What happens when you combine the music of Charlie Parker, one of the most influential musicians in jazz history, with the Emmy Award–winning choreography of tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and the skill of three of the most talented female tappers in the world today? You get unique and intricate footwork to the sounds of classic bebop, executed by women who can get down, be bad, kick butt and attack the choreography like all the great male hoofers who preceded them—and who can do it with a feminine and sexy vibe, to boot.
By featuring Chloe Arnold, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance in his newest work, Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker, Samuels Smith celebrates Parker’s music and what he calls the “underappreciated, not-as-visible and not-as-celebrated” members of the tap community—women! “I look at working with these women as working with the best artists available,” he says. “This is a way for me to give them the platform, because they inspire me on a regular basis.”
The idea for Charlie’s Angels was born in the mid ’90s and grew in Samuels Smith’s mind along with his love of Parker’s music and his understanding of Parker’s life. During the piece, the Angels are asked to carry out a three-part mission: “Put it down, keep it clean and represent for all women in tap,” Samuels Smith explains. They not only demonstrate what female hoofers can do, they “inspire all people, men and women, in terms of the level tap performances can reach,” says Arnold.
Wanting to shed light on the fact that tappers don’t necessarily see themselves as just percussionists, Samuels Smith recently gave his performers a fourth mission: “Show the audience what the music looks like.” He explains it this way: “The tap dancer can express songs and notes, and part of the mission of Charlie’s Angels is to clearly show that sometimes we are tapping out a melody rather than just a rhythm.”
The choreography he has created for his three dancers literally brings the music to life—they tap Parker’s music note for note. “We’re matching Charlie Parker’s instrumentation,” explains Arnold. “Typically, you dance to the music, but you don’t play every note. We play the notes of the song. We are the song.”
For Dorrance, Arnold and Sumbry-Edwards, Charlie’s Angels has been both a joy and a challenge. “Performing in this show is not a game,” says Sumbry-Edwards. “You have to be on your toes, and you have to know the music.”
“Charlie Parker’s music is some of the most complicated music to tackle,” adds Arnold. “Not only are the pieces rhythmically brilliant, but one piece, ‘Salt Peanuts,’ is lightning speed—and we do it in heels.”
For Dorrance, who generally performs in flat shoes, mastering the choreography in heels was a stretch. “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done choreographically,” she says. “It’s an incredible challenge to find the femininity in the most difficult steps. You want to attack them with a reckless abandon that doesn’t involve an extra thought or energy in finessing your arms or a nice coy look to the side.”
Accomplishing this hard-hitting choreography in heels breaks the stereotype of female tappers as simply chorus line dancers, while making a little history at the same time. “I don’t know that anyone has taken the time to do the research Jason has done in relation to Charlie Parker and jazz music and put in the thought behind what the steps and notes are going to be and why,” says Sumbry-Edwards. “Add the fact that it’s ladies, and we’re in dresses and backless bustiers and heels and doing this light-speed choreography—it’s a bit historic.”
All three women agree that the experience has been unlike any other they’ve had. “The work is so hard that you have to bond with each other. At the same time, we each have very different styles. We’ve developed our own voices as soloists,” says Arnold.
Dorrance points out, “You can’t always get a group of women together in an intimate and challenging setting and have things go really well. It could be a recipe for disaster, but it’s not with us. It’s incredibly fun.” In fact, she loves rehearsing for the show. “When we rehearse, I know I’m at the top of my game,” she says. “As an artist I love it, because it hones both my ear and my technical skill.”
The show is currently composed of four numbers, “Star Eyes,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Cheryl” and “Donna Lee.” The women perform all of them together except “Donna Lee,” which until recently has been Samuels Smith’s solo; he is now choreographing that piece into a group number. Each woman also has a solo in “Salt Peanuts” during the improvisation sections: Arnold becomes the piano, Sumbry-Edwards becomes the saxophone and Dorrance becomes the trumpet.
Looking ahead, Samuels Smith is working to lengthen Charlie’s Angels into a full-length, Broadway-style production. So are the Angels ready to take on a full-length version? “I’m up for whatever mission will be thrown at me,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “This Angel is definitely ready.”