Sarah Safford
Space Grant (1996/1997)

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Sarah Safford, rhythm tap dancer, choreographer, and songwriter who was part of the tap revival in the 1980s which brought woman to the foreground, was born in Geneva Switzerland; to mother Florence Sher Safford, a social worker and later professor, pianist and flutist, and father Frank Safford, a medical doctor of rehabilitation medicine who worked for World Heath Organization.

As a child she traveled through Europe and the Far East. In Austria, where the family was living, her mother gave her piano lessons and hosted chamber music groups where she played the flute; she also enrolled her daughter in ballet classes. At the age of ten, the family moved back to the United States where, in Boston, she studied tap dance and other dance forms. It was at this time, seeing movie musicals on television and in the theater, that she became entranced with jazz and tap dancing. Moving to New York City, she studied at the School of American Ballet and was enrolled in Music and Arts High School as a flutist. At the age of fourteen, and for the next three years, she studied jazz dance with Pepsi Bethel, modern (Horton) dance with Thelma Hill, and Congolese Dance with Tito Sompas at the Clark Center for Performing Arts. Upon graduating from high school in 1970, she was accepted into in the Dance Program of the California Institute of the Arts.

By 1978 at age twenty-five, Safford was working as an Albany (New York) City Artist (in the CETA Training Program) in the street performance troupe Stone Soup Players, where she originated the title role in Little Nemo in Slumberland, an original musical based on the comic strip by Winsor McKay. In developing the role, she decided her character should tap dance, and quickly sought lessons from a local tap dance teacher who was an ex-Rockette. Moving to New York, she connected with Jane Goldberg, pioneering tap dancer of the resurging tap scene whose partner, Charles Cookie Cook, a founding member of the black tap-dancing fraternity Copasetics, was giving private tap classes. Safford and dance partner Constance Valis Hill began study with Cook at Jerry’s Dance Studio (later Fazils). Their study with Cook and jazz dancer Pepsi Bethel led to the creation of The Doilie Sisters, a full-length tap narrative of the partnership of two women tap dancers whose careers crossed six decades of jazz dance; the show was performed at La Mama Experimental Theater in 1981, with tours throughout the northeast.

That same year, Safford joined Jane Goldberg’s Changing Times Tap Company, cowriting and appearing in such shows as The Depression’s Back and So is Tap (1983) and The Tapping Talk Show (1984), and Shoot Me While I’m Happy (1985), which was performed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre with veteran hoofers Marion Coles, Charles Cookie Cook, James Buster Brown, and Leon Collins.

In 1985 (at Greenwich House) and 1986 (at La Mama E.T.C.), Safford co-wrote and performed with Goldberg in the all-female, intergenerational tap musical Sole Sisters; a highlight of the musical was “Post-Partum Blues,” which Safford wrote and performed with her infant daughter, Molly. Simultaneously with Goldberg, she worked on Tapping and Talking Dirty (1986), which premiered as part of Carnival Knowledge, a feminist arts collective, along with various other “Topical Tap” performances that addressed political and social topics.

Around the same period of time and continuing through 1991, Safford, Goldberg, and Dorothy Wasserman performed The Rhythm Method, focusing on women’s issues; the show premiered at the Picnic House in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and toured various venues in and around New York.

Following in the tradition of her teachers Charles Cookie Cook, James Buster Brown, Leon Collins, and Marion Coles, Safford has remains a rhythm tap dancer who uses the popular form to facilitate the delivery of sometimes feminist and controversial ideas. “That’s what I like about tap,” Safford reflected, “It’s this popular form that people like . . . but within that open form, you can insert new and radical ideas to go beyond entertainment and stimulate ideas and thought.”