Sam Weber: A Master of American Tap Dance

2 August 2012

Sam Weber, Tap Dancer

In today’s world, it is difficult to find anything that causes us to stop and think to ourselves: “Now that was amazing”.  In part, because it is so easy to look up everything imaginable on YouTube, we eventually start to feel as though we’ve pretty much seen it all.  One dancer, on the other hand, who manages to reignite that magical feeling you get when you see  something that is truly brilliant, is Sam Weber.  Where many dancers amaze us as we watch them do steps that look incredibly difficult, with Sam and his distinctly graceful style and crystal clear tap sounds, you just stand back and say, “Wow! He makes that look so incredibly easy!”

Background

Sam Weber has gained an international reputation as a tap dance artist and is in demand throughout the world as a performer, master teacher and choreographer. He has appeared with such tap luminaries as Charles “Honi” Coles, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and the Nicholas Brothers. A protegé of tap master Stan Kahn in San Francisco, Sam has studied in New York at the Julliard School and has performed with the Joffrey II, the San Francisco Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Peninsula Ballet Theatre and Smuin Ballets/SF. His versatility has led him to performances in musical theater and television, where he has appeared with such stars as Burt Lancaster, Bob Hope, Andy Williams and Sara Vaughn, and he appeared frequently on the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” television show on PBS. He has been a principal dancer and choreographer with the Jazz Tap Ensemble since 1986 and has received acclaim in the U.S. and abroad touring with the company. Mr. Weber is one of the few tap dancers in the world currently performing Morton Gould’s “Tap Dance Concerto.” He is featured in “Juba! Masters of Percussive Dance” on PBS and has starred in the award-winning German short film “Zwei Im Frack,” which premiered on the German television program “ARTE” in May of 2001 and is still shown throughout Germany. Sam was the first tap dancer to receive New York’s “Bessie” award, presented in recognition of outstanding creative achievement and is the recent recipient of the Legacy Award from the Third Coast Rhythm Project, the Giant Steps Award from the San Francisco Tap Festival and the Juba Award from the Chicago Human Rhythm Project.

Sam Weber

We are very fortunate that Sam Weber has agreed to do an interview with DanseTrack.  In a previous interview by Lane Alexander of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Sam discussed not only his approach to dancing and teaching, but also provided useful advice for dancers.  That interview was presented in the April 2006 edition of Dance Magazine in an article posted by Jennifer Stahl and titled “Teacher’s Wisdom”.  Here, after considering the information that already exists from earlier interviews, we have taken this opportunity to ask Sam Weber a few questions that he may not have been asked before.

DanseTrack:

“Who are the dancers, choreographers or other performers who inspired you while growing up?”

SW:

Pinky Lee: Host of the 1950′s Pinky Lee Show

“I admired different dancers from the time I started, at three, until I was an adult. First, I liked Pinky Lee, an entertainer who had a children’s TV show for a little while in the 50′s. He was quite hyper; that annoyed many parents, but he always tap danced on the show, and I loved the way his taps sounded, so crisp and clear. That was partly due to the fact that the TV studio floors were concrete, not good for the legs, but they sounded good. My next hero was Ray Bolger, who also had a TV show around that time. And of course he appeared in films, and I tried to see all of those. Then came Gene Kelly. I’d seen a dancer try to tap on roller skates. He couldn’t do much, and I’d thought that that was probably all anyone could do on skates. Then, when I was 12, I saw Gene Kelly do the roller skating number in “It’s Always Fair Weather.”

I was knocked out and became a Gene Kelly fan. I saw every film and TV appearance. I tried to dress like him (T-shirt or a baggy shirt hanging over the trousers, white socks with black tap shoes) I tried to imitate his jumps and attitude turns. He made me want to study ballet to improve my dancing. The work of Paul Draper had that effect, too. I was introduced to his work by Rodney Strong, one of the teachers at Mason-Kahn studios, where I studied. Strong was an excellent, ballet-trained dancer. Draper’s work was very light, above the floor and very well suited to classical music, which he used often. When I actually saw Draper himself, I thought his movement was rather stiff. I loved his steps, but I preferred to imagine them being done by someone like Gene Kelly or by Stan Kahn, my principal tap teacher. Stan was a terrific dancer and role model, and it was his teaching that equipped me to learn from all of the other dancers who’ve influenced me.”

