who at 15 was the understudy to the lead, Savion Glover, in the Broadway hit Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.
Now considered one of tap's cutting-edge teachers around the country and internationally, Samuels Smith stays true to his roots. "Students will say 'We want to dance to the Top 40 or more popular music,' but I have to be honest," he says. "As a teacher and elder to these kids, you have to know what's good and what's not so good."
He starts class with an improv circle or a series of time steps. Beginning with these exercises a capella gives dancers the structure to learn the steps in a musical way. "I might want to change time signatures from a 4/4 to a 5/4 or a 7/4. When you change the time signatures, you change the groove," he says. This kind of challenge also helps students be less mechanical and to develop a relationship with the music. "A lot of students are only thinking about the steps," he says, "but as a tap dancer, you have to also be a musician."
Artist: Count Basie
Song: "Shiny Stockings"
Album: Long Live the Chief
"This has a great tempo for beginners and slow, swinging grooves."
Count Basie 1958 - Shiny Stockings www.youtube.com
Artist: Lee Morgan
Song: "You Go to My Head"
Album: The Gigolo
"The bossa nova and swing feel makes this track perfect for all class levels."
You Go To My Head (Remastered) www.youtube.com
Artist: Miles Davis
Song: "Someday My Prince Will Come"
"This is a waltz feel, so playing with phrases that fit in a 3/4 or 4/4 feels good."
Miles Davis: Someday My Prince Will Come www.youtube.com
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Song: "How High the Moon"
Album: The Best of Ella Fitzgerald
"This is a great rendition of this classic, and it swings! Plus, the tempo switches, which challenges the dancers."
Ella Fitzgerald - How High The Moon (High Quality - Remastered) www.youtube.com
Artist: James Ingram
Song: "Never Felt So Good"
"It has that '90s, R&B vibe, à la Gregory Hines feeling."
JAMES INGRAM : NEVER FELT SO GOOD www.youtube.com