“Tap dance has become for me one of the greatest ways to communicate my ideas and feelings,” Smith offers. “If there is something on my mind I can express it with my feet. Or I can try, because, honestly, you don’t always get the thought out.”
Smith’s most direct influence is Savion Glover whose class he took for many years. But his inspirations are many, and he doesn’t hesitate to spout an endless list of tap legends: “Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Dianne Walker.” His original inspiration came from watching Gregory Hines: “He was the whole package, a smooth dancer and a great personality.”
He also makes special mention of elder tap legend Dr. Bunny Briggs: “When I saw the show ‘Black and Blue’ on Broadway I was blown away. The emotion [Briggs] was able to bring, the energy and musicality, it was just magic.”
In recent years Smith, who appeared in Idlewild and "So You Think You Can Dance" has become a spokesman for the art as a producer, performer and educator.
“Our tradition is oral,” he begins. “You can’t just read a book and know how to tap. You have to be next to a tap dancer to get a feel for what it is. That process is very important.”
Smith is passionate about sharing the art with his students.
“It’s exciting because you’re teaching someone to use their instrument, giving them a foundation, a vocabulary, and once they have that they can be their own individual artist.”
During our conversation, he repeatedly speaks on the value of community.
“One of the reasons I got into tap was because of the people – how nice they were, how positive, how eloquently they spoke. I was really caught by the generosity of tap dancers. I try to continue in that spirit because its gotta be about more than the art. It’s gotta be about the people.”
This August will mark the sixth anniversary of the L.A. Tap festival, a week-long event which Smith helped create with his cousin Debbie Allen as a way to promote the present day vitality of the art and to bring together the tap community scattered around the city. The festival takes place at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy featuring some 90 master classes for all levels, jam sessions, cutting contests and a culminating performance.
Despite challenges over the years, Tap Fest has continued to grow, attracting some of the world’s greatest living tap dancers. The challenges have been financial and emotional. Gregory Hines, an invited guest and hugely inspirational figure in the tap world died on the first day of the inaugural festival in 2003. The festival became a tribute to him and continues to honor his memory.
“The art is about carrying on the tradition regardless of the situation,” Smith muses. “Even in hard times we pull together and continue to support each other.”
Tap dancing is no stranger to hard times.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re the kid nobody wants to play with. The dance world, the music world … no one takes us in, so we’re out there by ourselves. The challenge is to not be discouraged about the fact that there is a void of opportunity and to realize that the situation at hand is not what it will be tomorrow. You have to be an optimist. So we don’t have TV shows, movies, stage productions … we can create them. We all have to do our part to expand the awareness and appreciation of the art. We can’t just be frustrated that it isn’t happening. We got to bond together, realize our power and take advantage of it.”
For more information, visit www.latapfest.com.