Sharing History, Making History: Michelle Dorrance Has Her Sights on the Future of Tap

By Mary Ellen Hunt

five tap dancers leap on stage
Dorrance Dance, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whether jamming with a jazz band or teaching Late Night host Stephen Colbert a shim sham half break, Michelle Dorrance makes a personable and articulate ambassador for a new generation of tappers. The recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2015, the 37-year old Dorrance is the inheritor of a tap legacy that stretches back to Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, Mabel Lee, Jimmy Slyde and the Nicholas brothers. Nonetheless, she is not one to sit on her laurels nor let her art form stagnate. In The Blues Project, which San Francisco Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts present this month at YBCA Theater, Dorrance and collaborators Toshi Reagon, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant pay homage to the past while continuing to break apart traditional notions of tap with a fresh take on the language of rhythm and movement.

A native of North Carolina, Dorrance started dancing at a young age, first under the watchful eye of her mother M’Liss Dorrance, and then with Gene Medler in his North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. Her resume could double as a hot list of the artists reinvigorating innovation and improvisation in the tap world: Dorrance has performed in STOMP, and in Savion Glover’s ti dii, later joining Barbara Duffy & Co, as well as Grant’s Imagine Tap and Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels/Chasing the Bird.

In 2011, she founded her own company, Dorrance Dance, which has been featured at venues from Jacob’s Pillow to the Kennedy Center. The Blues Project brings Dorrance together once more with the singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and her band BIGLovely.

The premise of the show seems simple and straightforward enough, but its appealing blend of Reagon’s bluesy and heartfelt songs with the dynamic brilliance of Dorrance, Grant and Sumbry-Edwards won the show a 2015 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production.

Dorrance first encountered Reagon back in 1997 when, as a teenager newly arrived in New York, she happened upon her show in a local club in Greenwich Village.

“She blew the roof off the place,” she recalls. “I was an instant fan. Many years later, she and [drummer] Allison Miller were developing a show called ‘Celebrate the Great Women of Jazz.’ She invited me to be a part of that show in the opening and closing numbers to sort of represent the tap dance element in that legacy. During that time, I asked her kind of casually, ‘If I raise a ton of money, would you do a show with me? Could we create a show together?’

“And she was like, ‘Oh, God, you don’t have to raise a ton of money. Let’s definitely do a show together,’” Dorrance says with a laugh. “So that really gave me the confidence to start the dreaming process. I’d always wanted to make a show with tap dance and blues music, in part because tap and jazz are so interconnected historically.”

Dorrance notes that tap dance shares roots with blues music and in African-American history from the time of slaves on plantations.

“Music and art and entertainment were the first business of the African-American in the United States—that’s the first thing they earned, even before earning land,” she notes. “That was their first intellectual property, artistic property.”

Dorrance was also keen to work with two of modern tap’s most interesting innovators, Derick K. Grant and Dormeisha Sumbry-Edwards. As soloists and also as creative artists, she says, they bring unique stylistic voices to the show. Unspoken, though, is the sense that in Grant and Sumbry-Edwards Dorrance finds kindred spirits: tappers rooted in a sense of tradition and conscious of honoring the legacy of tap mentors and master hoofers, yet daring enough to push the art form beyond the popular notions of what it can be. In past interviews, Dorrance has talked about wanting to make tap relevant and asked about that, she clarifies.

“I think tap is relevant. I just want people to believe that,” she declares. “I don’t think we need to change the form to make it relevant, by any means. I think it has always been a source of innovation, in part because you have brilliant improvisational soloists pushing things forward technically, physically, rhythmically, at all times. What we really have to do is educate. History [is] at the forefront of our process, but I think a large majority of people underestimate tap dance. They think, ‘Oh, I remember seeing that little girl do it,’ or ‘Oh, Fred Astaire is brilliant, but, you know, that’s from 100 years ago.’ People think of sequins and little kids in Mary Janes, they think of tap as an antiquated notion or a dumbing down of entertainment. There’s so many different ways that the sophistication of the form is marginalized in the public eye.”

“Not that I think there was a campaign against tap dancing, it’s just our cultural memory,” she continues. “But part of our cultural memory is impacted by institutionalized racism, sexism, and oppression in this country. Any professional tap dancer is also a tap historian—we could all give you a long history of tap because that’s the way we were taught inside of our community. I think that we have to continue to push the technique in a genuine way with our stylistic and musical passions, and we also have to be torchbearers for the legacy because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.”

Dorrance points out that nowadays, tap is enjoying not just a resurgence of interest, but a kind of paradigmatic shift as well.

“Where is it going or where can it go? And I think the answer is literally every direction at once,” she says. “There are more tap dancers presented on big jazz bills now. You have Jared Grimes as a regular staple with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center Jazz. You have Sarah Reich touring with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. People are blown away. They forget how complex and how moving and how immediate it can be.”

Dorrance is also cognizant of the boundaries she is pushing as a woman in a dance form that has traditionally seen only a few female stars. Among the women she cites as influential artistically are Barbara Duffy, whom she danced with, and Apollo show-girl and tap legend Mabel Lee, who toured with Cab Calloway and was known as the “Queen of the Soundies” for her appearances in musical films.

Dianne Walker was the first woman to really move me when I was young,” she says. “She’s the first person that really touched me emotionally with the sound of her taps. As a twelve or thirteen-year-old, I remember being moved to tears by the way she executed her dancing, but also her musicality.”

In that tradition, it seems, The Blues Project has already captivated viewers. Dorrance, though, hopes that audiences walk away with an even deeper view of how tap and its legacy and immediacy work within a greater whole.

“I hope that we can show that this musical form and dance form really are the bedrock of our culture, and that the history of both of these forms is so important and ever-present in the way we function,” she says. “And that that can serve as a point of reference for the way we need to move forward. I know that’s a lot to ask, but I don’t think it’s terribly far from what people might feel in an abstract way.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.