Known as one of the most sought-after tap dancers of her generation, Broadway Dance Center’s Michelle Dorrance has undoubtedly left her mark on the world of dance. When she’s not traveling the world teaching and choreographing, you can find her on stage inspiring others with her brilliant performances. Michelle’s impressive resume includes four years with the Off-Broadway show STOMP, performances with the most notable tap companies in the world, and countless festivals.
Sharing the stage with dancers such as Sam Weber and Dianne Walker, Michelle is known for her awe-inspiring, unique routines. As the winner of the 2011 Bessie Award and the 2012 Princess Grace Award, this talented dancer most recently received the 2013 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. Taking a break from her busy schedule, Michelle sat down with us to answer some questions about the Pillow Festival and what advice she shares with her students.
Can you tell us a little bit about winning the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award?
What I can say is that it seemed absurd to me that I was going to get it. I told Ella Baff, the executive and artistic director, “are you sure there isn’t someone else you want to give this to?” Ella is a champion for supporting a vision that encourages and promotes change in our culture. She is making sure that tap dance is a part of an institution like Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and supporting my vision for what I what to do with it. Clearly, she can acknowledge famous outstanding choreographers. For me it’s more of an emerging artist award.
You had put together a show with the award money. What was the process like?
I have always had a huge passion for blues music and its origins. It has influenced me as an artist and a dancer for a really long time. I think tap and the blues have very similar origins and similar stories racially, socially and politically. I wanted to create a piece of work that was entirely blues based. I had worked with a musician, Toshi Reagon, in the past. She has a huge range musically and can take it in any direction. I knew she would bring the same approach to blues that I bring to tap, so I knew she’d be the perfect person to write my music. She was going to bring not just the traditional country blues, but also a more Led Zeppelin feeling. I wanted to explore that musically and I knew that we could create some emotional and political concepts together. We played on a lot of characters, emotions and abstract narrative that can bring you a feeling of different political and social ideas. Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards came on as choreographers with me. It was a godsend to be able to collaborate with some of my favorite artists and move forward with this idea I’ve had.
The list of artists who have won the Pillow Dance Award include Alonzo King, Annie P. Parson and Crystal Pite. Are there any similarities or influences these artists have had on your dancing?
Some of those people were revolutionaries and were willing to take risks in times when their names weren’t so well known. If anything they inspire me to push further. I can relate to Kyle Abraham because we’re of the same generation. I love the messages and the content that he is bringing to the table, on top of the incredible movement. I am so humble to be in the company of such giants.
What was your dance training like growing up?
My mother was a professional ballet dancer who opened up her own dance school. Being that my classes were all free, I studied every style of dance at first, but when I started taking tap it became my love immediately. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t in love with it. It came to define me, and I felt like it was who I was. It was a powerful feeling and it came much more natural to me than anything I had ever done. I feel blessed to have had my mother as a teacher. She always encouraged me and I learned a lot from her choreography. I had another incredible teacher, Gene Medler, who had started seeking out the tap community when I was young. He opened up the tap world to not only me, but also many dancers in North Carolina where I was born. We were exposed to all of the legendary hoofers and professional choreographers, and got the chance to attend some of the first tap festivals. I couldn’t have asked for a better training experience.
You’ve performed in so many incredible shows with such talented artists. What was your most memorable performance experience?
That’s impossible to answer. I at least have to give you three performances! The three shows that I feel I learned a tremendous amount from are, Imagine Tap! choreographed by Derick K. Grant, STOMP and Jason Smith’s critically acclaimed Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute To Charlie Parker. Performing them is memorable in the lessons you learn along the way, and how it demands more from you as a performer.
You teach students all around the world. What is your advice for students who want to pursue a career in tap?
Definitely do it! First piece of advice I have is what I would tell any dancer or athlete. Practice hard and practice smart. Don’t just practice what you’re good at. Have a passionate work ethic, stay humble and never give up. Those seem to be all generic pieces of advice, but they are important. For tap specifically, make sure that you’re approaching the art form with integrity and know your history. Know the music that has influenced tap, and the tap that has influenced history. Know the styles that have influenced tap, and the styles that tap has influenced. I think that tap is so unique. You are a musician and a dancer and you are responsible for the music that is coming from your feet. Also, remember that it is an art form because too many people try to lump it into just a form of entertainment.
Do you encourage your students to take other styles of dance?
Yes, you have to know your body, that’s huge! Tap predates all other American street styles and influenced House, Lindy Hop, Boogie, etc. There are so many different movements along the way inside of tap. You can learn more about yourself physically when you push yourself to do other styles. It gives you a chance to discover why you make certain choices in your tap dancing.
You founded Dorrance Dance in early 2011. What was your vision behind the company?
What I wanted to do was to honor tap’s tradition, incredible legacy and the art form, while pushing it and exploring it rhythmically, aesthetically and conceptually. I never want to abandon its roots, and at the core of what I am, it’s impossible. I know a lot of people who try to take risks and push something in a new direction and sometimes they lose the core of what it is. That I can say will never happen. I had these incredible dancers and too many ideas that excited me. I had too many concepts in which I wanted to kind of show off. I love being able to use tap dancers that have other forms in their bag because it allows you to explore more. For my company it happens organically.
What do you look for in a dancer?
I look for incredibly hard working, inspiring dancers who practice with performance integrity. There is a dancer that I work with that always stands out to me in rehearsals. This guy is never less than full out in rehearsal and everyone should practice like that. I have never once had to ask him to step it up. I also look for strong improvisers as well as soloists who are interested in creating group energy, and being a part of whatever my vision is choreographically. I am inspired to work with a dancer who has a unique personality and that is very different. I don’t want a specific body type. I like the grittiness and the rawness of a bunch of unique dancers, characters and personalities working together. They might have to all do the same thing, but none of them are going to look the same. I think it’s very powerful as dance and theatre to be moved by a group of diverse people.
How can dancers become a part of Dorrance Dance?
I don’t have actual auditions for the company, but my advice would be to come to class! I have literally watched students grow in class and saw them attain a new skill set and new level. Whenever you can be connected to someone’s learning process and feel their connection in a room, that’s the first thing to lead you to want to work with them. In a classroom setting you get to know who someone is. People always ask me if there’s a certain skill that they need to know. I want someone with his or her own unique style; I don’t want a bunch of me’s running around!
How would you say that your choreography differs from other tap choreography?
That’s hard for me to say. I don’t know, I think I just manifest my influences a little differently than others. I have friends who are choreographers, but what comes out of us is very different. With any given choreography, the collections of influences that go into a piece are what make a difference. Lets say one thing that will influence it is that my dancer is 6 foot 8, another thing is a cartoon, and another thing is a really sad song that I used to listen to in high school.