Kathak Master Meets Hoofer

January 13, 2014

What happens when a 68-year-old Indian Kathak icon meets a 32-year-old hoofer from Hell’s Kitchen? Magic.


Upaj: Improvise
is a new documentary about the artistic collaboration between Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith. The camera follows the two on their worldwide touring production, India Jazz Suites, as they form a powerful friendship and struggle to preserve their art forms. Catch it Monday night, January 20—check your local PBS listings. Dance Magazine caught up with both stars to get their inside take.


What inspired this collaboration?

PD: In 2004 I performed at the American Dance Festival, and my wife told me to watch this young tap dancer, Jason, who was the next big thing. As I watched him practice backstage, I started replicating his sounds with my bare feet. Jason was shocked and our friendship began from there.

What drew you to the other’s movement style?

PD: In Kathak, we do lots of footwork, but we also do pirouettes and storytelling. For me, the challenge was that the sounds Jason produces with his feet use a different technique. He can make two or three sounds with one swipe. We can’t do that with bare feet, but we can do other things.


JSS: I believe our common curiosity and admiration for one another is another factor in our relationship, but the improvisation element that coexists in both of our styles always keeps our conversation fresh.

What have you learned from each other?

PD: I learn a lot about African American culture and the jazz and tap world. I was always fascinated with jazz, and Jason has helped me to go deeper into that culture. I’ve long admired people like Fred Astaire, who dances very differently from the hoofing style that Jason performs. Jason is always talking about the old hoofers and showing videos of those who never got recognition. 

JSS: I’ve learned that no matter how much I do, I can always do more. Patience and timing are essential. And I’ve learned that dance is even more powerful than I previously thought. And that I need to practice more.

What do you hope viewers take away from the documentary?

PD: How two different energies can come together and go beyond race, age, culture, creed. Just mere dancing is not enough. You must do good for others, bring joy to others, do things for those who are less privileged. You can’t be a good dancer if you are not a good human being.

JSS: I hope people can look at our relationship and say, Well if these two guys from different cultures, different generations and different walks of life can communicate, why cant we?