Late one Friday afternoon, Sam Carper and his tap dance instructor, David Pershica, were hard at work.

As the song “Opus One” played on a digital music app on Pershica’s phone, Sam stood a few paces behind Pershica in the practice area at Dance Dynamix Dance Studio in downtown Ada. Sam watched intently as Pershica demonstrated a series of steps, then the boy performed the same steps without a moment of hesitation.

The two continued practicing for several minutes, with Pershica performing moves including shuffles, flaps, riffs and wings. After Pershica was done, Sam repeated the moves step for step.

Learning to dance

Sam, 12, fell in love with tap dancing about three years ago, when he attended his sister’s dance recital at Ada High School.

“I saw all these kids dancing and stuff. Then I saw David tap dance,” Sam said during an interview at Dance Dynamix. “I was like, ‘Oh, that looks really cool.’ So that’s how I basically got started.”

A month later, Sam enrolled in Pershica’s dance class. And when the class started learning tap dancing, Pershica immediately noticed that Sam was blessed with natural talent.

“And so, I asked his parents if I could just meet with him privately for a lesson, just to kind of see what was going on,” Pershica said. “I was really impressed with what I saw. 

“And then I was kind of doubting myself a little bit, so I had another teacher meet with him later to see if they would see what I was seeing. And they absolutely did.”

Pershica soon discovered that Sam was committed to learning his new skill and enjoyed the support of his family. And because Sam is a homeschooled student, his schedule is fairly flexible — which allows him to devote more time to practicing with Pershica.

Sam got his first chance to showcase his skills last year at the Pontotoc County Free Fair, where he took second place in the talent search competition. Earlier this year, Sam took second place at the Tremaine dance convention and competition in Tulsa and qualified for nationals in Florida.

Sam also won a scholarship to the Oklahoma City Tap Festival in June, where Pershica asked one of the instructors if his student could study with the intermediate class. And after watching Sam perform, the instructor decided that Sam deserved a spot in the advanced class.

Pershica said the instructors were impressed by Sam’s gift for tap dancing and his determination to succeed.

“It’s just been an amazing thing because we’re now to the point where the natural talent has done what it’s going to do,” Pershica said. “But now it’s really about the technique and layering it in. 

“What they saw at the Oklahoma Tap Festival was the clarity of his sounds, the rhythm of his sounds and how good his technique is. And because of that, one of the teachers there dance scholarshipped him into the Chicago Tap Festival, which is coming up in October.”

Pershica said the Chicago festival will give Sam a chance to study with Broadway veterans and other well-known dancers. In the meantime, Sam is performing with Pershica’s company of dancers and will appear at this year’s Pontotoc County Free Fair later this summer.

Sam said he was pleased with his performances in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

“It made me feel proud of myself that the teachers wanted me to be in the other tap festival and gave me the scholarship,” he said.

Practice

When Pershica and Sam started working together, Pershica realized that Sam’s talent stemmed from the fact that he was a visual learner. That meant whenever Pershica wanted to teach Sam a new step, he only had to perform it once before Sam got it.

“What we just did — he didn’t know anything that I was going to do,” Pershica said, referring to their earlier practice session. “And then he was able to immediately pick it up. That’s one thing I think he excels at, for sure.”

But Pershica said being a quick study isn’t Sam’s only asset. He said his student also has clarity of sound, a good sense of rhythm, a never-give-up attitude and the patience to keep practicing steps until he’s got them down.

A typical practice session with Pershica includes three minutes of warm-up exercises, known as “cramp rolls.” Sam will continue warming up by watching Pershica perform a series of steps, then repeating them. Then the two move down the studio floor, tapping side by side.

Sometimes Pershica will turn on a song and improvise for eight counts, then Sam will improvise for eight more counts. They will keep going until the song ends, then start learning new steps or practicing familiar ones.

Sam also does homework, which includes rehearsing steps that he learned during the week and studying the history of tap dancing.

Pershica said Sam appreciates the art form’s history and is interested in learning more about its greatest stars.

“At the Oklahoma City festival, they had a luncheon that was all of tap history, and he knew who a lot of the people were that they were talking about,” Pershica said. “And that made me feel really good.”

Looking ahead

Sam said tap dancing has boosted his sense of self-esteem and made him feel more confident. He added that he wants to keep learning so he can take his skills to the next level.

“My goals in life are to become a professional tap dancer on Broadway and then hopefully, own my own dance studio,” Sam said.

His father, Nate Carper, said the family is proud of Sam’s accomplishments.

“We’ve really just enjoyed seeing his effort, his growth and just where it’s not only taking him but where it’s taking us as a family as well,” Nate said.

Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.