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The body becomes music when this dancer taps tradition

"Tap dance is the dance of creating music," says Michelle Dorrance. The founder of Dorrance Dance has helped lead a renaissance in tap, gaining attention for her own exuberant, athletic style. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Dorrance to discuss how she is making her mark while honoring tradition.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now: how an artist in the world of tap dancing is using tradition, breaking with it, and experimenting with a genre she discovered when she was just 3 years old.

    Jeffrey Brown profiles a choreographer who is lighting up the stage in New York this holiday season.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For tap dancing phenom Michelle Dorrance, the most important thing you need to know about her art form is this:

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    You dance to create music. But tap dance is the dance of creating music.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That means we, the audience, both watch and listen. And, for Dorrance, the sounds she seeks guide the movement.

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    In order to get this sound, I have to move my body this way, so the look of tap dance is often because we needed a hard toe, or a heel, or a toe drop.

    And because of these particular nuances, our body had to do this to execute that sound, and that's where the dance comes from. When people say to us, oh, I get it, it's music, and you're like, yes, that's what drives us.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Since founding her company, Dorrance Dance, in 2011, she has helped lead a renaissance in tap, gaining attention for her own exuberant, athletic style, arms, head and feet in motion.

    She's choreographed full-length dances for her group, including ETM: Double Down, where the focus on music is made explicit, as dancers step on wooden boards that function like electronic drum pads.

    She and the company are constantly touring, bringing new audiences to this tradition-bound dance form. In 2015, Dorrance was recognized with the so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation.

    And this hoofer is a trooper. Fighting off a bout of laryngitis, she let us visit a recent rehearsal of a dance called Myelination at a Midtown Manhattan studio, and was happy to talk about her role as an evangelist for tap.

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    Some people use the word edu-tain or edu-tainment.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. That's what you see yourself doing?

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    Yes, I mean, inside of the art form, you must constantly educate about the past. But something we were charged with, speaking of tradition, by our masters and elders of the jazz era is, that's what jazz was about, having your own individual voice and pushing your expression forward.

    So, inside of this tradition, which I want to always honor, you have to define yourself, and define your voice as authentically yours.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now 38, Dorrance grew up in North Carolina, dancing tap from age 3.

    She performed with North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, and later with the show Stomp.

    Her mother is a ballet dancer and teacher, founder of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, her father head coach of the University of North Carolina's women's soccer team, and one-time coach of the USA Women's Team.

    Somehow, tap comes from that?

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    Yes, we all joke about it, because they both use their feet for their professions. Both of them have incredibly quick feet.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You got that gene.

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    Yes. Let's bring that here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Quick feet are certainly one requirement for tap dancing, but it's also clear that Dorrance seeks diverse styles and personalities for her company. We watched her rehearse a duet with 22-year-old Byron Tittle.

  • BYRON TITTLE:

    Well, I met Michelle when I was 10 at a tap festival, and I have just been taking her classes, and following her, kind of stalking her, since then.

    For me, there is a push that Michelle puts under you and behind you that doesn't feel forceful. It feels encouraging. My life was made because Michelle asked me to do something this crazy. Just full circle, it's really cool.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    By contrast, 39-year-old Nicholas Young has known and danced with Dorrance since they were teens. And there's another obvious contrast: size.

  • NICHOLAS YOUNG:

    That's something that people have been really excited about, the dancers that Michelle chooses. She chooses a very diverse group of dancers, you know, and she allows each to express ourselves individually while, at times, creating a very specific image, or a story, or a feeling in her pieces.

    But then I think people really enjoy seeing all of us move out of that story line and become ourselves. I think people relate. I actually get that a lot. I get guys come in to me after a show and be like, hey, you really made me feel like I could do this, too.

    So, I don't know.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's a good feeling.

  • BYRON TITTLE:

    Yes, it's so cool.

  • NICHOLAS YOUNG:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In her dance "The Blues Project," Dorrance directly addressed the role of tradition and history. (See editor's note below.)

    For her and the other dancers we met, being part of a tradition, and knowing that history, is intrinsic to their lives in tap.

    Dorrance cites the recent impact of Savion Glover, whose Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, first performed in 1995, was another revolutionary moment for the form.

    She's also acutely aware, as a white woman, that the history of innovation in tap has largely come from African-Americans.

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    It's a black form. It's an African-American form.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. So, how do you think about the racial aspect?

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    It's really important to acknowledge it. And it's really important to share the history of the form, and to say the names of dancers, to say the name Jimmy Slyde, Dr. Jimmy Slyde, Dr. Buster Brown, say the names of Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Charlie Atkins, Honi Coles, to say the names of these men that aren't the first names that come to your mind.

    You think of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly because they were the heroes of the movie musical. But there were dancers behind the scenes, and there were dancers innovating the form that weren't on the screen, but they were the ones that were bringing — breathing fire into the form to make it exciting.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And not just men.

    Dorrance also cites women dancers who've been important to her, Dianne Walker, Brenda Bufalino, Mable Lee.

  • MICHELLE DORRANCE:

    I feel very lucky to be a tap dancer, especially a woman as a tap dancer right now.

    I feel like I can jump into or be inspired by a style of a man or a woman, and it doesn't matter, and I won't be received as being something very specific. I will just be received as a dancer or a musician.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Dorrance Dance performs in New York this holiday season, and then resumes touring around the country in January.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Editor’s Note: The dance “The Blues Project” (2013) was a collaborative effort by Michelle Dorrance, Derick K. Grant, Toshi Reagon, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards.

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