Featured Artist of the Month: July 2019
The Future of Tap Dance
This month, we are so honored to feature Michelle Dorrance, a NYC-based tap dancer, choreographer, director, teacher and performer. She is also the founder and Artistic Director of Dorrance Dance, whose work aims to honor tap dance’s uniquely beautiful history in a new, dynamic, and compelling context.
Photo by Erin Baiano.
Q. When did you start dancing and how did you discover tap dance in particular?
By 8 years old there was nothing I loved more than tap dance. What could possibly be more exciting than being a dancer and a musician at the same time?! My mother was a professional ballet dancer, and I studied at her school from age 3 to 17. During this time, I was incredibly lucky to have Gene Medler as my tap teacher and mentor. (He sought out the living masters of our form… people like “Honi” Coles, Buster Brown, “Peg Leg” Bates, Jimmy Slyde, The Nicholas Brothers, Cholly Atkins, who at the time were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s) and he took us across the country to study with them… He is a master educator and taught us the history of tap dance, its cultural significance, and its unique nature as both a form of movement AND music. I performed throughout the States and Internationally with his North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE) for 10 years. I am the dancer I am today, because of him.
Q. When did you become interested in choreographing, and how did you find your choreographic voice/style?
As far as being a tap dancer is concerned, I think a natural transition because tap dance is rooted in improvisation. There’s an element of on-the-spot choreography that’s happening constantly as you’re developing as an improvisational dancer. Simultaneously, my mom was a great choreographer, a ballet dancer, and growing up, I loved watching her create story ballets, so from a really early age it was something that didn’t feel foreign to me. I started choreographing when I was a teenager, and I was really excited to do it really early on, so I never felt like there was a large transition. I guess I sewed it into the fabric of who I was as an artist slowly throughout my coming up as a soloist and working with other choreographers as well.
Q. It has been said that your work has revitalized and given new life to the art form — what does that mean to you and was it your intention to do so when you started out?
I created Dorrance Dance in hopes to share the incredibly dynamic range that tap dance has to offer to audiences who were not currently supporting it regularly. My intention was absolutely to engage with those audiences on a musical and emotional level through tap dance in order to spread the great history and legacy of this American art form throughout the country and the world. Of course, I love experimenting, creating my own work, my own choreography, my own compositions, but I love sharing the brilliant individual voices and styles that are pushing the form forward today and that is also a part of my mission. Many many many people are responsible for revitalizing this art form. My voice is one of many and I’m proud of my community and proud to be a part of a sea of unique and powerful voices.
Q. What does your choreographic process look like — do you usually start with a piece of music, a beat, a vision? Does a piece usually evolve organically from start to finish, or do you piece different parts together, starting and stopping along the way?
Music is truly at the root of almost everything I create. And by "music," I can mean a particular composition or song, I can mean a rhythm in my head or its counter rhythm, I can mean a feel, I can mean the tension that we can build between two feels, and I can also mean what emotions arise from any/all of that music. It's not that I don't draw inspiration from concept, narrative, visual or movement based ideas, its just that in order for any of those things to be honest, their songs must come first.
Q. What do you love most about your work as a dancer and choreographer? Do you love performing the work just as much as creating it, and do you have any favorite projects or moments in your career to date?
Watching the dancers and musicians I work with take risks, discover, and explore on stage is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences I've ever had. Both in performance and in our cyphers before a show - there is nothing more exhilarating than watching someone push themselves past what they thought was possible and to then be inspired to do the same yourself.
I do also LOVE to dance. Tap dancing is when I feel most myself, and it brings me endless joy to dance with my crew. That I do not yet feel I am close to achieving my potential as a technician or an artist only further inspires me to work my hardest to be worthy of their company and will always keep me pushing as a dancer/performer.
Too many favorite projects to mention!!
Q. What have been the biggest challenges and struggles along the way? Who or what helps or inspires you during tough moments?
The biggest challenge I am experiencing currently is finding time to better myself. I am learning to say “no” in order to be a better dancer, musician, choreographer, performer, director, leader, and human being! My family and close friends are paramount in helping me do this. I would be nowhere without them.
Q. Do you think there any personality traits, habits or beliefs that you think have helped contribute to your success?
I love working hard and I can find joy, play, and humor in it. My dad gave me Viktor Frankel’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” when I was a teenager and taught me that even when one has had everything taken from them, the “last of the human freedoms” is one’s ability to choose their response/reaction to any situation they are put in or that they encounter. Attitude is everything.
Q. Do you have a vision for any particular impact you hope to make through your work and career going forward?
The future of tap dance is absolutely limitless. My vision involves tap dance moving in every direction at once. We, Dorrance Dance, are actively touring on what is a predominantly contemporary, modern, and ballet driven concert dance circuit. We will continue to do this while also educating our audiences (and presenting organizations) about tap dance’s very misunderstood history and about other incredible tap dancers/companies/choreographers that they should seek out! My vision is also to support tap dance as a mainstay at every jazz must festival like it once was, to support tap dance on television, in films, and particularly support GOOD tap dancing on the Broadway stage. There also needs to be a revolution in university dance and music programs to incorporate an accurate history of tap dance (the oldest American art form after Native American forms), I am working to collaborate with historians and dancers to develop this as well as a second company of dancers dedicated entirely to lecture-demonstrations! Personally, I want to be the best dancer/musician I can be in order to honor this incredibly sophisticated form and the masters that came before us!!