Tapping into the Next Generation: A Conversation with Sam Weber | By Marie Tollon

Sam Weber teaching a tap class

Sam Weber teaching a tap class

Marie Tollon: Tell us about your training and performance background.

Sam Weber: As far as my tap background, I studied with Stan Kahn at Mason-Kahn Studios, which was in the old Embassy Theater building on Market at 7th, right around the corner from the Odd Fellows building where Lines Ballet is now. They were there for 40-something years, and I started studying with him in 1960 and then they closed the studio in 1990. He was my tap teacher, but I also started studying ballet and jazz there as well. I had started tap when I was three, so I had done a lot more of that, and when I got to Mason-Kahn they wanted people to be well-rounded and to take everything, so I started to take jazz and reluctantly took ballet. Then, as I was growing up, I realized tap dance wasn’t popular at all during that time and you didn’t see it in shows; you didn’t see it anywhere. I started concentrating on jazz and ballet because I thought I would do musicals, and I did do some.

There was a company called LA Civic Light Opera that was in existence from the 50s into the 80s, and they would present shows at the Music Center in LA and at The Curran Theatre here and the show would run for 15 weeks or so between LA and here, and some of their shows even went to Broadway – I think Kismet started at Civic Light Opera. I did a couple of those musicals when I was 18 and 19, but then I got more serious about ballet, so I danced with a company called Pacific Ballet that was directed by Alan Howard. Then I went off to New York and studied and was in Joffrey II and did a little bit with San Francisco Ballet (SFB) in the early 70s. I was a founding member of Peninsula Ballet Theatre, which is still going. Finally, I was a principal dancer and Ballet Master with Sacramento Ballet for a year before getting back into tap when I joined the Jazz Tap Ensemble, which I had been watching with interest. I had been noticing this sort of resurgence of tap that was happening in the late 70s, and there was this company called the Jazz Tap Ensemble, directed by Lynn Dally and Fred Strickler with Camden Richman. There were three dancers and three jazz musicians and they were touring a lot. Michael Smuin, who directed SFB at that time, had directed the PBS special that the Jazz Tap Ensemble had done. I had done some guesting with SFB whenever they needed a tap dancer, and Michael told me that Fred was leaving the Jazz Tap Ensemble and that they were having an audition by invitation, so in 1985 I got back into tap.

MT: Were you keeping up with tap while you took this hiatus to study and pursue ballet?

SW: I was trying to keep practicing and during that time I did some things like the guesting with SFB and some other occasional little shows, and I also performed the Morton Gould Tap Dance Concerto with a few symphony orchestras around the country, like the Peninsula Symphony, the Oakland Symphony, the Trenton Symphony in New Jersey, and the San Jose Symphony. It’s a twenty-minute piece written by Morton Gould for a tap dancer and an orchestra.

MT: How would you explain the resurgence of tap?

SW: In a way it’s kind of hard to believe it ever went away. It was actually kept alive in dance studios because it was still, in America, something that everyone thought that dancers should learn even though it wasn’t being performed anywhere. It actually seems to have been [due to] some modern dancers who got interested in it because of the rhythmical element, the African-American heritage, the jazz roots and all of that, and they got a lot of the tap masters like Charles Honi Coles, Eddie Brown, Buster Brown, Chuck Green, Sandman Sims, and Steve Condos out of retirement and brought them to tap events, and eventually they started having tap festivals. The Colorado Dance Festival had the first tap festival—the Colorado Tap Festival—and their faculty included Honi Coles, Eddie Brown, Steve Condos, Keith Terry, who taught body percussion and Lynn Dally, and that was when I joined the Jazz Tap Ensemble and went there to rehearse. Who else? Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde.

MT: Did you stop pursuing ballet after reentering the tap world?

SW: Around the Bay Area I would still guest sometimes, like in Berkeley City Ballet’s Nutcracker or with Peninsula Ballet Theatre, but, basically I was back into tap really intensively.

MT: How did you start teaching?

SW: We didn’t do enough touring work to just make a living from that, so I started doing workshops, and the tap festival movement started to grow. I started getting invited to the tap festivals that were developing, like the Portland Tap Festival which was the next big one after Colorado, and then there was one in Boston and New York, and then I started going to Europe a lot and doing workshops in Germany, France and Holland.

MT: How has your performing practice informed your teaching?

SW: All of the things that I have been exposed to in performing have informed my teaching and the work I have developed for myself because I had a great technical foundation from my teacher. Stan Kahn was probably the best tap teacher in the world at the time. It was sort of like being a Kirov-trained ballet dancer, so I’m actually able to keep up with what’s going on in the development in the tap world because I have that foundation.

MT: What is important for you to communicate to your students?

SW: I try to look at the general field, see what is missing and try to supply that. It’s amazing to see how the level of students has risen over the last 30 years; it’s incredible. The things that I used to give in an advanced class that people would say were impossible, are now intermediate level stuff. I just try to see what elements of musicality, what elements of technique and so forth are missing.

 

MT: What is unique about ODC?

SW: The sense of community. In some other places, you come in, you teach your class and you go away, and there isn’t this feeling of belonging to something. With ODC we have meetings from time to time, we have faculty luncheons where we can get together, talk and meet and that’s really important. We talk about how we want to structure the classes and how we want to grade, divide the levels, what sort of material [we want to offer]. All the teachers who teach tap here are on the same page. It’s not just a whole bunch of different people doing different things without a coherent approach.

MT: What is something particularly memorable from your time teaching?

SW: I get to travel and I have the feeling that I’ve had an influence on tap all over the world and now I hear people referring to me and my work and passing it on and that’s just fabulous. Especially with social media I occasionally see somebody saying “I studied with Sam Weber.” I think social media has been fantastic, Facebook and YouTube, it has really changed everything.

MT: Any additional thoughts?

SW: I think what we’re doing in tap at ODC has the potential to spark interest in tap dancing in the Bay Area; that’s what I’m hoping will happen. It’s funny because San Francisco has such a vibrant dance community, but tap is a little bit behind some of the other major cities like Chicago and New York and even these little hotspots of tap, like San Antonio and Austin, because those places do festivals and they have companies. I’d like to see that happen here. For example, I do level one and two workshops, and they’re usually pretty well-attended, and then I have my advanced class, which is around 5 or 6 people. We have to raise the level, and I’m glad there’s a teen intro to tap to get more young people involved.

Sam Weber currently teaches level one and level two workshops on Mondays at 6:30pm and 7:30pm respectively and an advanced level six class at 8:30pm. He teaches a level two and level three class on Thursdays at 5:30pm and 6:30pm respectively, along with a senior tap class on Wednesdays at 1pm. 

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