Dancers Trending

The Most Influential People in Dance Today: Michelle Dorrance

Jayme Thornton

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.

Subscribe to get the print edition!

Broadway
Courtesy Macy's, Inc.

As you're prepping your Thanksgiving meal, why not throw in a dash of dance?

This year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is stuffed (pun intended) with performances from four stellar Broadway shows, the Radio City Rockettes and students from three New York City dance institutions.

Tune in to NBC November 28 from 9 am to noon (in all time zones), or catch the rebroadcast at 2 pm (also in all time zones). Here's what's in store:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

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:

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Sergei Polunin. Photo by British Broadcasting Corporation and Polunin Ltd., Courtesy Sundance Selects.

Last week, Variety reported that Sergei Polunin would reunite with the team behind Dancer for another documentary. "Where 'Dancer' looked at his whole life, family and influences," director Steven Cantor said, " 'Satori' will focus more squarely on his creative process as performer and, for the first time ever, choreographer." The title references a poorly received evening of work by the same name first presented by Polunin in 2017. (It recently toured to Moscow and St. Petersburg.)

I cannot be the only person wondering why we should care.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox