By any measure, Sarah Reich’s dreams are big: she wants to perform at the world’s best music festivals and then win a Grammy Award.
What makes these dreams even more outsized is that she is, technically, a dancer—one who makes percussive music with her feet. She’s realized that tap-dancing is a form of musicianship, and through shows like the one coming to the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival this weekend, she’s spreading the idea big-time.
“Tap is percussion, and every kind of music has percussion,” says the charismatic L.A.–bred artist, speaking to the Straight from a teaching session in Andover, Massachusetts, before heading to a Croatian dance festival and then to Canada for the event produced by local tap legend Sas Selfjord. “I want to reach the masses on every level.”
Reich had her epiphany a few years ago, when she headed to New York City from California to see if she could make a go of it in the Big Apple’s massive musical-theatre scene. But with her first visit to a dance agency, she hit a wall: although she had a kick-ass tap résumé, representatives wanted her to sing and act. Disillusioned, she signed up to perform at a Lower East Side bar’s open stage.
“I was so upset, I just had to dance,” she explains. “I remember tapping so long and hard, and I had everybody’s attention. Everybody’s eyes were on me. To see their appreciation was kind of surprising, and I thought, ‘Whoa! They appreciate that maybe I don’t need to do theatre stuff. Maybe I need to focus on music because that’s what they appreciate.’
“I was listening to a lot of [salsa innovator] Tito Puente at the time, and I thought, ‘This is what I hear in my head when I tap-dance. I can’t write music, but maybe if I can work with a musician they’d transcribe what I hear in my head.’ ”
The idea opened a whole new world of exploration for Reich. Back in L.A., she started improvising with people like vibraphonist-composer Nick Mancini and sax player Danny Janklow. She would dance out rhythmic riffs and they would echo and accompany those sequences on their instruments.
Reich was, she realized, composing with her feet. “It was like, ‘I’m gonna do a dance step and you just repeat it back to me,’ ” she explains. “That’s what had so annoyed me: as tap dancers, we’re always choreographing to other people’s music.”
Soon, she and the musicians were hitting jazz clubs. That led to Reich building the Tap Music Project, a show that comes here with Reich and four other top-tier hoofers sharing the stage with five instrumentalists.
For an idea of how cool her approach is, check out her artful video “Gemini Vibe”, featuring the dancer, with her trademark close-cropped hair and giant hoop earrings, flowing to the freeform jazz hip-hop of vocalist Lee How and sax master Janklow, in an atmospheric club. Another, “Postmodern Jukebox”, Reich’s rhythmic riot with a bassist and drummer, has more than half a million hits.
Reich’s taking the concept further, integrating her musical method into all the teaching she does, from Norway to Japan. “Most of these kids don’t realize they’re making music. I was just teaching today and I had students scat what we were doing,” she says, breaking into a jazzy “da-da-da-daa” rhythm to illustrate. “I say to them, ‘I hear it as melody. Do you hear it as melody?’ And now they realize how easy it can be—how you don’t need to study music to do this.”
Reich still feels like she’s only beginning to tap the potential of her art form as music. So expect to see more of her in unexpected realms: music festivals, clubs—and maybe even the Grammys. Meanwhile, there’s another payoff as well.
“I definitely see a bright future for tap,” she says. “That’s the way we keep the art form alive: by continuing to innovate.”
Sarah Reich’s Tap Music Project is at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Friday (August 28). The Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival runs from Thursday to Sunday (August 27 to 30).