Pamela Raff, 57; fused music, movement through dance
By Bryan Marquard Globe Staff
Gestures shifting from subtle to sharp, Pamela Raff filled stages with a complex physical vocabulary, one foot drifting away with a hushed rasp, wrists twirling in elegant evocations of flamenco, heels tapping in intricate rhythms that might fade into a contemplative glide.
“Jazz tap is a language, even a form of meditation,’’ she told the Globe in 1993. “You bring your feelings to it, and, with technique, you can talk and sing with your feet and body.’’
As much an instrument as a dancer, Ms. Raff sometimes performed with jazz musicians, driving the rhythm as she traded improvised riffs with the piano, guitar, and bass.
“I’m very much invested in bringing dance back to a place where it works with live music,’’ she said in 1997. “Music and dance are really from the same source.’’
Ms. Raff, who performed and taught jazz tap in Greater Boston for more than 30 years, died of cancer on Nov. 20 in her Upton home. She was 57 and previously lived in Brookline for many years.
“Pam was a very musical tap dancer,’’ said her husband, James Richards, a classical pianist. “It wasn’t just percussive, it was intonation. She would hear melodies and try to play them with her feet.’’
Audiences, meanwhile, were treated to dazzling, deeply personal displays when Ms. Raff took the stage.
“You could see that every single note, every single tap, mattered to her,’’ said Julia Boynton of Jamaica Plain, a longtime friend and dance collaborator. “Pam’s focus would turn inward. Sometimes she would do a long riff, a long trail of sound that came out of thought, very cerebral. When the audience responded - I can remember this - she would look up and smile so sweetly, and then she would go back into her dance.’’
Telling stories through movement, Ms. Raff drew inspiration from sources others might overlook.
“She has tapped rhythms based on nursery rhymes, choreographed a number whose frantic speed was inspired by the life of a working mother, and even danced about such unlikely subjects as her father’s work ethic,’’ Globe arts critic Christine Temin wrote in 1994.
Ms. Raff “is a particularly wonderful tapper because she’s introspective, never trying to sell a number,’’ Temin wrote in a 1992 review. “She can pound the floor with the best of them, slide her feet along as if she’s striking a match, and then abruptly switch dynamics to dance with a doll-like delicacy.’’
In 1994, Ms. Raff released “Feet First,’’ a CD that presented the sound of her feet tapping rhythms. Reviewing the CD, JazzTimes magazine critic Patricia Myers wrote: “My ears enjoyed each track, but now my eyes hunger for a video version.’’
Pamela Joan Raff’s mother was from England and she was born when her parents were visiting that country. She grew up in Morristown, N.J., a suburb of New York City, the second of three daughters. A younger brother, Ernie, died many years ago.
Ms. Raff was 3 when she began taking tap lessons, later studying ballet, modern, and belly dancing.
“I found rhythms entrancing,’’ she told the Globe in 1994. “Also, I’m an extremely restless human being; it’s great to take that energy and be able to organize and express it.’’
She learned to play piano and jazz flute, too, but stopped tap dancing in high school. She briefly attended American University in Washington, D.C., but left to hitchhike around the country. She ended up in Boston, where she considered becoming a physical therapist. Instead, she responded to an ad that said, “strong dancers wanted,’’ and took a gig as a dancing Mr. Magoo, performing at malls across the country.
Returning to Boston, she began studying with renowned tap artist Leon Collins, who became her mentor.
“He and I became very close friends, but it was nonverbal,’’ she said in the 1994 interview. “He taught me all his material and within a year he asked me to perform with him. I was very shy and unseasoned. He taught me professionalism.’’
When Collins died in 1985, Ms. Raff and other students kept his studio open to sustain his creative force.
“Pam was very much about keeping the legacy of tap alive, especially through the work she did with Leon Collins,’’ said Ms. Raff’s friend Sacha Shawky of Roslindale. “She didn’t just teach tap, she taught its history and where it came from, and that was very important to her.’’
Ms. Raff, whose first marriage ended in divorce, held classes at studios in Brookline and Allston. She instructed students in the Brookline schools and at Brandeis University, Boston University, Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.
“She always would say the thing she was proudest of was mentoring young students and teens,’’ Boynton said.
“To her, teaching was just as important as performing,’’ Shawky said.
Dance wasn’t the extent of Ms. Raff’s creativity, however. A gifted gardener, she grew “monster plants,’’ her husband said, and even casual gestures brought beauty to her surroundings.
“If Pam walked into a room and took off her scarf and draped it on a chair, it looked like an interior decorator had done it on purpose,’’ her husband said. “She had a different perspective on things. Pam was probably the most creative person I’ve ever met.’’
John Lockwood, a bass player who teaches at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, was one of the jazz musicians who performed with Ms. Raff.
“She would vary the beat, and we would respond accordingly,’’ he said. “The great thing about performing with her was that you never knew what was going to happen. You had a basic idea and then responded to what you saw and heard.’’
When Ms. Raff danced, “it was very personal,’’ Boynton said. “There was nothing between her and her audience. There was no artifice, there was no, ‘I’ll give you a little bit of who I am.’ When Pam was dancing, I could see that she was baring it all. She was creating in the moment.’’
In addition to her husband, Ms. Raff leaves a son, Sam Sawzin of Upton; a daughter, Lyra Sawzin of Holliston; her mother, Eileen (Archer) of Hilton Head, S.C.; two sisters, Sandra Condit of Medford, N.J., and Leslie of Morristown, N.J.; and two stepdaughters, Amory and Louisa Richards, both of Brookline.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow in St. Paul Episcopal Church in Brookline. A tap jam with the Jazz Trio will be performed in her honor at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Green Street Studios in Cambridge.