Sarah Reich’s Tap Music Project injects new beats into the rhythms of a classic American art form

By Christina Campodonico

Sarah Reich has a radical philosophy: Tap isn’t just a style of dance, it’s also a form of music.

That pedagogical belief is one that the professional tap dancer, choreographer and instructor hopes to impart to her students, who perform in Santa Monica on Sunday for a showcase capping off her Tap Music Project’s weeklong Los Angeles summer intensive.

Perhaps what sets Reich’s intensive apart from others — besides the fact that she’s YouTube-famous for tapping to reimagined medleys of “Star Wars” anthems and modernized American standards by contemporary big band phenomenon Postmodern Jukebox — is its focus on music.

“I teach [students] how to read and write music theory,” says Reich, who released a tap jazz fusion album last year and entered it for Grammy consideration, “and also how to communicate with live musicians.

“A lot of tap dancing is improvisation,” she continues, but argues improv doesn’t go far enough for deepening young tappers’ understanding of music and rhythm. “I want to give an opportunity for the next generation of students to work with live musicians and really discover where their placement is in a band, [as] a percussionist. … You could improvise all day to any song, but could you write a song based off of what you know rhythmically?”

That’s why Reich, who grew up in Culver City and honed her skills through piano lessons and a custom-built studio in her parents’ living room, teaches her students how to compose original music during the course of their intensive and how to work with a live band, which sits in on classes. On Sunday, audiences will get a taste of that alchemy between rhythm and movement when the students perform “a capella” pieces set by Reich, an original song composed from class sessions, and improv with a live band. Tap dance legend Derick Grant, who was an original cast member in the Savion Glover-led “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” and up-and-coming tapper Jabu Graybeal, a National YoungArts Foundation winner, will also perform along with Reich.

“He’s phenomenal,” says Reich of Graybeal, who also raps and will be performing three original songs. “He’s never performed his music live. He has songs out on iTunes and everything, but he’s never done it live with live music, so we’re really excited to push him in that way.”

Pushing the envelope of tap is necessary, Reich feels, in order to preserve this uniquely American art form. Tap’s roots span jazz, Vaudeville, the golden age of Hollywood and the black American experience, but it is often seen as a “dying” art form in much of the public consciousness (including a few elite New York dance critics).

“Tap dancing back in the day was mainstream,” says Reich. “All the big bands had tap dancers in their band, and all of the Hollywood movies and musicals all had tap dancing. Broadway had tap. Tap was everywhere. It was would be nice to get back to that place again. …

“That’s why I created the Tap Music Project and my own albums. No producers are thinking, ‘We should do a tap album.’ They’re not even thinking of that.”

The views of Reich’s YouTube collaborations with Postmodern Jukebox alone — in the millions — could mean that the time is ripe for a resurgence.

Sarah Reich’s Tap Music Project Summer Showcase is at 7 p.m. Sunday (June 30) at The Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 at tapmusicproject.com

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