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Michelle Dorrance: Tapping into a Rhythmic Playground

Digging deeper into the backstory of American tap’s African roots, melding with Irish jigs and English clogging, and picking up blues, jazz, funk, and hip-hop influences along the way, Michelle Dorrance has been praised for “blasting open our notions of tap.” Her works look back and forward and in Dorrance’s hands and feet, tap dance feels unequivocally contemporary, peppered with fresh riffs and cutting-edge collaborators. 

At press time, Dorrance was readying a brand new work Dream within a Dream (deferred) for pointe-shoe-clad dancers of American Ballet Theatre, where her sonic and rhythmic experiments will expand. At 39, she still resembles a teen with her simple ponytail and easy smile. Her eye-catching attack, that can pound into or caress the floor, is as graceful as it is gawky. Equal parts light and dark, like the blues, Dorrance’s dance metes out measures of soul and grit. HERE is info on the company's current national tour.


ICONS: You grew up around choreography, watching your mother choreograph in her North Carolina dance studio. Do you have a recollection of an early dance you made and what inspired you to make it? 


Michelle Dorrance: I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but I made a trio when I was 15 to the Beastie Boys’ “Flute Loop.” I was really inspired at the time by Savion Glover. He was a huge inspiration to our whole generation … along with the old-time hoofers who were still alive and we got to study with at the St. Louis Tap Festival. I was also inspired by my own teacher, Gene Medler. I remember being really excited to create that piece and it was hugely rooted in those teachers. I even put in little quotes from Gene, little quotes from Savion. It was by no means a choreographic opus, but it was my first big jump into choreography as a kid. 


ICONS: As we know, tap is so rooted in improvisation and it’s a musical form as well as a dance form. Would you talk about your creative process? Do you always start with the rhythm, the beat, when you create?


M.D.: Honestly, whether it is a piece of music you dance to or it is something made internally, something of rhythmic value that I decided to create a cappella, musical emphasis is behind everything, especially at the initial stages of the process. This includes any choreography, but especially when creating tap dance choreography. That’s not to say I know exactly what [I want]. Sometimes you have to be willing to let inspiration strike.


Sometimes I’ll be so moved by something that I can hear in my head that I’ll scan it into my voicemail. Now that we have our phones with us, that’s easy. I used to try to score [rhythms] in my own very rudimentary percussive notation. I do always have a notebook or my planner -- I'm a firm believer in a handwritten calendar -- so I can take notes.


Those phrases or ideas often drive the beginning of a work. Sometimes a melody will inspire something that has nothing to do with a narrative per se, but it has to do with a theme. It’s very rare that I’m working with a concept without a musical idea for the whole thing. That doesn’t mean that my work isn’t conceptual -- there are a million different directions I’ve explored in that realm. But if we’re talking about the very early beginnings, the origins of my work are very musical.   


ICONS: Do you like to be alone in the studio when you choreograph or do you prefer to have your dancers with you even early on to try things out?


M.D.: I really value time by myself. Very often I’m working on something and I have to play with it manually before I get the dancers in the room. When I’m working on something that is character-driven or inspired by a particular dancer, and I want them to do a particular movement or section, I like to see what the dancer might want to do improvisationally as I direct. Usually, though, I walk in with a very specific vision for a dancer and we go from there. But I have absolutely walked into a room, sensed the energy in the room, and have just given them something very different [from what I had planned].  There often isn’t a ton of time for me to create by myself, so I’ve definitely had to do it all in that respect. But I love time ... I love to explore as a dancer … to just dance with the music. I find that extremely valuable.


ICONS: Tell us about the new work you’re choreographing for American Ballet Theatre.


M.D.: I’m just really lucky to have the opportunity to work with ABT. Rather than reinvention, I feel like I’m lucky that I get to play. I was inspired by a curtain speech at the ABT gala [last season], when Stella Abrera and David Hallberg were asked to deliver a message that the company was excited to work with me because I’m a bit of a risk. I was a non-traditional choice to choreograph for a ballet company. They said that since they were American Ballet Theatre and my language is the American art form of tap dance, they couldn’t think of a more exciting combination. I’m excited about anything that gives more visibility to tap.



ICONS: How is working with classically trained ballet dancers going? The pointe shoe or the ballet slipper is a completely different instrument than the tap shoe.


M.D.: Oh yeah. It’s not even close to the tap shoe. The pointe shoe is an instrument and also an extension of the traditional technique that all these dancers are such masters of. I’m trying to find a world in which we can explore both the technique that they have dedicated their lives to mastering, as well as a completely new language -- a musical language that they’re also responsible for. I hope the dancers can find a new catharsis in the sounds they’ll create. I’m curious to see how we can adapt certain things they can do in ways that they have not been asked to dance before.


