For tap dancer Michelle Dorrance, it starts with the basics.
“The history is present in the vocabulary we use, in the movement, in some of the rhythmic patterns and sensibilities,” said Dorrance, artistic director of tap troupe, Dorrance Dance. “(We’re) performing or learning vocabulary that’s rooted in the 1800s, early 1900s, and the 1920s.”
Thus rooted, Dorrance Dance explores what’s possible from a technical and musical standpoint. This exploration can be seen in two distinct programs offered by the company at this year's Spoleto Festival.
“ETM: Double Down” incorporates a unique electronic floor atop which the tappers dance. The second show features three original works and lots of individual expression. Both include live musical accompaniment.
Tap dancing and the jazz tradition are inextricably linked, Dorrance said.
“You are sitting inside of this tradition,” she said. “By honoring it, you are pushing and you are trying to think outside the box and create a unique individual stylistic and musical voice.”
“ETM: Double Down,” though experimental in some ways, is really just part of the tap tradition, said Dorrance Dance member Nicholas Van Young, who designed the electronic instrument and co-created the choreography.
“Michelle's mentor, Gene Medler, developed a tap shoe or some kind of tap process that also used triggers to trigger elements,” Van Young said. “Tap Dogs did it. Gregory Hines did it in the movie 'Tap.' Within the tap community this idea of augmenting and experimenting with tap dance has really been common, but what's changed is the technology.”
In both programs one can see the links between historical tap and break dancing of the 1970s and '80s. The breakers looked to great tap acts of the past, including the acrobatic Nicholas Brothers, Dorrance said.
For break dancer Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie, an integral part of the company, this connection illuminates an important shared history.
“It’s the shared African diasporic root,” Asherie said. “It's so clear. To me it's such a beautiful deep ancestral thing, where you can trace the lineage of these dances.”
Dorrance is quick to pay tribute.
“Our culture is doomed if we are not properly honoring the backs that we stand upon in order to do what we do today,” she said. “You do not have tap dance without the African diaspora. You do not have tap dance without African-American, black culture.”
So paying homage to the dancers of the past is intrinsic to tap. In 2011, Dorrance Dance performed a tribute to black tap dancer Jimmy Slyde called “Remembering Jimmy” at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.
“He was very connected and very available to us, and I'm very grateful for that,” Dorrance said. “Everybody wants to be Jimmy Slyde to a certain extent in their slide work. He's a huge inspiration, widely copied, and paying tribute to him felt like the right idea in that space.”
Brian Seibert, author of “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” said tap, because if its rich history, is a particularly expressive dance form.
“It’s also always been a spiritual dance, a dance that can react,” Seibert said. “It comes out of the African-American experience and reactions to slavery and discrimination.”
For Van Young, this connection to history allows the company to access a range of emotions.
“You could say that tap history itself sort of reflects American history,” Van Young said. “When we're dealing with all of the emotional aspects that come with that, it's only natural that we express that at full range of what we've seen.”
Aaron Halls is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.