A TAP DANCER LIKE NO OTHER
Dec 6, 2016
The new big deal in tap is Michelle Dorrance, whose troupe, Dorrance Dance, has just completed a run at the Joyce. Dorrance, who is thirty-seven, is a girl from North Carolina whose backstory might have been written by a press agent. Her mother, M’Liss Gary Dorrance, a ballet dancer (she performed in Eliot Feld’s first company), founded and directed the Ballet School of Chapel Hill. Her father, Anson Dorrance, currently the women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina, led the U.S. women’s soccer team to the World Cup in 1991. Put those two together, and you sort of get a tap dancer.
Dorrance discovered early on that she was a natural. When she was nine, she was in an advanced tap class with eighteen-year-olds. She joined the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, and from there went on to other companies. She also took time out to get a B.A. at N.Y.U. and spent four years as one of the drummer-dancers in “stomp.” In 2010, she founded her own company and began making work for it. The awards soon started rolling in, capped, last year, by a MacArthur Fellowship. It isn’t every day that a tap dancer gets a MacArthur.
Dorrance is a new kind of tapper. Classically, tap is a matter of a cool, contained upper body suspended over a huge clatter down below—a contrast that is supposed to be witty and, in a great or even good tapper, is. (“My feet are producing twenty taps a second, in alternating rhythms? Gee, I didn’t notice.”) Dorrance supplies plenty of action in the feet, but meanwhile the rest of the body is all over the place. Her elbows fly out; so do her knees, in great, lay-an-egg squats. She looks like a happy little tomboy vaulting around in a tree. Now and then, she’ll put on the mood-indigo, darkness-in-my-soul expression sometimes seen in tappers, or, alternatively, the Vegas-y let-me-entertain-you expression, but both of them fall off her face pretty fast, because she is fundamentally unaffected. Last October, she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show—you can see it on YouTube—to teach him some steps. With no smirking, she got this big, besuited man to do the shim sham. He even seemed pleased with his performance. In any case, she was pleased, and completely relaxed.
In “The Blues Project,” the show at the Joyce, Dorrance wears a blue-and-white checked cotton dress with two big pockets in the front, the sort of thing you might wear to sit on the porch and shell peas. When performing, she often gathers her long hair in a topknot that slowly migrates to one side or the other as the evening progresses. She is the one thing no other professional tap dancer has ever been: dorky.