Performing in the tenth edition of Bombay’s Jazz Yatra in 1988 was like a homecoming for Sarah Petronio. It had been 25 years since she had left the city. During that time she had developed her own style of rhythm tap, with grace and quickness, improvisational steps and a great musical sense of jazz. After watching her tap dance performance, the English language daily Indian Post raved that Petronio was an “out-of-the-world” citizen.

While tap dance melds several elements – it owes its origins to the African-Americans who worked the cotton plantations in the American South and the early Irish immigrants in New York – there is more to the form than that familiar clickety-clack of dancers moving rhythmically. In this male-dominated multiverse, what set Petronio apart was the way she brought her own sensibility into rhythm tap, gleaned from her long exposure to various dance forms and knowledge of jazz.

In her book Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010), dance historian Constance Valis Hill described Petronio’s characteristic footwork as blurring “the boundaries between the music and dance”. The Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich once exhorted the audience to “listen to her”, for they would find some “fascinating rhythms” in what she did.

Sarah Petronio at the Portland Tap Festival.

Bombay days

Petronio’s parents, David Samuels and Ruby Sassoon, were Baghdadi Jews whose families had moved from West Asia to Rangoon in Burma. The fear and uncertainty in that country, prior to the Second World War, forced the young couple to relocate to Bombay, where Sassoon gave birth to Jack in 1938 and Sarah in February 1944. The family was very musical: Petronio’s father played the violin and brother the piano. From early on, dance and music became part of her life.

Bombay of the 1950s was, as Petronio remembers, a cosmopolitan city, thriving with the arts, especially jazz. Her brother introduced her to the music of jazz greats such as Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck and Nat King Cole. Tap dancing came to her through American movie musicals, which made America, otherwise “far away and inaccessible”, more attractive.

As Petronio recalls, she was “always known as a dancer” – she learned Bharatanatyam at St Joseph’s Convent school in Bandra, and “could do the twist and cha-cha-cha”. At her two-storied home in Bandra’s Pali Hill, there were frequent jam sessions. Her brother played with musician friends, including the three Thomas Brothers – Neville, Noel and Jerry – and Dinshaw Balsara, a bass player whom everyone called Balsi. Her brother encouraged her to sing, and for a time, Petronio performed with the Johnny Baptist band, singing scat in the style made popular by Ella Fitzgerald. The band performed regularly at weddings and other social functions.

Left to right: Eddie Brown, Jimmy Slyde, Honi Coles, Sarah Petronio, Gregory Hines and Steve Condos at the Colorado Tap Festival. Photo courtesy: Peter Petronio.

When she was 19, there came the big family move to New York. Petronio did not really wish to leave. She had begun working in an advertising agency, after a two-year secretarial course at the YMCA, and had loved her avatar as a singer and dancer. But the decision was final. The family – minus Jack, who had to wait awhile for his visa because he was over 21 – sailed in 1963 on the SS Steelworker from Bombay to Brooklyn (the title of Petronio’s memoir that she’s writing).

Brooklyn to Paris

The family settled in Brooklyn, but two months later, David Samuels died. Forced to earn a living, Petronio found work as a copywriter in an advertising company. At the same time, she studied theatre, creative writing and voiceover production at the New School. She also took a few tap dance lessons with choreographer Henry LeTang, and occasionally with Bob Audy and Jerry Ames (both well-known tap dancers in New York). The dancers who came to these teachers, Petronio soon realised, were those who wanted a break on Broadway. The classes were more attuned to “teaching choreography” and for the dancers to memorise steps to use later.

In 1964, she married Peter Petronio, an art director and photographer. They moved to Paris, where their two children – Ezra in 1968 and Leela in 1971 – were born. Soon after, Petronio felt a need to return to dance. Her first teacher in Paris, Sylvia Dorame, had a repertoire that “comprised three dances made up of steps that had to be memorised, a piano player played the accompanying three tunes”. Petronio found this “method of dancing and the music quite old-fashioned”.

Within a year, Petronio had opened her own small studio in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, with a specially-made grooved wooden floor. Here she “played her favourite pieces of jazz, built up her speed, improvised and formed her own rhythmic phrases to match the music”.

