JoJo Smith, Sylvia Smith Lewis, and Melvin Taylor

Recorded September 2, 2011 Archived September 2, 2011 22:38 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: LMN002813


Melvin Erroll Taylor (MT) interviews his friends Sylvia Smith Lewis (SL) and JoJo Smith (JS). They discuss JoJo’s career as a professional dancer and dance instructor.

Subject Log / Time Code

JS talks about the early days of his dance studio “JoJo’s Dance Factory”.
JS talks about the celebrities he gave dance lessons to and how his involvement in the movie “Saturday Night Fever” changed his career.
JS talks about his time traveling around the world as a dance instructor, especially his time in Brazil.
JS talks about the tour he went on with Harry Belafonte.


  • JoJo Smith
  • Sylvia Smith Lewis
  • Melvin Taylor

Recording Locations

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type




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00:06 My name is Melvin Darrell Taylor. I'm 49 today's date is Friday September 2nd. We are in Foley square and I'm here talkin with JoJo Smith and his cousin cookie. I'm JoJo Smith, my age is 74.

00:25 Today is the 2nd of September.

00:29 And we're at Foley square and we're in discussion concerning my life. Sylvia. Cookie Smith Lewis. My age is 54 today's date is Friday September 2nd. We're located in Foley Square Downtown New York City relationship. I have to Jojo is that we are first cousins. Our fathers are brothers.

01:02 Okay, JoJo. Thank you so much for coming back again. Wanted to just jump right writing quick and see if we could recap on I should say conversations that you wanted to say last time and didn't get to say that when you got in the car. So I should have said this what are some of those things that came back to you. First of all, well, I think we started talking about The Dance Factory JoJo's Dance Factory and how it became that name.

01:37 I moved into a space between on 50th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues and the built in the building. It was pocketbook Factory.

01:51 Shoe factory all kinds of factories. So I had to become JoJo's Dance Factory. So I had a single made up and put outside in that became the first JoJo's Dance Factory and I renovated that space with my own two hands.

02:13 I put the floors in.

02:16 Put up walls. It was one big studio. And that was the first place that was called JoJo's Dance Factory and it had two other locations after that which were both on Broadway 54th Street first and then 55th Street.

02:36 And the 55th Street location became

02:41 Broadway Dance Center

02:44 That's what it's called now. It's no longer in that same space but

02:51 That's what happened after I left that location. I was there for four years.

02:57 And I was doing pretty well. I love that area. I mean it was right on Broadway in the middle of everything and it was accessible to most people who knew in New York and it was a great spot for me really was.

03:21 I got a lot of work from it.

03:26 I got I went to Japan. I went to Venezuela I went to Brazil.

03:33 I did a lot of touring and did you have any celebrities that were or dances that were working with you that of note now that you want to mention during that time from there? I worked with Susan Lucci.

03:53 Channel 7. I think it's Channel 7. Not really, but she says she took less and she had to and she had to she had to do a dance sequence in one of her shows. So I work with her primarily for that reason why how and I work with Brooke Shields online. Well, she just wanted to dance my style cuz I had my own particular jazz style and she came to take classes with me and she loved the classes and

04:32 We see who else did I have their? Well, that's where that's where they came and and and got me for Saturday Night Fever.

04:41 Who's that big button? Who's they they the production?

04:47 The production company and

04:52 They wanted me to work with Karen gorney who was John John Travolta's dance partner.

05:01 And she had no training whatsoever. So I work with her on Basics and even after the show after we did the movie. She still came to classes. She just loved the classes. So she just kept coming and whenever I teach if I should start a class now, she probably be the first one in class.

05:23 Did they cast a lot of the students from your studio and and Saturday night iewa? Yes. They did the black couple.

05:34 The Puerto Rican couple and all the couples around John as he was dancing in the club. So essentially you choreographed the show. I mean the movie I didn't choreographed the movie know that wasn't Mike. I mean I work with John on movement yet, but I wasn't the choreographer choreographer Danny Terrio. I believe his name was Dan Theriault. I know that name. Yeah, but came for me.

