What is Tap Music? Sarah Reich's New Album Uses Tap Dancing As an Instrument

Sarah Reich has turned her tap shoes into instruments. Photo by Christopher Erk

Perhaps the most precious tradition in tap dance is honoring the elders, reflecting a belief that dancers cannot tap a sound without re-sounding the steps of the masters. This show of gratitude is not nostalgic but regenerative: the practice of realizing the future from the past while making one's own inscription on the tradition.

And so it is with Sarah Reich and the release of her debut album, New Change, a mix of original tunes composed of percussive tap rhythms performed by Reich and an ensemble of jazz musicians. The tunes are dedicated to and named after jazz tap masters—from Harold Cromer, the tap dancer/vaudevillian who was Reich's decade-long mentor, to such notables as Ted Louis Levy, Arthur Duncan, Ivery Wheeler, Jason Samuels Smith, Brenda Bufalino and Dianne "Lady Di" Walker.

What is "new" in New Change is the common-sense idea that tap dance is music—and that it can be composed by tap dancers.


Tap Music By a Tap Dancer

"I always had a dream of writing music. My mother was born in Mexico City, and my grandma always had Latin music around. My father made sure to make me culturally aware of black music, jazz. I especially loved Tito Puente. These rhythmic melodic ideas are what I hear in my head when I tap dance.

"I studied with Denise Scheerer, who would bring a drum kit to class. And she would have a drum manual, Syncopation, by Ted Reed. Exercise Number One was just eighth notes, and then we would improvise on quarter notes, and sixteenth-note triplets. That's when I realized that tap is music. And that tap dancers are musicians.

"Instead of always dancing to jazz standards, which is traditional, I want to compose original music, collaborate with musicians, create a rhythm, have the musician learn it, and then build a song together."

How to Make Tap Music

"The whole process took four years. I wrote the first song, 'Gemini Vibe', with my good friend Danny Janklow, a saxophonist. I told him I would improvise an idea, and when I liked it, I would scat it to him melodically, how I hear it, and he would transcribe it the way he hears it. So instead of playing all the notes, we shared them!"

Honoring The Elders

"I want the audience to hear the voices of these legends. On 'Harold Cromer,' you hear a message he sent me, which I have always saved, since he passed away in 2013. On 'The Groove,' you hear vocal samples from two 1980s documentaries, About Tap and No Maps On My Taps. On 'Ted Louis Levy,' you hear him scatting 'You're a pure, honest connection to rhythm, everything rhythm.' After you listen to 'Arthur Duncan,' you will want to Google his name and find out more about this wonderful artist who appeared for many years on the Lawrence Welk Show. For 'Dianne Walker,' my idol, and 'Brenda Bufalino,' who I spent a week with at the Beantown Tapfest in Boston, I wanted people to experience what I have experienced as a tap dancer—to be taught by the legends."

An Emotional Time Signature

" 'For Chance' was written for my friend and teacher, Chance Taylor, who committed suicide. When Chance passed, it was really hard for me. I set the tune in 6/8 time because it sounded like a heartbeat. It helped me to channel him and to experience what I thought was the mental state he was going through. I recorded a first and second track to create polyrhythm. It was nice to show that rhythm can be emotional."

What It Was Like To Work With a Vocalist

"I composed 'My Baby Just Cares for Me' with Maya Sykes as vocalist, and we toured it with Postmodern Jukebox, with Scott Bradley on piano. I wanted to be the drummer on this tune, not to go over her sound. I like for others to solo, for people to listen to tap like they would listen to drummers doing the brushes."

Her Grammy Dreams

"I applied for consideration for Tap Music to be considered for the Grammy Awards! I want audiences to understand that tap can be respected as a musical instrument, and that tap has always been a large part of jazz history."

New Change is available on Sarah Reich's website, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and Spotify.

Day in the Life

Most people may know Derek Dunn for his impeccable turns and alluring onstage charisma. But the Boston Ballet principal dancer is just as charming offstage, whether he's playing with his 3-year-old miniature labradoodle or working in the studio. Dance Magazine recently spent the day with Dunn as he prepared for his debut as Albrecht in the company's upcoming run of Giselle.

Dance Training
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group

You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
The USC Kaufman graduating class with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Gus Ruelas/USC

Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.

Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam
Ross Parkes, right, teaching in Shanghai in 1983. Lan-Lan Wang is at left. Courtesy Lan-Lan Wang.

Notable dancer and beloved teacher, Ross Parkes, 79, passed away on August 5, 2019 in New York City. He was a founding faculty member at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan, where he taught from 1984 to 2006. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, said: "He nurtured two generations of dancers in Taiwan, and his legacy will continue."

About his dancing, Tonia Shimin, professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara and producer of Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, said this: "He was an exquisite, eloquent dancer who inhabited his roles completely."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox