Electric Tap Dorrance Dance takes form to new heights

Dorrance Dance

When 8-year-old Michelle Dorrance was asked to improvise at the end of her North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble audition, she had everyone's attention. Dance instructor Gene Medler wanted to make sure it wasn't just a freak occurrence so he asked her to do the improvised section again.

"She repeated it beat for beat and they were just blown away by her insight and knowledge of rhythms," said M'Liss Dorrance, Michelle's mother. "She was quite the little prodigy. They knew she had something going."

Now in her early 30s, Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance - the New York City-based tap dance company that is known for its inventive choreography and bold approach to one of America's most vibrant dance forms.

Originally from North Carolina, Dorrance began dancing with she was just 4 years old.

Her mother founded The Ballet School of Chapel Hill, and Dorrance knew from an early age that dance would become a significant part of her life.

"It was a no-brainer," she said. "I got put into classes when I was three and I studied everything, but my talent and gift were in tap. I'm very musically-driven as a person and there's not a time I can remember where I didn't love tap dance."

By the time she was 8, Dorrance was a member of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble under the direction of founder Gene Medler and toured internationally with the group for a decade. She danced in festivals from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro. Dorrance became the youngest cultural ambassador to Saratov, Russia, as part of a "sister city" program.

Since then, she has tapped across the world, performing as a soloist, presenting new works as a choreographer and teaching students. Education, she says, is key to a thriving culture.

"I really love watching dancers develop, watching people fall in love with the form, and watching them grow as musicians," Dorrance said. "It's one of the most important things anyone can do in any culture. I admire teachers as much as I admire doctors."

Now Dorrance teaches at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, and at other institutions.

"She is enthusiastic and passionate and she really wants the dancers to learn what she's working on," Medler said. "When a dancer gets something right, they explode a little bit with joy, and Michelle really wants to give that back."

Dorrance has become known for taking traditional tap dance and raising it to new heights. She has collaborated with artists such as Toshi Reagon and Eduardo Guerrero. She experiments constantly with techniques such as tap dancing in stocking feet, incorporating indie music and integrating modern street dance into her pieces.

"She pushes the envelope when creating her own work," said her mother. "She adds contemporary movement and street movement and she makes tap not just current, but beyond current. She's gone places where other tap choreographers haven't gone and she's put together a company where the performances are so enriching and so uplifting, they're electric."

Words of a proud mother? Perhaps, but the daughter's got the prizes that prove her mother correct.

She was a 2012 Princess Grace Award winner, a 2012 Field Dance Fund Recipient and a 2011 Bessie Award winner.

Dorrance Dance is featuring two programs at Spoleto this year. The first work, "SOUNDspace," was originally created as a site-specific piece for St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City.

"We were really working to fully explore the space and the different sounds we create with our feet and bodies," Dorrance said. "We don't just use aluminum taps. We have a range of interesting possibilities inside of our percussive footwork and we also use what is a vaudeville tradition - sand technique."

The second program will feature "Delta to Dusk," a musical review that explores the possibilities of tap dance.

"It shows off tap and its versatility," she said. "It sounds just as good to swing as it does to pop as it does to rock or punk or soul or blues. It's a really a great musical journey and shows a great range of tap dancing reform."

Medler said the best thing to do during a Dorrance Dance performance is to sit back and enjoy the ride.

"Even experienced tap dancers are sometimes surprised at what they see because they see the art form changing in front of them, and that just doesn't happen often. Don't try to understand it," he said. "Let it wash over you. Experience it."

Melanie Lustig is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.