Two families united by dance
By Nancy Wozny
How many male dancers can claim to have a dancing father? Two father/son duos from different parts of the dance spectrum, the Smiths and the Sarabias, have intriguing tales, both still in motion and neither ordinary.
The story behind Joseph “JoJo” Benjamin Smith and his son, Jason Samuels Smith, is not the usual raised-at-the-studio father/son scenario. Before Jason was born in 1980, one era of his father’s career had ended: JoJo’s Dance Factory, one of Manhattan’s first mega dance studios, had been sold to Frank Hatchett. Jason’s parents divorced before he was born, and his father frequently traveled to Latin America during the ’80s, so Jason had little contact with JoJo until he was in his teens. The relationship the two men share today was forged while both were ensconced in their professional lives, proving that it’s never too late to develop a meaningful father/son relationship.
Both Smiths have made a mark on the dance world, JoJo in jazz and Jason in tap. JoJo, now 70, is well known as the man who advised John Travolta and his co-stars in the film Saturday Night Fever. A longtime teacher, some of his famous students include Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, Debbie Allen, Olivia Newton-John, Phylicia Allen Rashad, and Brooke Shields. As a performer, he appeared in the 1964 Off-Broadway revival of West Side Story and A Joyful Noise on Broadway, among other shows, and he and his company, JoJo’s Dance Factory, toured with The Fifth Dimension.
Jason, 27, first came to the world’s attention as a teenager performing on Broadway in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. He stayed with the show in various parts, including the lead, for the duration of the show, from 1996 to 1999. In 2001 he founded a tap company, ACGI (Anybody Can Get It), which has toured nationally and internationally. The recipient of an Emmy and an American Choreography Award for his choreographic tribute to Gregory Hines in the 2003 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, Jason is also the founder of a jazz-influenced hip-hop band, JaJa Productions. Though he tours the world teaching and performing, his most recent achievement is a new tap shoe he designed for Bloch.
Jason’s performance in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk proved a turning point for his relationship with his father: JoJo was blown away by his son’s dancing. “He was amazing, and I’m not saying that because he’s my son.”
It was also one of the few times that Jason’s mother, Sue Samuels, a well-known jazz teacher, and JoJo came together to watch their son dance. For Jason, “it was great to see them together and sharing in my success.”
One of the Smiths’ most profound father/son moments occurred quite by accident when both happened to be at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem. It was the first time JoJo had seen his son, then 16, dance spontaneously, and the first time they communicated through dance and music. “Dad jumped onstage to play the congas, and I jumped on the wood,” Jason says. “It was a magic moment. I had a lot to get off my chest, and I did it with my feet. It was another way to communicate with each other.”
Tap dancing runs in the family. JoJo’s father, Joe Smith, was a tap dancer who performed on Broadway in the early 1900s. “He taught the Nicholas Brothers,” says JoJo, who, like his own son, did not grow up alongside his father. “I learned about my father’s life as an adult.” His mother, Anna Grayson, danced with Katherine Dunham’s company, and JoJo studied with one of Dunham’s most famous dancers and teachers, Syvilla Fort. He recalls the excitement of going to his first class with Fort: “I remember turning the corner and hearing the sound of those congas.” Thus began a lifelong passion of playing and teaching percussion.
But JoJo started his career as a tap dancer. “I remember tapping on the radio with a microphone at my feet when I was 9 years old,” he says.
For the teenaged Jason, “learning that my grandfather was a famous tap dancer was huge for me. It was a pivotal piece of information,” he says now. Learning his family history strengthened the tie to his art form; now, he sees rhythm as a place where his father and he come together. “Both of our lives revolve around music and dance. I combined his two talents into one skill. We also share a passion for percussion.”
Although Jason never trained with his father, he believes he may have received some of his father’s teachings secondhand, through his mother. “Her style was influenced by his style,” Jason says, “although I am definitely inspired and influenced by my father’s abilities on the drums.”
Today, JoJo stays on top of Jason’s performances but doesn’t like to give him career advice; Jason appreciates his father’s interest in his work. “When I see him after a show he has that proud look,” he says. The two men see each other regularly outside of dance, too. Getting together for New York Knicks games ranks high on their bonding activities. “We are both diehard Knicks fans,” says Jason, “even when they lose.”
Teaching also unites the two. “Once you know more than the other people in the room, it’s time to share your knowledge,” says Jason, who started teaching as a teen and is as passionate about teaching tap as he is about dancing. Recently he moved in with his father while his house was being renovated. “It worked out great, because we are both night owls—with the exception of Saturday mornings,” Jason says. “To wake up to my father’s Saturday morning drumming class—well, that’s really amazing. I had to soak that in.”
Both Jason and JoJo are known for pushing their genres into new territory. JoJo incorporated salsa into his lyrical brand of jazz; later, when he studied martial arts, he added an Eastern influence to his classes. Jason takes the same kind of broad approach to tap. He ventured into film as the co-star in Dean Hargrove’s Tap Heat, an award-winning short film. In India Jazz Suites he collaborates with kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das, exploring the common language between tap and kathak.
