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Tapping Into Music: A Seattle Tap Dancer’s Feet Are Her Instruments

Jessie Sawyers (right) with bass player Evan Flory-Barnes (left) & pianist Josh Rawlings at Greenlake's Tap Dance Seattle.

Seattle’s Jessie Sawyers calls herself a visual musician. Her instruments are her tap shoes.

“Tap can play that role as the percussion element. I have done a couple of gigs around town where literally I am the only percussionist. There is no drummer. That is really a lot of fun. It really can feel like more of a storytelling through rhythm.”

For me, and probably most of you, my only reference to tap dancing was the class I took when I was four years old. But by performing with musicians of all genres, Jessie is making the old fashioned art fresh again.

“I come across people who are like, ‘I’ve never even seen that before!’ If they’ve had, maybe it’s, like, Shirley Temple or Fred Astaire.
I think to some people it’s almost like a novelty dance or this outdated thing. When you see it in this musical context you realize it’s totally cross genre. It can be anything.”

Jessie started tap dancing when she was around 11 and, as a child, it was therapeutic for her.

“I was born with a genetic condition called Ectodermal dysplasia so I had about 23 reconstructive surgeries. Most of them were before I was five years old. I think that’s why tap really spoke to me the most because I felt like I could be so free. Everything was so structured in the other styles: hold your arms like this. Hold your hands like this. With tap it was like, make the sounds, be in time, but move your body how it feels good to you. I think it helped me kind of connect with my body in that way because I’d been through so much.

Years later, Jessie gained a bit of local celebrity. At least her legs and feet did. Ivar’s Seafood Restaurant hired her to dress up like a giant fiberglass clam and dance in their commercials.

“They actually made this boat for the commercial that looked like a giant food tray. They had a big clam chowder cup on top of the boat and I had to stand on top of the chowder bowl and tap dance in this clam shell. On the water. On Vashon Island. So intense, you know. The boat is moving and I’m trying to tap dance and they had a SCUBA diver hiding on the boat in case I fell off.”

Jessie manages to make her living tap dancing, and has started the Seattle Tap Collective, Visual Integrative Music and Movement and Dance Instigators Group.

“It was kind of in response to this tax that’s around town called the Opportunity To Dance Tax. An extra tax that’s imposed on venues if they literally provide their patrons with the opportunity to dance. So a lot of the dancing that could be happening in conjunction with live music is actually being discouraged because venue owners have to pay more or charge more for their tickets.”

Click here to get tickets to Jessie’s Valentine’s Day Dance party at the Last Supper Club and to find information on her performances.

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