Michelle Dorrance taps, but it’s more than just dancing. It’s music.
One morning last month found her rehearsing at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill (which her mother founded), trading solos back and forth with jazz drummer John Hanks – drumstick flourishes for him, explosive staccato tap-dance rhythms for her. Pedi-drum solos, as it were.
It was as impressive musically as it was visually, with great interplay among Dorrance, Hanks and the rest of the accompanying jazz trio. Afterward, Hanks was shaking his head.
“She’s pretty incredible,” said Hanks, who has performed with Dorrance for about 10 years. “Just the precision and virtuosity and wit she shows. As she’s become more of a fixture and her notoriety has risen, she’s become this totally finished artist. She’s still self-effacing about it, of course. But it’s a wonderful thing to get to watch. An honor to get to work with her.”
That’s a typical reaction to Dorrance, who grew up in Chapel Hill and has become one of the world’s most acclaimed tap dancers over the decade and a half she’s been in New York. Her breakthrough was a four-year stint in the touring version of “Stomp,” the percussion show requiring a difficult combination of stamina and exactitude. Soon, however, she should be better-known for her own choreography.
The New York Times has praised Dorrance’s inventiveness, calling her “the most promising (choreographer) in tap right now.” And she has won major awards including a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award last month – a prize that has previously gone to dance-world giants including Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones.
But Dorrance, 33, still comes back to Chapel Hill every summer to perform in the annual Rhythm and Tap Festival, and also do some teaching. Right before the band rehearsal, she put a group of 10 students through their paces on a somewhat complicated routine.
“I know it’s a lot,” she said. “Cram it in your brains, kids!” And she was off, flying through the piece with exactly the sort of elegant ease Hanks was talking about. Watching from just outside the rehearsal room, a young man who looked to be about 12 years old sized Dorrance up.
“She’s really good,” he said.
‘Not dancing is not an option’
After morning rehearsals, Dorrance changed into a Ramones T-shirt and unlaced Doc Martens boots, removing her tap shoes a bit gingerly. One foot was taped up, the aftermath of a recent mishap that left a piece of broken glass stuck in her foot. It gave her a lingering and bothersome infection, but you’d never have known it from watching her dance.
“It does not feel good,” Dorrance said, settling in over a quick lunchtime salad at Whole Foods. “In fact, it hurts a lot. But not dancing is not an option.”
Dorrance, the daughter of ballet dancer M’Liss Dorrance and UNC-Chapel Hill women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, started dancing almost as soon as she started walking, taking lessons at her mother’s school.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love tap,” she said. “It’s always been my favorite thing to do. People will say they remember when they decided to go into tap from seeing something. But I can’t remember a time when it was ever not it for me.”
Joining the N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble brought Dorrance under the tutelage of its founder, Gene Medler, and she began turning heads at an early age. In April 1995, The News & Observer included 15-year-old Dorrance in a “Star Watch” story alongside rising local stars including actress Lauren Kennedy, painter Beverly McIver and musicians Ryan Adams and Ben Folds. She also used to tap-dance onstage at Squirrel Nut Zippers’ local shows during their mid-’90s rise to fame.
A reputation on the rise
By then, Dorrance was already studying and working with other notables of tap-dance including Savion Glover and old-time master Peg Leg Bates, both of whom she had met at the St. Louis Tap Festival. Dorrance’s reputation was on the rise when she went off to New York University after graduating from high school, and it’s been straight upward ever since – so much so that winning the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award gave her pause. It paid $25,000 to spend as she sees fit, and Dorrance put the money right into the program her company is putting on for this month’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
“I feel like I don’t deserve it at all, which I hate to say because ‘deserve’ is such a weird word,” Dorrance said. “But I think it’s an acknowledgement from (award director) Ella Baff, who sees the vision I have and wants to support it. Sure, I’ve been dancing professionally since my late teens, a long time. But I’m so early on as a choreographer, I feel like I need to have done more to deserve it. It’s overwhelming and a little scary. Pressure comes with an honor like this. You don’t want to let anybody down.”
Dorrance is one of those people who busts the curve for the rest of humanity, because it seems like she can pull off just about anything. In addition to dancing, she played soccer all through high school and her first year at NYU. And after teaching herself to play guitar, she did a stint as bassist in the acclaimed alternative-rock band Darwin Deez.
“I had an aptitude for music from a young age, but I’ve always been a big faker because I never studied or learned it formally,” she said. “Now I wish I had, because I’d like to be able to arrange and compose more quickly. You know, I love dancing and have a passion for music – what else could I do but tap? Music and dance together at the same time, how lucky can you get?”
That combination is key to Dorrance’s long-term goals for herself and for tap, which she wants to make more accessible to the masses. She combines a sense of modernism from contemporary music with an appreciation for tap’s 19th-century origins as a blend of traditions from African slaves and Irish immigrants. That history inspired her individualized course of study at NYU’s Gallatin school, where she studied art as an instrument of social change.
“I think people have an antiquated understanding of tap,” Dorrance said. “How many people can’t even name one tap dancer beyond Shirley Temple? Who was great, don’t get me wrong. But one of the legends was dancing right next to her in those movies, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. So I want to show every possibility at once, which is crazy. But there are so many different ways to view what’s possible within the art form, because it’s malleable, while maintaining the beauty of the tradition. It’s cutting edge, not the same as 50 or 100 years ago.”
To that end, Dorrance is putting a lot of her energy into choreography. Two years ago, around the time she was winding down with both “Stomp” and Darwin Deez, she formed her own company. Dorrance Dance has already earned a sterling reputation; the company will do a program with blues musician Toshi Reagon as part of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts later this month.
Like most people who make their living in the arts, Dorrance has about a dozen different projects going at once. Multi-tasking is a given, but that to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’d love to study so many different forms of dance and music,” Dorrance said. “Instruments, too. And languages, since we travel a lot. I figure I can learn Portuguese and Spanish at the same time since they’re similar, then Russian and Japanese. Now I’ve said it out loud, so I have to do it. I’ll get back to you on that.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat
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