(Tar) Heel to Toe

A North Carolina native taps into the future of dance

Photo: Jayme Thornton

Michelle Dorrance, photographed in New York City, home base for her Dorrance Dance troupe.

When Michelle Dorrance dances, her body seems to fly in three directions at once, going where the rhythm leads
her, a flap in the face to the old Fred Astaire–in-a-penguin-suit, tightly choreographed tap of yore. “Improvising is the closest thing I do to meditation,” Dorrance explains. “I have to respond honestly to what’s happening in the music, and in the moment.” It’s a style that has garnered her, among other honors, a MacArthur “genius” grant and an appearance on The Late Show, where she gamely led host Stephen Colbert through a routine and winged her own stirring performance set to the piano of bandleader Jon Batiste.

Jayme Thornton

That ad-libbing comes naturally to the dancer, who tapped onstage with the then local jazz band Squirrel Nut Zippers as a teen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she got her start at age three in a ballet school her mother founded. By seven, Dorrance was working closely with her mentor Gene Medler, a lauded figure in Tar Heel dance circles who espouses “rhythm tap,” which emphasizes the percussion a dancer makes as much as the actual routine. Medler encouraged her to improvise, “because that’s the root of tap,” Dorrance says, referring to the form’s origins on Southern plantations, where the enslaved used percussion to express themselves; later, the style intermingled with Irish jigging influences in the taverns of Manhattan. “In many ways, the history of tap dance is the history of America,” she says. After she earned her degree at New York University, her musical movements landed her in Savion Glover’s company, and then in the New York cast of Stomp. In the decade since, her understanding of the past has inspired her to dabble and experiment, breaking from the form’s confines.

Now she has her own troupe, Dorrance Dance, which tours internationally and has earned rave reviews from the likes of the New Yorker and the New York Times for its genre-bending performances. “The movements, energy, and rhythms Michelle creates are stretching the boundaries of tap,” says Nigel Redden, the director of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dorrance and company will stage two groundbreaking dance programs in June. “We don’t yet have the language to describe all she does.”

Photo: Jayme Thornton

One of Dorrance’s favorite pairs of wingtip tap shoes.

Take, for instance, the show ETM: Double Down, in which
the stage transforms into an electronic instrument of sorts played by the dancers’ feet. “We can hear ourselves onstage, and in our minds what we’re doing is melodic,” Dorrance says. “We wondered, what if we could communicate those tones to the audience? What if we sound like a marimba? A piano? An electric guitar? ETM is an exploration of those questions.”

And if her Late Night pupil and Charleston native son Stephen Colbert happens to be in the Spoleto audience, one more question might arise: “Have time for another