06:11 And John like what what she did Sofia copy II my work. This move is yours the up and down looking famous. That is is that is that JoJo is is that I'm going to say I'm going to do the Jojo. I like that give me a white suit and a black shirt order the red shirt. I can't remember right with a black shirt with a black star in the movie blow up. So obviously, yes, you know your rising and we had no movie no idea.

07:11 Okay, we did this movie blah blah blah blah and then

07:17 I mean it just exploded and everybody went nuts over Saturday Night Fever. I was I was in my glory at that time. I was still teaching. Okay, and I was choreographing for all the people, you know, because what was Lauren Bacall

07:39 Came and studied with me and she liked what I was doing and she wanted some of the movement that I was doing. Who else?

07:49 Kind of a host of people actually Brooke Shields came after that. So so some actresses and actors. Yes. Did you get a lot of students from being at you on Broadway that came and took class during the time? Yes. Yes. Yes. I did. My glasses were packed. I mean, I always had 35-40 people in class. OK and I was using the the the big Studio which was Studio A.

08:20 They were five Studios and I had other people in fact.

08:25 JoJo's Dance Factory

08:27 Is the first space?

08:30 Where

08:32 Where multiple teachers

08:37 Taught in one Studio space not one Studio space because I had five Studio Tour Under One Roof. It was the first place. I started the trend of

08:51 Multiple teachers teaching in one Studio space ballet teacher other Jazz teacher at actually that's where Frank Hatchett came and moved in with his students go see he got the locked out of a space a feud or a few blocks down. We talked about that my lady at that time Sue Samuels who who I had two kids with brought him up to the space and

09:23 He became one of my main people in the space.

09:30 Okay Hand

09:34 They were quite a few other Jazz teachers that taught in the space and ballet teachers on Trudy Gasper nitty. Who's that? She's a ballet teacher beautiful ballet teacher Italian girl like the name. Yes. Yes, and she's a lovely girl in my class in my studio. In fact, I to class with her because she had such a great she had a great personality, but I liked her and I like the way she talked right and

10:13 I needed some strengthening in ballet. So I took her class. What was it? Like? Okay. So after you moving out of Broadway and moving away from the Studio's what what was your life like after that? I actually went to steps which was another Studio that had opened up on the corner.

10:36 And then they moved up to 74th Street and I went there and taught.

10:43 For several years and that in her in their space run by two two women.

10:51 And Co steps was on 60th Street. Yeah, it was a while and then she moved moved up right up to 74th Street 74th Street, right and I actually sent me to 75th Street and Ave 75th between 74th and 75th. And I moved aging I kept my job tile at steps and I taught there for quite a while. I thought there for several years.

11:27 And and I did jobs from there, you know when I got things started working with working with different people who wanted me to teach in their Studio spaces in Brazil and Japan.

11:43 Haha, also Venezuela.

11:46 And chili. Venezuela. Chili, Japan Brazil. I went to Brazil 11 times. So you're taking your style of dance across this continent. That's where my question is. When you get there, you're you're you're seeing these Studios. Okay. Are you looking at the black folks and how they dance traditionally? Well, the thing is most of the places that I went to beside Brazil.

12:19 Didn't really have many black folks.

12:22 They weren't really many black folks in in Japan.

12:29 Venezuela, Venezuela mix mix

12:35 And Brazil is what made you see any of the slave dancers anything like that or any of that not really the Copper at all. In fact, I did a show in Brazil at a club. Let me see Club. What was the name of the club? Anyway, I had to cop police. This is working in my show.

13:03 And I got to see.

13:07 And an experience with with the cop listas, what what the capoeira was about was all about and in fact, the two companies that were in in the show challenged me one day because I'm a second degree black belt in karate.

13:28 But they want any match for me because they use that is a is basically a fighting dance, right?

13:43 And karate is fighting.. No dance, right?

13:51 And they weren't as quick as I was. Okay, and I would you know, I would tap them out in seconds right now. They couldn't they couldn't compete with with the with my ability at that time. I know it's more of a dance fight and you had that in your show Yes. Actually I didn't do I didn't do the fighting with them in the show, but I had them through the environment do cop waiter got is each other in the show. And this was a review you put together yourself. What style was it? I mean

14:38 It was

14:40 It was a review that that featured some of the best performers in Brazil and the names of the people slipped my memory right this minute.