Fred Astaire

“He had been strongly influenced by Fred Astaire, and Astaire became my next inspiration. His style had been too subtle for me as a child, but by the time I was 17, I was ready to appreciate him. His musicality was very jazz oriented, and his dancing had an improvisational quality, which I loved, because around this same time, I was becoming interested in tap dancing as a jazz musician/dancer. I’d listened to Baby Laurence’s record, “Baby Laurence, Dance Master,” and his improvising on that record inspired me tremendously. Because of my interest in Baby Laurence, I discovered the world of jazz tap and improvisation. Those were the formative influences. I was later very inspired by Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Charles “Honi” Coles

Charles “Honi” Coles

and Chuck Green, but I was dancing professionally by then. I continue to be inspired by some of the terrific young dancers who are out there today.”

 

DanseTrack:

“One of our favorite tap numbers on film (of which there are many) comes from the movie “Broadway Melody of 1940”. This particular piece is done to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, with Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. Beyond the fact that the dancing is amazing, because this scene is relatively cut-free, you actually get the feeling that you’re sitting in the audience watching these two tap icons perform right there onstage. Are there any particular movies, scenes from movies that particularly inspired you?”

SW

“Well, to begin with, the one you just mentioned! I love “Begin the Beguine,” and I’ve reconstructed and performed it with a number of different partners, in fact, I may do it with a partner at the SF tap festival this August. It’s one of the greatest tap numbers on film because of the great dancing and because the choreography is so perfectly suited to the music. It’s obvious that Astaire & Powell had a perfect feel for the big band swing rhythms of that time, and the movement has the loose feeling of swing dance. I also love the dances of the Nicholas Brothers. Of course I’m impressed by their acrobatics, as everyone is, but their tap dancing brilliantly coordinates movement and rhythm, highlighting the accents. One of my favorite examples is their tap dancing in “I’ve Got A Gal in Kalamazoo,” from “Orchestra Wives.”  Here’s the video:

SW

“Astaire does the same thing, showing the musical accents in his movement, and you can see it in so many of his numbers. I especially like “I’d Rather Lead A Band,” from “Follow the Fleet” and “Looking For A Needle In A Haystack,” from “The Gay Divorcee.” I think that “Needle In A Haystack” is pretty far ahead of its time musically.”

“As a tap dancer, I also love the Condos Brothers, who are really “dancers’ dancers” in the tap world. Technically, they were and still are leaders in the field, even though the films they were in (Mostly Betty Grable films, like “Moon Over Miami,” “Pinup Girl,” “The Time, The Place And The Girl” and also “Happy Landings,” which was not a Grable film) have not stood the test of time, as Astaire’s have done. They didn’t do any acrobatics, and they were strictly hoofers, not movement stylists; their “flash” was created entirely by their tap virtuosity.”

DanseTrack:

“Thank you, Sam, for sharing your time and thoughts with us.”  

Finally, here is a video of Sam Weber dancing to the third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto (accompanied by Doug Walter) for the Jazz Tap Ensemble at the Joyce Theatre in New York.

For a unique opportunity to study with Sam Weber or to see him perform, we recommend—

Workshops & Special Appearances:

San Francisco – Bay Area Tap Festival 2012

  • August 13, 2012  – August 19, 2012
  • Workshop Classes, Panel Discussion, Tap Jam, and Community Showcase Performance at KUNST-STOFF Arts
  • Sam Weber teaches & performs - http://www.stepology.com

Aug. 18th (ONE NIGHT ONLY) –  San Francisco Bay Area Tap Festival Performance at Herbst Theatre

Santa Fe Tap Festival 2012 –  Santa Fe, New Mexico

  • August 23, 2012  – August 25, 2012
  • Workshop Classes, Panel Discussion, Tap Jam, and Showcase Performance
  • Sam Weber teaches & performs - http://www.stepology.com

Additional Links:

 

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