Dance Notes: Sarah Petronio's musical feet | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Dance Notes: Sarah Petronio's musical feet

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On a hot day in early May a group of Columbia College art students are hanging out in front of the school to catch some rays as the sun beats down, warming the sidewalks and parking lots of South Wabash. In the college's dim cafeteria, less than a hundred yards away, Sarah Petronio is tap-dancing. When she dances, Petronio is sublimely cool--cool enough to pull people out of the spring sunshine into the packed cafeteria.

As a rhythm tap dancer Petronio is one of a rare breed. There are maybe a dozen professionals worldwide--dancers who nail some metal to the bottom of their shoes and use their feet as percussion instruments. They perform with live jazz ensembles, embellishing a musical phrase, echoing it, underscoring it, trading riffs.

The combo she assembled for this performance followed her lead, bringing the volume down when she soloed, complementing her rhythm just as they would with any featured percussionist.

Pianist John Young would play a note here and there to color her rhythm, or he would just stare at her feet with a silly smile on his face, just digging the music they made.

Petronio had been tap-dancing for a number of years before she discovered rhythm tap. Although she studied and taught tap for a number of years in New York and Paris, her love was bebop. "Tap wasn't really important to me," she says. "I wasn't into Broadway flash and ding-a-ding-a-ding, which is all they were teaching at that time."

Then one day in 1971, when she and her husband were living in Paris, she attended a retrospective of old jazz movies by Hugh Parnassie. "At intermission," Petronio recalls, "this drummer, Michael Silva, got up onstage with his traps. And then this tap dancer got up there--Jimmy Slyde--and the two of them did something called 'Traps and Taps.' And I just--that was it. I said, 'This is what I have been trying to do!'"

After the performance she went up to Slyde, introduced herself, and said she wanted to study with him. Slyde was distant, but he took her telephone number and said he'd call. After standing her up a number of times over the months, Slyde finally met with Petronio, and little by little she began to learn his art.

In 1972 Petronio produced "It's About Time," a rhythm tap concert featuring Slyde and herself at New Morning in Paris. "It really broke my heart," Petronio says of Slyde, "because here was this genius and he was, like, doing nothing. Nobody was tapping. There was no place to tap. It didn't exist." The two began performing at jazz festivals across Europe, working with such top musicians as pianists Alain Jean-Marie and Rene Urtreger and drummer Michael Silva.

For Petronio, gaining acceptance in a world dominated by black American males was not always easy. Born and raised in India, she speaks with a gentle voice and a peculiar accent that's part French, part Oxford English. When she first began performing, Petronio says, "A lot of musicians would get uptight, feel insecure, want to 'show me how it goes.'"

There were a lot of conflicts, not only because she was a woman, but also because tap had a shabby reputation. "Tap was on the bottom rung of the ladder in dance," she says. "[People's attitudes] were like, 'Oh, Lord! Schlock!' Until you put on your shoes, get up there and say, 'Now listen. Listen--I didn't say watch.'"

When Petronio moved to Chicago in 1989, she began performing at the Green Mill. "And that started the ball rolling . . . the taps tapping," as she says. Now she teaches a class at Columbia College and performs with musicians such as Orbert Davis, Ed Petersen, and Corky Siegel at the Bop Shop and the Green Mill. She claims there is a renaissance in rhythm tap spreading across the U.S. "New York is jumping. California is jumping. Chicago is one of the last big cities, actually." But if Petronio has her way, it won't be long.

Petronio will perform with the Orbert Davis Quartet on Saturday at 10 PM at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division (235-3232). On Tuesday, May 25, she'll help celebrate National Tap Dance Day with free workshops and a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. She'll lead a tap lesson for kids starting at 10 AM, a session for adults at noon, and one for senior citizens at 2. Then Petronio and a few other dancers will perform at 5:30; anyone who takes part in a workshop will be invited to join in. Call 271-7804 for details.

Petronio's performances continue next month. On June 5 at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, she'll perform with jazz violinist Johnny Frigo starting at 8 PM; call 878-5552. And on June 19 she appears as a special guest of the Orbert Davis Quartet at 6 PM in the Murray Theatre, at Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook roads, Highland Park; 728-4642.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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