On a rainy November afternoon, inside a basement studio in Manhattan’s Theater District, nine tap dancers take turns improvising to a modern rendition of “Jungle Blues,” a 1920s New Orleans jazz tune. The air is muggy with the heat of moving bodies, and Michelle Dorrance, the MacArthur “genius” grant–winning choreographer, glistens with sweat. Dressed in fitted black sweatpants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Thelonious Monk, she moves to the front of the group and, as the horns pick up tempo, shimmies across from one of the male dancers, then pops up onto her toes before collapsing in on her ankles and bursting into laughter.
“Often tap dance was a vehicle to see jazz in physical form,” Dorrance, 39, explains after rehearsal, as she rolls out her muscles with a small rubber ball. “Your improvisational voice is at the nucleus of what tap is about.”
Over the past eight years, her ensemble, Dorrance Dance, has built its reputation on boundary-pushing pieces like ETM: Double Down, in which the dancers create their own score in real time, as their feet trigger different loops on soundboards, or Elemental, in which the dancers pop water balloons into troughs and tap in the water. This winter, they’re on a national tour, which will take them from New Hampshire to Texas to Arkansas to New York City Center, where they’ll perform in March for what will be the company’s biggest solo engagement to date.
Dorrance started the company in 2011 after a broken foot sidelined her from the percussive dance show STOMP. She had grown up studying tap in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—as a teen at the prestigious North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble she danced with stars like Savion Glover and Gregory Hines—and wanted to show audiences that tap isn’t just Fred Astaire in black and white but also the buried root of much of American pop culture, from Motown to break dancing.
“This is the first immigrant American art form,” Dorrance says, adding that in her company, “those we often champion are the names you don’t hear, the innovators behind the scenes who would never have had their praises sung because of the color of their skin or lack of opportunity.” Those innovators were poor migrants: West Africans forced into slavery able only to make music with their bodies after their enslavers confiscated their drums, fearing they’d be used to foment uprisings, and the Irish immigrants who worked beside them as indentured servants. The even stepping of the Irish jigs melded with syncopated African rhythms into what we know today as tap.
While national recognition like the MacArthur has made Dorrance tap’s most prominent ambassador—she’s the only hoofer to have won the prestigious grant—it’s a mantle that she’s reluctant to accept; instead, she’s quick to frame herself as “one of many,” merely an entry point into a deeper tradition. “Tap dancing belongs in every corner of the earth. It should be in the museums, it should be in the jazz clubs, it should be on the Broadway stage,” she says, eyes widening in emphasis. “If we don’t cherish and preserve and protect our art forms that are at the root of this country, then what are we doing?”