Jayme Thornton

The Most Influential People in Dance Today: Michelle Dorrance

Michelle Dorrance has just returned from Stockholm, where she was teaching without pause for much of the previous week. Before that, she had a pit stop in New York, a quick gig in Los Angeles and performances in New Hampshire. "It was relentless," she says in a huskier-than-usual voice, owing to a cold. The breakneck itinerary is an apt illustration of what an in-demand artist she has become, especially since receiving a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2015.



While that recognition may have introduced her to a new audience, dance fans and critics were already swooning for her sophisticated musicality, thrilling ensemble arrangements and layered choreography that hits a wide range of emotional notes.

Yet Dorrance would rather not be the subject of this profile. Though a proud ambassador for her art form and always eager to promote it, she resists the false narrative that often accompanies stories about her of a so-called tap revival, and the impulse to identify a "lone ranger" to represent it. "Tap's always been around. There's always been brilliant artists, it's just not in the spotlight," she says. "It was the same conversation when I was a teenager in the '90s." (Then, Savion Glover, with whom Dorrance has performed, was the "It" tapper.)



Part of what makes Dorrance, 37, such an influential figure is precisely this resistance to being singled out. One of the ways she deals with the attention is by redirecting it to her community. She constantly name-checks the people who influence her—from her parents to her mentor in North Carolina, Gene Medler, to heroes like Dianne Walker and Brenda Bufalino, collaborators like Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, the members of her company, Dorrance Dance, and contemporaries like Chicago dancer Jumaane Taylor, who, she gushes, "is at the top of his game." You can tell she's genuine by the way her voice clears and perks up when talking about her colleagues, as though celebrating others is chasing away the cold.

Collaboration and tradition are the pillars of Dorrance's art, but it doesn't stop there. "She's also an innovator," says Linda Shelton, the executive director of New York City's Joyce Theater, one of several venues that have nurtured Dorrance. "She's honoring the traditions of tap, but she's also making it relevant to a new generation."

A prime example of her artistic values can be found in The Blues Project, which Shelton brought to The Joyce in 2015 for three performances and again in 2016 for two weeks, a rare feat that also speaks to Dorrance's popularity with audiences. Dorrance co-created the work with musician Toshi Reagon plus Grant and Sumbry-Edwards, weaving together nods to the past with inventive configurations and invigorating energy.

Another acclaimed work, ETM: The Initial Approach and its follow-up, ETM: Double Down, cleverly merged tap and technology ("ETM" stands for "electronic tap music"), and was created with longtime company member Nicholas Van Young, who praises Dorrance for her focus and openness. "Michelle is very clear with her intentions," he says, "yet in collaboration she always makes you feel free to explore, develop, share and express."

The mutual respect is clear. "We're loyal to her and she's loyal to us," says rehearsal director Elizabeth Burke, who has known Dorrance since age 6 and danced with her company since it was founded in 2011. "She has an uncanny ability to bring different people together with different skill sets and energies and make it feel like a cohesive art that makes sense."

Burke recalls the early days of Dorrance Dance, rehearsing at night in various studios on the Lower East Side and touring in an old minivan with mismatched doors. By that time, Dorrance was already a familiar face on the tap scene, having worked with Glover and performed with STOMP for years. Starting a company allowed her to experiment and work with dancers she admired, though its speedy path to success has surprised everyone involved.

For all her humility, Dorrance has expanded the possibilities of tap in significant ways. Moving forward, she's mindful of keeping tap history at the center of her work. "I want to further refine my vision so my influence is rooted in the integrity of our form," she says. And she's eager to refocus on her own dancing, which she feels has been neglected due to the administrative duties of the past few years. But she's not feeling rushed. "What I love about tap dancers is that they die in their 90s with their shoes on," she says. "We're a breed of dancers that doesn't retire with age."

Read the rest of Dance Magazine's list of the most influential people in dance today.

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Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

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NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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