Onstage, 25-year-old Michelle Dorrance exudes warmth while hitting hard. Hitting, in case, you didn’t know, is how a tap dancer’s foot lands on the floor. Dorrance, who appeared with Savion Glover and his Ti Dii group last winter, also has that particular looseness every notable tap dancer has—a swing that extends from the hips to the knees while letting her rapid-fire feet do the talking.
This lanky hoofer was no Shirley Temple peddling “On the Good Ship Lollipop” when she began performing the complex sounds of rhythm tap as an 8-year-old. Her first tap teacher Gene Medler, who taught in her mother’s dance studio, Ballet School of Chapel Hill, took her to perform in schools and nursing homes all over North Carolina. Later, as a member of Medler’s North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, she improvised solos in works choreographed by Savion Glover, Josh Hilberman, and Barbara Duffy.
Dorrance’s parents supported her passion for the world of tap. “My dad was big into preparing you for what he would call ‘the chaos of the universe.’ He gave me a healthy attitude toward competition,” she says. “Because of him, when I see something I can’t do, I get excited, inspired. It’s about putting it all out there.”
Dorrance’s earliest lessons took place at her mother’s school when she was 7. “My talent did not lie within the realm of ballet and modern,” she says. Her mother, M’Liss Gary Dorrance, a dancer in Eliot Feld’s first company, used to say to her, “Honey, you’re always on the music,” as the best way to encourage her daughter to keep dancing. “I had flat feet and could hardly touch my toes,” Dorrance explains.
Tap was another story, however, and Medler, now one of the co-owners of the school, gave her the basics. “Michelle’s such a fast sponge about learning,” he says, remembering when he began bringing Michelle with him to tap festivals starting in the 1980s. Eventually, Michelle studied at the festivals with Dianne Walker [see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” February]. “Michelle just paid attention. She came prepared to take class, thanks to Gene,” says Walker. “She understood early what it meant ‘to put it in the pocket,’ to move and groove with the music, not just dance in a straight line. She brings not only her technicality, but her sense of music.” Walker also admired the way Dorrance took care of the younger kids Medler brought to the festival, making sure they had water, got to their classes, and got enough sleep.
Michelle remembers the St. Louis Tap Festival when she was about 14 as a turning point. Savion Glover separated the young dancers from the tap masters for tap consciousness-raising groups à la the ’60s. Only those under 25 were allowed to attend. They soon began organizing themselves, trading e-mail addresses, discussing performance outlets, telling each other where to take class. “Savion had already become an inspiration,” says Dorrance. “He was our access not just to the ultimate rhythmic experience and understanding of tap dance. He was also young and he would connect with us, verbally and non-verbally. He embodied everything I dreamed of. He was so giving. Even if it was just a five-minute conversation in the hallway, with him asking, ‘What are you doing right now?’ he would connect.”
Since her move to New York seven years ago, Dorrance has become a sought-after ensemble dancer with a wide range of companies, including Glover’s Ti Dii, Barbara Duffy and Company, Max Pollack’s Rumba Tap, Heather Cornell’s Manhattan Tap, and appeared in Cintia Chamecki’s fusion concert piece Ritmico.
She also attended New York Univer-sity’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which she says enriched her artistically. A class in “Sound and Sense” explained the progression and relationship of poetry and music. “I actually tape-recorded myself tap dancing to a poem by Walt Whitman,” says Dorrance. The next year in “Imagining American Democracy” she learned how to push the definition of what poetry is, as well as what democracy means. “I feel that tap is our democratic art form. It’s about the oppressed people rising, a possibility of cultures blending, the people becoming one and becoming stronger. Gallatin allowed me to combine what I was passionate about artistically, academically, and politically.”
Several critics have noticed Michelle already, including Rachel Howard, who wrote about the San Francisco Jazz Festival and said of Dorrance, “Michelle Dorrance draws the eye with her punchy energy and more exuberant use of the torso.”
What’s ahead for this young talent? She will work with Barbara Duffy again soon. And since tap projects tend to happen very quickly, almost spontaneously—differently often from the rest of the dance world—she looks forward to more opportunities.
Meanwhile, the classes Dorrance teaches at Broadway Dance Center in New York City are filled to the max. As she works out her complex rhythms and phrases to Ani DiFranco or Thelonius Monk, “referencing” her mentors like Glover, Walker, and Medler, Dorrance is showing a new generation of dancers how to hit the floor and carry on the traditions of tap. “I want to be able to communicate the passion and the truth of tap that I know through all those who have inspired and influenced me,” says Dorrance. “My ultimate dream is to give as much as I’ve been given to.”
Jane Goldberg is a tapper and frequent writer on dance.