Michelle Dorrance Receives $625,000—No Strings Attached

December 27, 2015

One day in September, Michelle Dorrance received multiple calls from an unlisted number. She ignored them, assuming they were from a creditor to collect on her dance company’s crippling credit card debt. But the caller was persistent, and Dorrance eventually answered. The mysterious person on the line asked if she was somewhere she could receive confidential information. “I said, ‘I’m on a subway platform,’ ” says Dorrance. “All of a sudden, what sounded like a whole room of people started laughing.”

It was the MacArthur Foundation, calling to award Dorrance the prestigious “genius” fellowship, and its $625,000 cash prize, paid in quarterly installments over five years. Dorrance joins a class that includes a chemist, a stem cell biologist, an economist and a poet, among others. “The MacArthur Foundation supports intellectuals and artists,” says Dorrance. “People who have never thought about tap dance are talking about it. This is what I dream for our form. And I hope it leads to institutional and academic support of tap dance.”

This sum of money can be career changing for an artist, especially one who works in tap, a genre often overlooked and underfunded. Dorrance is dreaming up ideas that range in scale. The big: a new space for tappers to rehearse in New York City or a program that supports tap artists so they can rehearse for free. The medium: setting aside an amount for creative productions. But first, the small: paying off her company debt, and affording herself practical measures she went without so she could pay her dancers, like per diem. “We’re touring, and to people on the outside that might seem successful. But we are like a startup. We budget down to the penny on every trip. I do laundry. I juggle the media,” says Dorrance.

Despite this milestone, on a recent tour, Dorrance—“genius,” director, choreographer, launderer, press rep—was still thinking like a starving artist. She personally drove her dancers in a van from New York to Virginia, a 400-plus mile trip each way, to cut costs.