This form of improvisational jazz tap dancing would eventually become her trademark. She began teaching this method to friends and students, and the demonstration techniques this required helped formulate her thoughts and develop a style uniquely her own.

'Jimmy Slyde & Sarah Petronio - Two Artists, One Dance' by Peter Petronio.

Learning with Slyde

In 1971, Petronio met Jimmy Slyde, who was to become an important influence in her life. One day Petronio and her husband attended a retrospective of old jazz movies. “At intermission,” she recalls, “this drummer, Michael Silva, who played with Sammy Davis Jr., got onstage with his traps. And then this tall and lean tap dancer in flared bellbottom pants got up there too and the two of them did something called Traps and Taps.” Slyde, whom Hill dubbed the “ultimate jazz hoofer”, was known for his “uniquely improvised slide tap dancing” style set to jazz rhythms.

Watching him dance, “everything came together” for Petronio. This is what she wanted to do as well. She waited for Slyde offstage, intending to ask if he would be her teacher. But Slyde had only recently moved to Paris. After several months they met again and over time, Petronio began to learn his art. Slyde “led her into the more complex zones of rhythm tap dance, never naming steps and always insisting, ‘Don’t dance like me. You are a woman’.”

Sarah Petronio with Jimmy Slyde. Photo courtesy: Peter Petronio.

Slyde was soon inviting Petronio – the “first lady of swing”, as he called her – to dance at the same Paris clubs he performed in. They also began performing at jazz festivals across Europe, along with top French musicians such as the jazz pianists Alain Jean-Marie and Rene Urtreger, and the Paris-based drummer Michael Silva. Some of Petronio’s signature tunes were Frank Foster’s (a member of the Count Basie orchestra) Shiny Stockings and Duke Pearson’s Jeanine. Petronio’s performances were characterised by her stylistic interpretation of popular jazz adaptations, especially the music of Thelonious Monk and Red Garland.

Sarah Petronio with Jimmy Slyde in Tokyo

Petronio made her solo debut in the late 1970s at the Le Petit Journal, a jazz club and bar, in Paris’ Montparnasse section. In 1984, she and Slyde danced at the American Centre in Paris with It’s About Time, a performance they repeated at other concerts and festivals in Europe over the next year.

The Chicago Years

In 1989, Petronio and her husband moved to Chicago, where she taught at the Columbia Chicago Dance Center. Four years later, she produced one of the first jazz tap festivals in the city, featuring Slyde and other well-known dancers such as Savion Glover, Ted Levy, Chuck Green and Acia Gray. At this festival, Peter Petronio’s book, Footprints: A Tap Dancers’ World, which included his prized photographs of celebrated tap dancers, was released. A short film by Peter Petronio, titled Footprints, A Tap Dancer’s World, encapsulates what the book is largely about.

Her time in Chicago and her performances made Petronio more familiar to American audiences. Howard Reich, in the Chicago Tribune, wrote that Petronio was “as much jazz artist as stage hoofer, as much actor and mimicry artist, as improvising musician. She performs magic on a very small stage”.

Sarah Petronio, Acia Gray and Dianne Walker. Photo courtesy: Peter Petronio.

Petronio performed at major tap festivals in Portland, Boston, New York, and in Australia, Germany, Japan and Israel. Along the way, she picked up several honours, such as the Moscow Tapparade Award in 2003 and the New York Tap City Hoofer Award in 2005. Short film director and editor Amy Leland recently completed a documentary on Petronio, appropriately titled Ambassador of Rhythm.

Petronio returned to Paris in the mid-1990s, where she currently lives. She still performs, most lately with her daughter Leela, an accomplished rhythm tap dancer in her own right. Petronio also enjoys engaging with students about rhythm tap, hoping to draw in more people.

Sarah Petronio with Leela Petronio.

“I could talk for days about tap dancing,” she said. “People think you have to wear a top hat and use a cane to be a tap dancer, but tap really is about using your feet as a percussive instrument. I want people to put their feet on the floor and get moving.”

One of Petronio’s lingering dreams is to dance rhythm tap in Mumbai again, complete with a photography exhibition of the greats she has been inspired by, and those she has performed with.