This fantastic fusion is the creative genius of the trailblazing Michelle Dorrance, Artistic Director, Founder, Dancer and Choreographer (oh and did I mention Bass Player too!). The Wonderful World of Dance got the lowdown on tap dance and the new hit show from Michelle who’s busy rehearsing in New York, before heading across the Atlantic to London’s Sadler’s Wells.
What inspired you to establish Dorrance Dance?
I created Dorrance Dance in hopes to share the incredibly dynamic range that tap dance has to offer; in order to engage with audiences on a musical and emotional level through dance; in order to spread the great history and legacy of this American 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.
The truth about what elements in my life led me to establish Dorrance Dance: I danced for almost too many New York City-based tap dance projects, companies, and choreographers from my late teens through my mid-twenties. I developed a solo career during that time as well, which extended through my time performing with STOMP in my late-twenties.
I simultaneously started playing bass in my best friend’s band (Darwin Deez – who had some great songs in rotation on BBC Radio 1 not too long ago!) and we toured the US, UK, parts of Europe and Australia, before I realised I was trying to do WAY too much.
It wasn’t until I broke my foot at the age of 30 that I was struck with how pertinent it was for me to put my vision for the possibility I saw in tap dance, first. This timing was met with a great opportunity to premiere new work at New York City’s beloved Danspace Project and the company was formed!
What qualities are important to you when selecting dancers to join the company?
First and foremost I want individuals, not conformists, who love and respect the art form and who love and respect the wood. I seek out dancers who already have developed a unique improvisational voice, powerful technique and clarity, innate and masterful musicality, as well as a truly developed and unique performance qualities.
Describe your typical day as Artistic Director of Dorrance Dance?
There is no such thing as a typical day, unfortunately! From performances, to rehearsals, to creation, to travel/touring, to solo work, to operations, to admin, to teaching, to speaking/lecturing and interviews – the most challenging element of being an Artistic Director who still dances in the work of a company that has grown this quickly, is maintaining a schedule that allows time for physical and artistic personal development and practice, while juggling the monstrous administrative weight!
What legacy would you like to create with Dorrance Dance?
Tap dance is treated like the bastard of the dance forms. Everything I aim to do, aims to change this. There are countless homes for ballet, modern, and contemporary dance in New York City and only one home for tap (The American Tap Dance Foundation) with studios less than half the size of a concert stage. Tap dance is not institutionalised or studied in a significant way by dance departments in arts institutions and universities throughout the world. Tap dance is widely misunderstood and undervalued as antiquated, or regarded as simply entertainment and not art, and it is often white-washed in the press. I want Dorrance Dance to help change all of that.
Who inspires you in the tap dance world?
My dancers truly inspire me endlessly. My collaborators on some of our big productions, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, and Nicholas Van Young inspire my artistry every time I work with them. There are so many incredible improvisational dancers and hoofers in my generation and the next who literally excite and push me every day – if I start this list, we’ll be here all day – so many of my teachers who are still working artists who have formed who I am as a dancer, musician, artist, person are on this list as well. But, I must mention a few who have spent time with me, and lit fires in me that will never die: Gene Medler, Dianne Walker, Josh Hilberman, Savion Glover, Barbara Duffy, Ted Levy, Sam Weber, Mark Mendonca, Dr. Jimmy Slyde, Brenda Bufalino, Dr. Harold Cromer, and Miss Mable Lee.
You are widely talented as a dancer, choreographer, musician, performer, teacher and director. What is your favourite role and why?
While I am deeply passionate about teaching and performing I would have to say there is nothing better than just tap dancing. Our dance is a song, our movement is music. Being a dancer and a musician is such an incredible blessing.
Tell us about your production ETM: Double Down coming to Sadler’s Wells in London next year?
First, we will be performing in “Sadler’s Wells Sampled” in early February, in which we will be featuring an excerpt of the acoustic section of our show that we call “Boards and Chains.” In July we will return to Sadler’s Wells to perform our London premiere of the full evening work, “ETM: Double Down.” This show features what is essentially an electronic drumkit for the feet, designed by my choreographic collaborator, co-creator, and dear friend, Nicholas Van Young. We are using this technology on a scale and in a way that has never before been done and the possibilities are endless. Despite the fact ETM stands for Electronic Tap Music, it was important to us to contrast inorganic/electronic sounds by exploring organic/acoustic sounds as well. We also explore unique qualities of movement and music, as well as segments of emotional narrative. The choreography and composition brings counterpoint, polyrhythm, tone, texture, and a natural tension between the physical and sonic dynamics to the forefront. We are SO EXCITED to bring this work to London and honoured to be performing at Sadler’s Wells!
What do you think is the future of tap dance?
The future of tap dance is absolutely limitless. I see tap dance moving in every direction at once. It will be more present in every venue: from jazz clubs, to Broadway, to films, to the concert dance stage. It will be more powerful in every educational environment from dance schools, to dance festivals, to after school programs, to colleges and universities. It will continue to push boundaries in every direction from the street corners to museums to night clubs and back. I think the future of tap dance is incredibly bright, the form is so dynamic and sophisticated. As long as we continue to educate and share generously, the possibilities are endless.
What inspired your love of tap dance?
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 all over the United States to study with them.
Medler is a master educator and taught us the history of tap dance, its cultural significance, and it’s 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 and I am the dancer I am today, because of him.
What advice would you give to aspiring tap dancers?
Learn the history of the art form both culturally and musically! Know the innovators and masters of the form well, honour them, and seek out historical footage constantly. Swing is at the heart of the form. If you can’t swing it, you can’t do it. Improvisation is the very root of tap dance. Improvise daily! Develop your own, genuine, unique voice, never copy someone else’s. Take yourself just as seriously as a musician as you do a dancer and practice accordingly!! Spend twice as many hours alone practicing as you do learning in the classroom, this is often where the most progress is made. Stay humble and like my mentor, Gene Medler says, “dance to express, not to impress.”
Get your tickets for Sadler’s Wells!