Michelle Dorrance’s parents both had special feet. Her mom was a professional ballet dancer, and her dad was a soccer player who coached the women’s U.S. national team. Put the two together and you get Michelle, one of the most renowned tap dancers of her generation.
The founder of New York company Dorrance Dance started taking classes at her mother’s ballet school at the age of three and quickly showed an affinity for tap. “It was very obvious from the get-go that tap is where my gifts lie,” she says. “Something you can tell right away with a young kid, playing an instrument or doing something musical, you can tell if they have a really sophisticated ear, and I think that is one of the most marked differences of young tap dancers. There are kids who can move their feet quickly, but if you understand what’s happening with the phrasing, that’s what’s nuts.”
Tap dance, after all, is a form of music — something that seems obvious to Dorrance, even if it’s not always obvious to audiences. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘I get it, tap dance is like music,'” she says. “That happens constantly. First of all, I never think anything negatively toward those folks. I’m so grateful they came on the journey. If this was their first time or maybe their first exposure, I’m grateful to have had that experience with them. But I am still surprised that people don’t acknowledge tap dance as a musical form. I’m still surprised that people think tap dance is entertainment and not art. Of course it can be entertainment, but so can everything.”
Dorrance started her company in 2011 as a way to honor tap’s history while also bringing it into the 21st century. Dorrance Dance’s inaugural performance earned a Bessie Award for “blasting open our notions of tap,” and the choreographer and her tight-knit crew have since earned praise from the New York Times and Boston Globe.
“It was kind of long overdue,” Dorrance says of starting the company. “I had so many ideas choreographically that I wasn’t pursuing and that I hadn’t given myself time to focus on because I was dancing for so many other companies and with so many other people — all of whom I admired, and all of whom I learned quite a bit from.” Dorrance and several of her dancers are regulars in the Off-Broadway show Stomp, and other core members have been tied to Cedar Lake Ballet, West Side Story, and Beyonce’s tours.
Many of Dorrance’s pieces include original music, usually completely percussive, though she has plans to compose original melodic scores in the future as well. One thing you can count on: It’s a lot more than just jazz. “I like playing with what I think is predictable and unpredictable about the form,” Dorrance says. “Because it’s a street form, you can dance to any kind of music. You don’t just have to have a jazz sensibility, you can have a funk sensibility, you can have a Latin sensibility, and you can embrace different forms of movement and find that rhythmic sensibility and music sensibility, and that’s exciting. As long as it feels authentic and genuine in that moment and you’re embodying it, then it’s real. It can be house, it can be rumba, it can be anything.”
At the end of the day, the company succeeds in redefining an art form that has been too often misunderstood. “There are many antiquated notions of tap-dancing,” Dorrance says. “Some people still think of it as minstrelsy. It’s part of tap’s history, and it’s important to know that, to know the history of racial oppression, but that’s also the history of the United States of America.”
Spoleto audiences will be treated to a new compilation of works called “Delta to Dust.” “I wanted to create something unique for Spoleto that showed our musical range, and tap dance’s range too, musically,” she says. “You can go from delta blues to rock to pop to bluegrass to jazz to Radiohead. We’re just trying to show the musical journey that this form has gone on through the ages. It’s so epic.”