JoJo Smith, the veteran Broadway dancer who helped define disco in Hollywood films, died January 22 at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, due to complications from a stroke. He was 80.
Smith made his Broadway debut as a Shark in the 1964 revival of West Side Story. The City Center revival was the first major Broadway revival following the musical’s hit film adaptation in 1961.
Smith later appeared opposite Paula Kelly in Something More! and A Joyful Noise in 1966, assisting the late Michael Bennett. He made his Broadway debut as a choreographer in 1974 with The Fifth Dimension with JoJo’s Dance Factory. Smith’s final Broadway outing was as choreographer on the short-lived Broadway run of Got Tu Go Disco in 1979, featuring Flashdance and Fame Academy Award winner Irene Cara.
Smith also established himself in Hollywood as one of the go-to contemporary choreographers and coaches of the 1970s disco era, working with John Travolta on Saturday Night Fever, Barbra Streisand for The Owl and the Pussycat, and Joey Heatherton in Dancin’. He also collaborated on solo shows for Melba Moore, Shelley Winters, and Barry Manilow, among others.
He also served as founder of JoJo’s Dance Factory, which continues its legacy to this day. Located at 1733 Broadway, JoJo’s Dance Factory once took up residence at what is today’s Broadway Dance Center.
“My father was an exceptional dancer-musician who created a new style of jazz dancing. His unique personality and musicality are the fabric of his choreography and his contagious energy — a true classic and a legend! I will miss our times together hanging out, but I will forever be inspired by him,” said his son, Emmy Award winner Jason Samuels Smith, who appeared in the Broadway cast of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.
Smith’s cousin, the acclaimed dancer and actor Debbie Allen, was also among the dancers Smith trained. “JoJo Smith was a giant on the international dance scene. His technique defined ‘The Wave.’ He staged the biggest musical acts and TV specials that gained him national prominence. I was so lucky to train with him and be nurtured by him. We will forever be grateful to have known his genius and generosity,” she said in a statement.
Smith was born July 20, 1938.