14:54 But it was like a review show. Okay where I hide where I had dancers with singers and featured performers, and did you learn to speak Portuguese?

15:11 See if possible to get a smooth. So did you learn to sing also and Brazilian not much of a singer but I mean, but I did have to sing in the show. What was that? Like, I mean it was fun. It was fun. It was fun because I had I had done singing I had something in the show before I had to sing in West Side Story, right? Everybody has to sing in west side, you know The Strokes after sing against the Jets. We have few know. It's it's a singing dancing shot. Right? Right. So you have to sing and dance and the thing is I've done seven Broadway show singing was a part of my repertoire right I had to do so

16:00 It was fun. It was really a lot of fun. Okay? Okay after Brazil, did you think about staying over there? I mean was it that good or well most people, you know, I loved it a lot and I wanted to stay and what happened. It's the last time that I went to Brazil.

16:24 I was asked to come on a Thursday to start a major session of classes on the Monday following that Thursday and it wasn't enough time for me to get a write Visa.

16:44 So the girl who asked me to come say come here and we'll have your you will have your passport fixed when you get here. We'll have your Visa fixed once you get here. So I arrived on Monday. Okay, gave them my passport. They kept in passport from Monday to Thursday or days. Okay, it was supposed to be fixed.

17:10 The girl who had my my passport came back put the passport in my bag cuz I know you have a dance bag my dance bag.

17:21 I didn't bother to look at it.

17:24 Nothing was done nothing.

17:29 So I was teaching there illegally.

17:33 And from there I went to

17:37 16 other cities in Brazil in Brazil teaching teaching

17:45 Teaching dance teaching dance

17:51 I got the last spot. Do you have the pictures and the videos from all those years? I do have some yes. I do. In fact check this out. Somebody sent me this.

18:09 A few days ago. How about that from Paris from Paris or Paris was burning a couple of weeks ago.

18:16 And I know that we were downtown last minute, but we won't forget to mention Harry Belafonte and I want you to just go ahead and tell me what well, they did a 9-month tour of Canada and the West Coast. Okay, Montreal Toronto Vancouver and then Colorado Springs.

18:47 The Greek Theater in LA Vegas and Lake Tahoe

18:54 And this last nine months it was a fabulous tour and in the show.

19:02 We did some fantastic dancing. It was the it was the show where I was introduced to the boot dance the South African miners boot dance and this South African miners boot dance.

19:21 Help me to become a bigger star in Europe.

19:28 Because they love this dance. They just went nuts every time I did this dance.

19:38 They would stand up on their feet in and scream and shout and it was something that helped helped to make my career blossom.

19:50 And actually my my cousin Debbie Allen she took the boot dance from me. She saw me do it and

20:03 She did she did it in some show and it was a big hit also.

20:09 It's it's a great dance. I don't know if you know about it, but it's fabulous boots with bells around the ankles slapping.

20:21 5 chest and and an angles and singing while you're doing it. Yes. Yes.

20:30 And drumming also I did the drumming.

20:35 Which we followed and I would stop certain certain certain places.

20:43 Ana pattern would happen within that space that I stopped and then it would pick up again and I thought the drumming again this is this is so traditional of you how you think that your style and everything is so far removed from traditional African custom on culture when normally there wasn't a dance without a song and if you did dance you also know how to play an instrument as well. So I guess your lineage kind of kept that going within you we are out of time, but we did get to talk about most of everything will be back soon with you and continue to have much success in your career and all that good stuff and looking forward to seeing this JoJo's Dance Factory in Paris and

21:43 86 when I also put that was a very good year 76, so we got to see what you were doing back then and just changing the world and I guess the next Generations both your sons. Yes about to tap that the world. Yes indeed. They are and then you have your your cousins. I just saw Vivian Nixon last night Up and Dance Theater of Harlem, and I was told about me interviewing you today, and she was so excited at the gun light ask your mother if she knows everything. I thank you again for coming in and we appreciate your time. My pleasure. Thank you.