Hopefully, I can give them the idea that [they] can give a leg a little more weight or bounce this off the floor rather than softly playing into it. I’m really thinking about what needs to be explored. It’s one of the things I’m most excited [about]: getting to play with the pointe work.  



ICONS: What surprises you about your work as a choreographer? 


M.D.: Sometimes I’m surprised that things I don’t think I’m going to like succeed. Sometimes you have to let things see themselves through to the end. I really might not like it, but I’ll finish the phrase. And then I can see it slowly becomes something. Sometimes these parts I don’t like are the dancers’ favorite sections. Maybe they look awkward or funky or rough … [but] dancers are often the ones who champion the sections [I don’t like]. They put all this energy or character into it, then I end up loving it because there’s so much personality that I have to keep it. Another thing I’ve learned is that a lot of really great ideas come from play. 


While I take a lot of things very seriously -- especially when I’m working with dancers who are struggling to clarify rhythmic ideas -- I can’t stand something that is dirty -- when people are late then it sounds messy. We always want clarity of execution for music in the same way you do in movement. But a lot of what I’ve learned from successful creative practices and processes is that when you’re having fun a certain open-mindedness exists and while at play, ideas are freer to enter and move around in the room. 


Especially with a new dance language [at ABT], I’m really enjoying what I’ve been discovering in the process. First, I taught them a few phrases, but I also asked them to improvise with rhythmic ideas, which is something they are rarely asked to do inside their discipline. Seeing their natural instincts, their playful instincts has been really fun for me … and to learn a bit about the dancers from their own playful practice is also very helpful. 


ICONS: What advice would you give a young tap dancer who wants to become a choreographer? 


M.D.: You have to be a student of music just as much as a student of our own technique and your own craft because to be a tap dance choreographer is to be a composer. A young tap dancer who is a budding choreographer has to also take seriously the voices of composers they admire or they are inspired by. It’s really helpful to know what you want to say rhythmically so that you don’t lose that compositional voice as a choreographer. That would be my biggest advice because I’m so charged musically. 




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More about Michelle Dorrance:

Born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Michelle Dorrance began to tap dancing at age four and has been performing since age eight under her mentor, youth tap trailblazer Gene Medler. She studied ballet at The Ballet School of Chapel Hill, founded by her mother, former professional ballet dancer M’Liss Gary Dorrance. In the late 1980’s, Dorrance joined Medler’s groundbreaking North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE) and performed and toured extensively with this premiere youth troupe for a decade across the United States and to the first major international tap dance festivals held in St. Louis, Chicago, Vienna, and Rio de Janeiro.  

Since moving to New York City in 1997, Dorrance has performed with the most notable tap companies in the world and spent four years performing in the New York cast (as well as the North American Tour) of Off-Broadway sensation, STOMP. She also performed with Heather Cornell’s Manhattan Tap, Barbara Duffy & Co., Max Pollak’s Rumba Tap, Tony Waag’s Tap City on Tour, Cintia Chameki's Ritmico, Rhythm Kaneko’s Groovin’ High, CPD, Lynn Dally’s JazzTap Ensemble, and Savion Glover’s company Ti Dii. Her many performances include the Opening Ceremonies for the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Nijinsky Awards, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, Savion Glover at The Beacon Theatre, The Apollo Theater’s 70th Anniversary Concert, and the debut of Improvography at the Joyce Theater. She has also danced in Ayodele Casel’s Diary of a Tap Dancer, Dr. Harold Cromer’s original cast of Opus One at The Tap Extravaganza, and with legendary Mable Lee’s Dancing Ladies at the Apollo Theater.  

Michelle founded Dorrance Dance/New York in 2011 with the expressed mission to help audiences view tap dance, a beautiful, old jazz form, in a new and dynamically compelling context. The company sold out its inaugural production at Danspace Project NYC and Dorrance earned a Bessie, a New York Dance and Performance Award for it. Dorrance Dance has performed at The Yard, The Ruth St. Denis Studio at Jacob’s Pillow, and in festivals in Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Chicago, Boston, and Austin, Texas. 

The recipient of a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Award, Dorrance has also been honored with the 2014 Herb Alpert Award, the 2013 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award and a 2012 Princess Grace Award, where she was the first tap dancer to receive a fellowship in choreography in the organization’s 30-year history. 

Photographic images by Erin Baiano, Alexandra Bradley, Hayim Heron, Matthew Murphy, Dana Lynn Pleasant, Marty Sohl, and Em Watson ©

Interviewer: Lisa Traiger

Contributing Editor: Camilla Acquista

October 2018, Dance ICONS, Inc. All rights reserved ©