JoJo is impressed with Jason’s far-reaching interests and talent. “Every time I see him dance, my jaw drops to the floor. I am in such awe,” he says. “I have never seen anybody do what he can do, and I’ve seen everything.” Last February Jason’s sister, Elka Samuels Smith, organized a tribute to her father in New York City, at which Jason performed. Videos of JoJo’s performance career delighted the guests as well as Elka and Jason, who had never seen some of the footage. “Jason was awesome,” says JoJo. “And to see myself dancing all night on the wall—well, that was amazing too.”
The Sarabias—Rolando, 25, and Daniel, 23, and their father, Rolando senior—have the opposite story. The boys grew up with their father, but they live apart now, Rolando senior in Cuba and his sons in Miami, where they dance with Miami City Ballet. (Rolando is a principal and Daniel a soloist.) The elder Rolando retired two years ago from the National Ballet of Cuba, where he was a first soloist, after a 35-year career, but he continues to coach and teach at the company’s school.
The boys grew up right under their father’s ballet barre and spent their early childhoods immersed in company life. “Ballet was always a part of our life,” says Rolando, who started dancing at age 5, after two years of gymnastics. “We were always watching class, rehearsals, and going to the ballet. I am told that I did my own version of the Don Quixote solo at age 4.”
‘Every time I see [Jason] dance, my jaw drops to the floor. I am in such awe.’ —JoJo Smith
Rolando and Daniel say their father never pressured them to become dancers. Still, there was an element of destiny. “It was as if someone whispered in my ear, ‘You will be a dancer,’ ” jokes Rolando. “I remember thinking, when I was young, that one day I could be just like my father. I have some videos of him dancing when he was young, and it was beautiful to see.”
Daniel, who started dancing at 7, soon followed in his brother’s footsteps. Through their years at the National Ballet of Cuba school, Rolando senior helped his sons with partnering and the nuances of characterization.
Because of their strong family ties, the brothers say that leaving Cuba to dance in the United States was the hardest decision of their lives. But defection appeared to be their only choice for expanding their careers. Daniel defected in 2002 while on tour with his father in Mexico. Revealing his plans was one of the most difficult moments a son can have with his father. “I told him [I was going to defect] five days before I left, ” says Daniel. He says that his father asked, “Are you sure? You have everything here,” but that he knew that Daniel’s mind was made up. “Of course he didn’t want me to go, because I was only 19, but he understood why I was making that choice,” Daniel adds. “And he never told me not to go.”
Rolando followed his younger brother’s lead a few years later, defecting through Mexico in 2005. His father was on tour at the time, so the young man made the decision alone, telling only his mother, Midalis Oquendo Chavez. “[Daniel and I] had to leave for our profession,” he says. “My father knows I am capable of making my own decisions about my future. When he found out, he was mostly worried, the way fathers worry about their sons.”
After short stints in other companies (Daniel with Boston Ballet and Rolando with Houston Ballet), the brothers reunited at Miami City Ballet, where they are dancing the works of contemporary choreographers and learning Balanchine style. “This is entirely new to us and we are learning more and more all the time,” Daniel says. “We are dancing the works of so many contemporary choreographers now. It’s so good—we are enjoying everything.” The brothers even got a chance to dance together in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite. Thrilled with the challenges on their dance plate, they say that Miami has turned out to be a near-perfect situation.
What’s missing, though, is the connection to their parents. “We miss our family every day,” says Rolando. “It’s so hard to be far from the people that gave us everything.” They stay in touch via email and phone, plus a once-a-month Webcam visit. “It’s so great to be able to see their faces,” Rolando adds. “We spend most of the time talking to our father about dance and keeping him up-to-date on everything we are learning.”
Both brothers credit their father as an important influence. “He taught us discipline and to work hard every single day,” says Rolando. “And most important, to respect our teachers.” Their father had strict ideas about preparing for a performance that the two try to adhere to in their professional lives. “Party after the performance, not before,” was some of his father’s wise advice, says Rolando. “He used to always say to relax and save yourself for the performance.”
The two Rolandos shared the stage many times at National Ballet of Cuba, the younger man in lead roles and his father in character roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Don Quixote, and Coppélia. But the three Sarabia men “danced all together just once or twice,” says Rolando. “It was amazing to be onstage with my father.”
As badly as the family would like to reunite, much will need to change before that can happen. New leadership in both the United States and Cuba could change the travel limitations most Cubans face. For now, phone visits keep this family together—along with a lot of love. “We are so lucky to have a perfect father, and not just in our professional life,” says Rolando.
Both brothers say they feel honored to be carrying out the family tradition in the United States, and someday hope to return to Cuba to visit and dance. They are grateful for what they have found in Miami: togetherness and a rich artistic life. “My father was my first inspiration, and now Rolando has taken over that role,” says Daniel. “It’s like a chain.”