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The Divine Elka Samuels Smith Keeps Tap Artists Working

Elka Samuels Smith’s success in establishing and running Divine Rhythm Productions, an artist management company representing many artists in various fields of dance, is not surprising.

Her life experiences combined to make her the perfect leader of this venture serving dance artists. She grew up in New York studying dance alongside her famous tap dancing brother, Jason Samuels Smith. Both of their parents are well known teachers in the field of jazz. They established Jo Jo’s Dance Factory, a top jazz studio in New York. Elka could be seen daily in a playpen in the studio. Jo Jo always went to the drums at the end of the class and played along with the music for the finale combination that gave the class a great closing. The excited students danced while Elka would stand in her playpen and bounce. She loved the moment and so did the rest of the class. Jo Jo, a no-nonsense teacher, enforced strict discipline and allowed no one in class late. Sue, Elka’s mom, could have been a stand-in for Raquel Welch because she was a gorgeous red head with beautiful legs—not to mention a great teacher.

Frank Hatchett and Maurice Hines eventually bought the studio, then sold it to Richard Ellner, changing its name to Broadway Dance Center.

Sue Samuels and the children moved to Florida after a divorce. When Elka was 8 years old and Jason was 5, they moved back to New York where Sue began teaching classes at Broadway Dance Center, the studio she knew so well.

“My mom made everything we went through seem like an adventure, and she did a lot with a little during the hard times,” Elka recalls. “I didn’t have much of a relationship with my dad growing up. Most of our connections were based on performances and momentous occasions. I did appreciate his effort to see the college shows I performed in.”

Jason and Elka enrolled in Frank Hatchett’s intense Professional Children’s Program. The first year they were placed in the second to highest level, probably because of the dance skills they had picked up from their mother’s classes. The following years, they were in the highest levels of classes. “Jason was always the youngest and smallest in the group, but he was so cute and energetic that he always stuck out!” Elka exclaims. “We used to get lots of solo spots in the groups, and I stood out in tap. It came naturally to me. I loved the special times we had at the African classes. Horace Turnbull choreographed a cops and robbers number to ‘Hawaiian War Chant,’ that I remember. We didn’t care much for ballet, but I knew it had its place in our training. Jason went back and forth between sports and dancing, but I always convinced him to come back to dance and perform on stage.” Elka Samuels Smith Photo by Billy Grey

“I never had to worry about Elka in school because she was an over-achiever,” says Sue Samuels. “She was president of her class her sophomore and junior years, and vice-president of her senior class, and a star athlete on the volleyball and softball teams. When it was time for college, she received several academic scholarships to attend Stony Brook University and was recruited to play collegiate volleyball. With all the scholarships, work study, and academic and athletic honors, she was able to keep the expense down to minimal college loans.”

At the same time Elka entered college, Jason began training for “Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk.” The theater was located very close to their apartment in Hells Kitchen where they spent about 17 years. Elka would see the show on weekends as many times as possible and had a “connection” who would let her in. When Savion Glover created the group NYOT’s, she attended some of the rehearsals and learned some of the choreography. She knew she did not want to give up all that she had accomplished for the sake of performing, but she enjoyed being on stage. She did take a dance class at Stony Brook University and ended up teaching it the second semester when the instructor, Jackie Raven, became ill. She received credit for teaching and added to the curriculum based on the tap masters that she had known.

Elka married and when she was eight months pregnant her husband was hit by a car and lost his leg above the knee. No one had any insurance. “It was a life changing moment that was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever experienced to date, but the support system from my family, friends, and the dance community at large was the only thing that sustained our basic needs,” Elka states.

“When the accident happened, I went to the hospital and spent the last month of my pregnancy there by his side fighting to make sure his medical needs were attended to after a series of mishaps. My mom felt strongly about being by my side, considering I was nearing my own time to have to go to the hospital. The community really rallied around us. One of the main supporters was Allison Ellner, the current owner of Broadway Dance Center, who not only set up a collection with a matching fund, but also continued to pay my mother while she stayed by my side at the hospital and tried to make sure I took care of myself. I knew it was time to go to the hospital myself when I started swelling up and he (her husband) actually checked out early from the hospital to accompany me, even though he was still in recovery. Our daughter Kaia was born perfectly healthy at 9 lbs. 14 oz. on October 10, and to this day I remember how she was the shining light that gave us all hope and took the focus away from the accident. The power of new life is truly amazing.”

In 1999, she found herself interested in the business side of dance, and did an informal one-week internship at the talent agent offices of Carole Davis. She learned a lot that week, but also learned about things that would directly affect the people she cared about and believed in.

Using an income tax refund check, she decided to co-produce a show at Swing 46 with the owner, and she also co-chaired the Harlem Jazz Dance Festival in 2002. Both productions were a labor of love and so personally rewarding that she decided to form Divine Rhythm Productions, which was officially registered as a business in 2002.

After graduating from college, Elka acquired an assistant coach position at Columbia University that allowed her to get her masters degree. She decided to focus on Divine Rhythm Productions, which allowed her more time at home with her daughter, to help the people she cared about, and to contribute to the very same community in which she was born and raised. The business’ motto is “Empower your Sole” and its mission is to empower its clients in a way customized to meet their particular artist’s needs and goals. She continues to enjoy dance and participates in many styles.

“We are a resource for those both inside the dance community and those seeking to employ dancers or musicians that accompany them,” Elka explains.

One of her future goals is to create a non-profit division that could offer up-and-coming dancers some services free of charge to assist them with the transition into the professional world of dance. There are some great projects on the horizon.

Elka’s life experiences have combined to provide her a special place for her talents in the dance world, enhancing the talents of others, and vitalizing the growth of dance and individual artists.


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