THE HOOFER AWARD
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2005 Hoofer Award Recipient
Sarah Petronio, one of a small group of female pioneer rhythm tap dancers melding the hoofing tradition with a female sensibility that incorporates musicality with luscious bodily form, was born on February 24, 1944 in Bombay India. Her father, David Samuels, and mother, Ruby Sassoon, were part of the Jewish Diaspora of Spanish Jews who traveled from Spain through North Africa, Iraq, India and Burma, where her grandparents were born. When the Japanese invaded Burma her parents fled to India where she and her brother, Jack Samuels (19 November 1938), were born. The family was extremely musical: her father played violin and her brother played the piano; and while her rhythmic sensibilities were informed by classical Indian music and the classical dance form Bharata Natyam, which she studied in high school, she loved listening to Rock and Roll (especially the music of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard) and remembers that "All the Indian teenagers were wonderful jivers."
Bombay was a very cosmopolitan city
in the 1950s and infused with all forms of art, especially
jazz. Her brother, an aspiring jazz pianist, introduced
her at an early age to the music of Ahmad Jamal, Dave
Brubeck, and Nat King Cole. She first became aware
of tap dancing while watching Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly
and Donald O'Connor in such American movie musicals as The Bandwagon (1953), An American in Paris (1951), and Singing in the Rain (1952). "While America seemed so far away and inaccessible," she later recalled, "it was attractive because of the movies. And we danced all the time. I was a champion dancer, could do the twist and cha-cha-cha: I danced a lot; and was always known as a dancer."
In 1963, after the entire family moved
to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, her father
died; needing to make a living she sought work as a
copywriter in an advertising company, all the while
taking classes at the New School in theatre arts, creative
writing, and voiceover production. She also studied
tap dance with Henry LeTang. The next year she met
Peter Petronio, who also worked in advertising; left
for Europe, married, and in 1968 gave birth to a son
Ezra. It was only after giving birth to daughter Leela
in 1971, living in Paris, that the need to dance was
renewed. She studied jazz dance and claquettes american
in Paris with Sylvia Dorame, but unsatisfied at the
simplistic approaches to teaching tap dance in the
studio, grew increasingly mor serious (than her teachers)
about learning the rhythmic structures of tap combinations.
Within a year, she opened her own small studio in the
sixth arrondisement of Paris, driven to learn tap through
teaching and making combinations from steps that had
rhythmic structures and musical sense: "I was basically teaching rhythm tap," she recalls. It was within this period, in Paris in the early seventies, that she saw "Taps and Traps," a performance featuring Sammy Davis Jr.'s drummer Michael Silva, and a tall and lean tap dancer in flared bell-bottom pants who was, she recalls, the first real rhythm tap dancer she had ever seen: Jimmy Slyde. "I had to speak with this man, I was very shy but asked him, 'Would you be my guru?'" One year later, Slyde showed up at her studio, stood outside the door and listened: when he was invited in he said, "Dance.'" She did. As their friendship deepened, he led her into the deeper zones of rhythm tap dance, never naming steps and always insisting, "Don't dance like me. You are a woman." Soon he was inviting her up to whatever club he was performing in to dance to what became one of her signature tunes, "Shiny Stockings." Dancing the jazz standards became de rigeur-- "Bill Evans stuff, tunes that turned me on," says she. "Sometimes musicians could not play what I called, so I started going into things like Duke Pearson's tune, 'Jeanine.'" Dancing with Slyde, all the tunes, whether "I Remember You" or "On A Clear Day," some of his favorites, had to mean something. Petronio's first solo debut was performed in late 1970s at the Petit Journal in Montparnasse section of Paris, on a wooden-grooved tap dance floor she made, with musicians Maurice Bander (pianio); Pierre Michelot (bass) and Gilles Perrin (percussion), and Al Levitt (drums). Petronio and Slyde's debut also took place in Paris in 1984 with It's About Time, and was performed at the American Center, with Marc Hemmeler (piano), Louis Trussardi (bass), and Michael Silva (drums); a one-year tour of the show followed.
In 1989, the Petronio's moved to Chicago for five years. She began teaching, joining the faculty of Columbia Chicago Dance Center, and in 1993 produced one of the city's first jazz tap festivals-- Chicago On Tap Festival, inviting such artists as Savion Glover, Ted Levy, Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Karen Calloway, Van Porter, Acia Grey, and Leela Petronio; and performed nightly at such small clubs as the Green Mill, the Bop Shop, and the Jazz Showcase, and Alexanders with musicians Johnny Frigo (violinist), John Young (piano), Marlene Rosenberg (bass), Joel Spencer (drums), and Willy Pickens (piano). Petronio's career blossomed through the nineties, performing at major tap festivals (Portland Tap Festivals, Soul to Sole Festival, Boston Dance Umbrella, The Australian Jazz Festival, New York Tap Extravaganza, and New York City Tap Festival, where she appeared in the 2001 Tap City "Tap Divas" concert with Brenda Bufalino and Lynn Dally. Though she now lives in Paris and is teaching less, she continues to perform in major festivals throughout the world, most lately with her daughter Leela who is herself a beautifully- accomplished rhythm tap dancer with a distinguishing hip-hop sensibility.
Sarah Petronio is one of our veritable
jazz tap dancers whose musicality, phrasing, intricate
rhythmic motifs, swing, and insistence on listening
to and working with jazz musicians in performance truly
distinguish her as a jazz dancer. She blurs the boundaries
between the music and dance, refusing that the music
be mere accompaniment. Her ethos of improvisation,
and the way in which she listens to and inserts herself
into the musical ensemble is similar in practice to
the great Baby Laurence-- though her sound and her
rhythmic sensibilities are totally her own. She is
an original jazz tap dance artist.
Constance Valis Hill
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