Art Works Blog

Happy National Tap Dance Day!

Washington, DC

NEA National Heritage Fellow Chitresh Das performed with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith at the 2009 celebration concert. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Through the NEA National Heritage Fellowships, the NEA has celebrated the artistic achievements and contributions of the nation's master tappers, such as Jimmy "Slyde" Godbolt, LaVaughn E. Robinson, and Howard "Sandman" Sims . But it turns out that 2009 NEA National Heritage Fellow Pandith Chitresh Das---a master Indian kathak dancer---also has a thing for tap. From our archives, here's an article about Das's groundbreaking partnership with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith (a collaboration I was privileged to see in person at last year's Heritage celebrations).

The American Dance Festival, held each summer in Durham, North Carolina, is a place where dance practitioners of all styles have a chance to mingle and meet. Occasionally, dancers hit it off so well, they decide to perform together. But one of the most unusual pairings ever to emerge from the festival may be Indian kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das (a 2009 NEA National Heritage Fellow) and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith of Bring in ?Da Noise, Bring in ?Da Funk fame.

After that fateful backstage meeting in 2004, Das and Smith realized they had something special in common. Although Das was trained in an ancient Indian art form and Smith in a relatively recent American one, both dancers wield percussion instruments with their feet. Smith taps the ground with the steel on his toes and Das rings the five pounds of bells wrapped around his ankles. Their collaboration resulted in a melding of the two art forms into an exciting new work.

In November 2005, India Jazz Suites debuted at San Francisco?s Fort Mason Center. The two dancers performed solos, a duet, and took turns dancing with each other?s respective jazz and Indian musicians. Smith gave Das?s Indian table drummer a run for his money, while Das stomped to a stand-up bass instead of a sitar. The work proved so popular in San Francisco--the San Francisco Chronicle deemed it one of the city?s top-ten dance events of the year--that Das and Smith made plans to tour. In FY 2007, the NEA awarded Chitresh Das Dance Company an Access to Artistic Excellence grant of $20,000 to take India Jazz Suites on the road. The tour stopped in Monterey, California; Denver, Colorado; Richmond, Virginia; and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The tour attracted a slightly different demographic group in each city, Celine Schein, executive director of Chitresh Das, said. African Americans and South Asians often sat next to each other in the audience, learning to appreciate new styles of dance.

?What is really striking is that we have people who attend who either haven?t seen kathak or haven?t seen tap,? Schein said. ?It completely opens people?s minds to another art form.?

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