Feet Precise, Limbs Wild
Imagine if a ballerina married a soccer coach and gave birth to a daughter. Imagine if this young woman, raised in North Carolina, found a mentor who introduced her to the deepest part of the tap tradition, embodied in living masters. Imagine if she got hooked on tap, and in the course of developing uncommonly advanced skills and artistry as a dancer discovered in herself even rarer talents for choreography and leadership. Imagine if, without forsaking tap tradition, she transformed the inheritance she had earned into something unmistakably her own and of her generation, and that the wider world noticed and applauded. Or don’t imagine, just watch and listen:
That’s Michelle Dorrance, thirty-three-years-old, performing at Jacob’s Pillow in the debut of her 2013 show The Blues Project. Improvising to a blues song she didn’t know was coming, she exhibits much that’s distinctive about her style. Her footwork is precise, intricately explosive when her musical expression calls for fireworks, striking the floor and swiftly withdrawing as if from a hot stove, but it’s also relaxed, loose at the ankle. The rest of her body is even looser, almost unhinged, elbows and knees always slipping away, jutting, sticking out. When she slides, her legs spread well past the point of comfort.
Traditionally, tap dancers have contrasted a cool upper body with active feet. Dorrance’s body language is wilder. Her limbs don’t match the exactness of her foot rhythms so much as exaggerate them. This helps to make the rhythms visible, and not just the rhythms, but tonal distinctions, too. The aural difference between the ball of a foot and the tip of a toe is visually magnified by an entire leg, swiveling in and out all the way from the hip. The boom of a dropped heel is emphasized by knees that bend much deeper than necessary, sitting into the sound.
This exaggeration is also a dramatization. It’s an aspect of character: this country girl clutching at her gingham dress could’ve emerged from a Walker Evans photograph of the Great Depression South. More, it’s an intensification of emotion. As the vocalist, Toshi Reagon, sings “please, please, please” or “bye, bye, baby, bye, bye,” Dorrance’s body speaks of an ache. Her physicality opens her up, exposes her. At the end, as she folds the outer edges of her feet inward and balances on them awkwardly, there’s something broken about her, despite the great strength, skill, and control she’s just demonstrated. This is a tap whiz who doesn’t hide her humanity.
North Carolina to New York
“There’s not a time I can remember when I wasn’t in love with tap dancing,” Dorrance recalled at the Pillow in 2013. “It’s part of who I am.” She started very young, taking ballet and tap classes at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill—free classes, since the school had been founded by her mother, M’Liss, who had danced in the first company of Eliot Feld. “You have your father’s feet and legs,” her mother told her, meaning feet too flat for ballet but quick and strong. Her father, Anson, is one of the most successful coaches of soccer in American history, from the collegiate level to the World Cup. In ballet class, Michelle struggled to make her body do what the other girls did with theirs. But tap—tap she could do.
Luckily, the tap teacher at the Ballet School was Gene Medler, who was plugged into a renaissance of tap blossoming in the 1980s. He attended the new tap festivals, where aged masters such as Honi Coles had come out of semi-retirement to perform and teach a new generation (such as Jazz Tap Ensemble and Dianne Walker) fascinated by tap as an art. Before long, Medler was bringing his own students to the festivals, giving them direct body-to-body exposure to the richest part of tap tradition. Back in Chapel Hill, he started a children’s performance group eventually called the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, and he brought in some of the best tap choreographers (Brenda Bufalino, the young Savion Glover) to make professional-level pieces for the kids. This was Michelle Dorrance’s exceptional education.
For college, she attended New York University, partly to be in New York City amid the ferment of Glover’s path-breaking Broadway tap production Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. A few years later, Glover chose her for his dance group Ti Dii. During the early 2000s, there were few tap companies that didn’t include Dorrance at one time or another. For four years, she also performed in the long-running off-Broadway percussion show Stomp.
Along the way, she had tried her hand at choreography, mostly for Gene Medler’s group. Music Box, a short piece she created for the 2005 New York City Tap Festival, felt like a breakthrough: an ensemble work with a physicality appropriate for tomboys in dresses, matching the sweet-and-sour emotions in a song by Regina Spektor. But, occupied by Stomp, Dorrance didn’t get serious about choreographing again until 2011, when she was invited to share an evening at Danspace Project in New York with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. This, Dorrance’s first major show, earned her a Bessie Award for “blasting open our notions of tap.” More awards followed fast: the first-ever Princess Grace Award for tap choreography, the first Jacob’s Pillow Award given to a tap dancer (2013), another Bessie, and, finally, in 2015, a MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with $625,000 and the connotation of “genius.”
The twang of bluegrass announced the entrance of Dorrance Dance at the start of its first Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out appearance, in 2011. (Dorrance herself had first appeared at the Pillow in 2004, in an Inside/Out performance of Ritmico, a troupe run by the Brazilian tap dancer Cintia Chamecki.) The music was a nod to Dorrance’s North Carolina roots, and to the Appalachian clogging and flatfooting she had learned with the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble—and, beyond that, to the Appalachian roots of tap, one branch among many: a crossing of Irish and African influences, like the banjo.
That bluegrass opening can also be connected to Dorrance’s sense of character, as could the vaudeville-style piece that followed, Petite Suite. In it, Dorrance made the most of the six-foot-eight dancer Ryan Casey and his floppy, supersized limbs. Dorrance is partial to such types. Casey could be categorized as a throwback to the “eccentric” tradition of the early twentieth century: rubbery, lanky, loose-limbed dancers, often with a suggestion of hick or hayseed, and almost always comic. (The most widely remembered eccentric is Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.) Dorrance herself, happy to emphasize her gangling physique, was drawing upon that largely neglected tradition.
