Michelle Dorrance: Step by Step
Michelle Dorrance is an embodiment of the history of tap dance, a uniquely American art form.
Michelle Dorrance is a dancer and a musician, a choreographer and a percussionist.
Michelle Dorrance: This is the way the dance looks because this is how you have to articulate it to hear it this way. You are constantly a musician as a mover.
Nothing exemplifies American multiculturalism like tap. The rhythmical dance form was born before the 19th century in places where African slaves and Irish indentured servants were forced to share each other’s cultures.
Dorrance: And so, you have the footwork, and very straight European rhythmic sensibility. And then you have syncopated African musical sensibility, and movement, and an approach to full-bodied movement in the way you would tap percussion. We also have groups of people that can’t communicate except through this, so you have that immediate blending of culture, and also communication based around something that doesn’t involve words so that’s also powerful. And then you have areas like the Five Points neighborhood here in New York where Irish were called blacks. Black dances were called jigs. You know, you look at that cross-cultural thing that was happening in the 1800s, and you’re like, “Oh wow, so this was happening both in major metropolitan areas in the north, and then on the plantation in the south.” And you see the cultures that carried it.
Dorrance has been celebrated as the face of tap’s future. She’s particularly noted for incorporating more contemporary looking moves into her sequences. But she says however modern her dances might look, they’re always building on the past. Indeed, just as the blues has been the foundation for multiple popular music forms that have followed it, jazz and rock and roll especially, so too has tap been crucial to the evolution of many American dance forms.
Dorrance: I think of the origins of hip-hop, the origins of breaking specifically, are rooted in tap dance. A lot of the footwork, and a lot of vernacular movement if you will, so like vernacular jazz, which is also rooted in tap dance/existed alongside tap dance, played into house and hip-hop in a lot of these cultures that are club and street forms now. So, I love seeing the way the footwork from this form influenced that form, and then cycling it back into tap dance. So that you can see this aesthetic that might feel contemporary or street or these things, but really it’s all rooted in this form, so yeah, if I’ve added that perspective to the way we’re working, I’ll accept that because I’m very excited about exploring that, and if I’m using a dancer of mine that’s a multiform dancer that has a beautiful languid quality to the way their upper body responds to their feet, I’m definitely gonna push that forward. But my origin is never in the other form, even though I know the other forms well. And also, what am I inspired by? I am inspired by groups, I am inspired by space. I’m also inspired by virtuosity, but I think that just there’s a range in my interest, and that I reflect that choreographically. That might be a part of why it feels innovative but the truth is like it’s all rooted in for me it’s all rooted historically inside the form. Maybe what’s different is the way that I’m putting it together.
Dorrance was raised in Chapel Hill North Carolina by parents who were dedicated to excellence. Her mother was an accomplished professional ballet dancer before founding her own school, where a four-year-old Michelle would later begin her training. Her father, Anson Dorrance, is a former soccer player whose 40 years as head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s team have made him one of the most successful coaches in the history of US soccer. Dorrance’s mom and dad were well-positioned to support their daughter’s early and fast-growing obsession with tap. By age 16, she was a mainstay of the internationally renowned children’s tap company. At 21 she graduated from NYU with a custom major in concepts of race and democracy in American culture, themes that still appear in her work today. Shortly thereafter, she got on the radar of the legendary tap master Savion Glover, who invited her to join his company Ti Dii. At 28, Dorrance joined the cast of Stomp, the off-Broadway cultural phenomenon that brought percussive dance to a mainstream audience. Then in 2011, Dorrance struck out on her own and started Dorrance Dance. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and costly, emotionally and financially. Winning the 2015 MacArthur Genius award, a $625,000 no strings attached grant was her saving grace. The prize allowed Dorrance to settle her debts, provide for her dancers, and press on. Now in her 40s, an age where many pros have already hung up their shoes, Dorrance has no plans to walk away. Still, no body is perfect. For the past few years she has suffered several fractures in her feet, but the time she spent on the sidelines recovering brought her face to face with some hard truths.
Dorrance: It just reminded me I wasn’t getting any younger and that I only had a certain amount of time left to explore things athletically, physically. And I will always work with people who of course are capable, but there is a certain immediacy with which you interpret your own ideas as opposed to having to explain something. So, there’s that, but there’s also the thrill of it. There’s also what compels you to move a certain way. And sometimes that happens in an improvisational setting. You try something athletically that you never would have thought, if you were sitting in a chair I’m gonna be able to do this, like no.
AJC: And I’m guessing as you move forward at a certain point you’re going to have to find a way of it not being a feeling, that it’s gonna have to be that you look at somebody else and go I want them to do this.
Dorrance: Sure, but you know, we die with our shoes on, man. This is something my dad also talks to me about quite a bit, because he’s like you can train until you’re in your 90s. Like, he loves that. He’s still trying to compete in an over-60 soccer league. On top of, of course, competing as a coach, so there is that part of my dad in me. And my mom also still teaches and dances. Like there is that part of you that never wants to let go. Yes, your approach will change and shift, and there will be things that I ask someone to do that I won’t necessarily do, or maybe I won’t even want to do them anymore soon, five, ten, however many years, but I’ll learn that as it comes.
And so, Michelle Dorrance dances on, pushing the boundaries of body, of style, of form, to create something deeply familiar, yet uniquely her own.