And yet Dorrance was, at the same time, utterly 21st century, fully capable of making tap seem recognizable and relevant to people of her generation and younger. Consider Three to One:
Dorrance, in her tap shoes, is doing essentially the same moves as the two contemporary dancers flanking her in bare feet. Their bent legs, rotating, keep offering up the tender inner surfaces of thighs and ankles. The wobbly knees are almost a caricature of fear or shame. Some furtive feeling is being laid bare. The rhythms, though, build to a sure, strong chatter. Dorrance’s feet speak them clearly, enunciating the emotions for all three dancers. Yet the motions—exaggerated tap steps, mirrored and magnified by the silent performers—make those emotions easier to see. Some expressivity normally hidden in tap technique has been revealed.
Remembering Jimmy, on the same program, showed Dorrance’s ingenuity and growing adeptness with group patterns. A tribute to the tap master Jimmy Slyde, who had recently died, the dance samples his trademark scoots and glides and slippages, with all the dancers in socks. This footwear was an accommodation to venues (such as Danspace Project, where the work premiered) where dancers aren’t allowed to nick the floors with tap shoes. But the socks, along with the white outfits, also help give the piece a ghostly aura of a séance, an otherworldly hush. Watch how skillfully Dorrance plays one group off another, in interlocking segments:
The Blues Project and Electronic Tap Music
When Dorrance next returned to the Pillow, in 2013, it was as the winner of that year’s Jacob’s Pillow Award. Ella Baff, the artistic director of the Pillow at the time, believed in Dorrance and in supporting her career: she granted Dorrance her first Pillow creative residency as well. Out of that residency emerged The Blues Project, which premiered at the Pillow in 2013. The support allowed Dorrance to think a little bigger and hire one of her favorite musicians, Toshi Reagon, who wrote a wide range of songs for the project and played them live with her band, BIGLovely. Characteristically, Dorrance also used the opportunity to bring in some old friends as co-stars and co-choreographers: Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards.
The spirit of The Blues Project can be caught in an early section that’s like a friendly dance party. To the sound of a zydeco fiddle, Karida Griffith stamps in a West African style. Elizabeth Burke (another daughter of North Carolina) takes a turn, tossing in Appalachian flatfooting. And then Claudia Rahardjanoto and Christopher Broughton combine the two modes in the Shim Sham, a tap dance from the 1920s. Broughton makes the show’s point about the cultural gumbo of tap by stirring an invisible pot with his arms:
That’s the happy side of tap and American history and interracial fellowship, but The Blues Project also sings the blues. Listen to Reagon perform her version of “Dream Variations,” a song written by Sweet Honey in the Rock (an activist vocal group that included her mother, Bernice) that riffs on lines by Langston Hughes: “Nothing lights a fire like a dream deferred.” Sumbry-Edwards, with her deep knowledge of tap and ability to channel intensity through clarity, makes that fire burn white-hot.
The Blues Project was a success, and Dorrance was awarded another creative residency at the Pillow. Her next project, ETM: The Initial Approach, grew out of experiments with tap and electronics made by company member Nicholas Young. Wooden platforms, hooked up to computers, triggered electronic sounds or the recording and playback of loops:
The idea was an extension of a tap dancer’s desire to dance to the music that he or she is playing. The electronics offered the potential for a broader sonic palette, and a boost to the melodies that tap dancers hear in their footwork but that audiences sometimes miss. The on/off nature of the technology led to much compositional addition and subtraction, both of repeated segments (as in Electronic Dance Music, the source of ETM’s Electronic Tap Music acronym) and of people, coming and going. But the restrictions of the technology also required teamwork, an extremely high level of group timing and co-ordination, with some dancers holding one pattern as others subtly shift the groove or mood. At its best, the show blurred the distinctions between dancer and musician, offering a kind of collective music-making that was becoming a Dorrance Dance signature: the tap dance company as a touring band.
One of the most excerptible sections of ETM isn’t electronic. It plays with the sound of metal against metal, and of dropped lengths of chain. But what’s most distinctive about it is the license that Dorrance allows one of her dancers, Warren Craft, with the shaved head and eyebrows. See how strange she encourages him to be:
The dominant aesthetic of the kind of tap that developed alongside jazz, the tap of Jimmy Slyde, was an aesthetic of the cool. It carried an imperative: be cool or risk looking corny. Much of the freshness in Dorrance and her dancers, though, arises from how they sneak around that rule. They seem unafraid to look uncool, to be oddballs or dorks or geeks. This license gives them access to an expanded emotional range. And it expands their cultural range, too, the parts of popular culture they can touch with tap. Consider, from ETM, this cover of Adele’s “First Love,” which Dorrance has described a duet between two “emo” kids (played by Demi Remick and Caleb Teicher), struggling to connect (in later versions of ETM, the duet is sometimes danced by two men).
Dorrance’s rarest qualities as a tap dancer are her budding abilities as a choreographer and company leader—drawing talent to her, helping it develop, packaging it so that people notice. She can make a company seem a community without compromising individuality. But the most stirring footage of her in the Jacob’s Pillow archive isn’t of her company. It’s her appearance at the 2013 Gala, when she accepted the Jacob’s Pillow Award. She doesn’t dance alone, exactly. She’s joined by the soulful vocalist Aaron Marcellus, and later—as the back of the Ted Shawn Theatre opens to the green outside—by a whole a cappella choir. This opening up is thrilling, and Dorrance rises to it, even as her song choices (Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing”) speak to darkness and unfulfilled promises. This is a tap dancer who knows the history of her art well. It will be fascinating to see where she takes it.