Michelle Dorrance: 'I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing'

Michelle Dorrance: 'I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing'

7:36am Sep 30, 2015

People often ask dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer. Her answer is simple: "I just knew I would never stop tap dancing," she tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "I knew it was possible because our masters die with their shoes on. ... You dance until your '90s."

Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. Each of the 24 fellows receives $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Dorrance is the founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York Troupe.

"I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me," Dorrance says. "To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there's nothing like it. ... There's something that's really organic in your footfall. There's something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal."


Interview Highlights

On when she decided to become a tap dancer

My mother was a professional ballet dancer. ... My father — who's a soccer coach — I knew I had his very tight leg musculature. So I wasn't flexible and I did not have the feet. But I immediately excelled and gravitated towards tap dancing I think, in part, because of its musicality.

So I studied ballet, played soccer, studied tap dance, studied a little bit of jazz. Did as many things as I could for as long as I could at the level that I could be at my best. But there was I point where I had to choose to focus — really, truly focus on tap. And it wasn't really a choice. I just wanted to do it all the time, every day.

On how she improvises with jazz musicians

That's truly the tradition, the great tradition of tap. ... In its roots it is improvisational. That's the way it was innovated and the way it was communicated.

On how her troupe worked creatively at St. Mark's Church-In-The-Bowery in Lower Manhattan, where they were not allowed to use metal taps [Click here to see video from that performance]

I worked there before and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wooden floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet, we used socked feet, we used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later aluminum taps.

On the associations between tap dancing and minstrel shows

It's very interesting. It's such an important part of the tradition — and I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is of course reflected in the form. And the history of the form really reflects a history of the United States in a very strong way. And if you think of a performer in a minstrel show owning some element of their artistry — even though part of what they're doing is having to belittle themselves — the one thing you can own inside of that is your innovation, your rhythm.

Your artistry lives inside of that form purely even if what your affectation is is not something that feels right in your spirit, or that is right in the world. ... I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The MacArthur Fellowships were announced today, 24 of them, and we're talking with some of this year's fellows. Each fellow recieves $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Michelle Dorrance's work is tap.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE PIECE, "SOUND SPACE")

SIEGEL: Michelle Dorrance is a dancer and choreographer. This is from her piece "Sound Space." And she joins us from New York. Welcome and congratulation.

MICHELLE DORRANCE: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Through the magic of radio, we've just been able to demonstrate something about your approach to tap, that it's as much to be heard as to be seen. Is that right?

DORRANCE: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Describe that a bit.

DORRANCE: I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me. To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there's nothing like it. There's nothing else like it. You're equally responsible for your movement as you are for your sonic communication. And I don't know. There's something that's really organic in your footfall. There's something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.

SIEGEL: That clip from "Sound Space," by the way, was of a performance at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in the lower Manhattan where, as I understand it, no metal taps are allowed on the floor. So you could've had a platform built and had the dancers work, and that - but that wasn't what you did. What did you do?

DORRANCE: I worked there before, and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wood floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided, no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet. We used socked feet. We used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later, aluminum taps.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAP DANCING)

DORRANCE: So exploring that and exploring those ideas in that space where you can hear something like this - me rubbing my hands together 50 feet away - that's exciting.

SIEGEL: It occurs to me. I believe St. Mark's in-the-Bowery is where the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, as it was, Peter Stuyvesant, is buried.

DORRANCE: Yeah. I think that's true - in the cemetery there.

SIEGEL: Since he famously had a peg leg, I assume...

DORRANCE: I didn't know that - like Peg Leg Bates the tap dancer.

SIEGEL: I think Peter Stuyvesant had the peg leg some centuries before Peg Leg Bates.

DORRANCE: (Laughter). I know, of course.

SIEGEL: So I think he would've generated some sound himself.

DORRANCE: (Laughter). That's awesome. That's so great to think about that as a precedent.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). You choreographed a piece called "The Blues Project."

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE PIECE, "THE BLUES PROJECT")

TOSHI REAGON: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, yeah, oh, oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: We can hear you tap dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE PIECE, "THE BLUES PROJECT")

REAGON: (Singing) It's a planet of resistance. It's a whirling flame of choice.

SIEGEL: And the person who's performing here, who's singing, is Toshi Reagon. And the song she's singing, "Misty Mountain," it actually - it was a surprise to you when she sang that.

DORRANCE: It was a surprise to me. Every single night inside of that show, she'll surprise me with a different song for my solo.

SIEGEL: So you're - I mean, in that case, you're not just both a dancer and a musician, but you're a dancer and an improvisational jazz musician at the same time.

DORRANCE: Exactly. Well, and that's truly the tradition - the great tradition of tap. In its roots, it is improvisational. That's the way it was innovated and the way it, you know, was communicated.

SIEGEL: What do I do with all the associations I have of tap dancing with minstrel shows and with, well, certainly not a very high form of entertainment?

DORRANCE: I - it's very interesting. It's such an important part of the tradition. And I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is, of course, reflected in the form. So I don't know. I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. You know, it is born of some of the most oppressed people. Our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

SIEGEL: Michelle Dorrance, once again, congratulations on winning the MacArthur Fellowship this year, and thanks for talking with us.

DORRANCE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE PIECE, "THE BLUES PROJECT")

REAGON: (Singing) Is it up the misty mountain where wild flowers blind the ground - ha? Is it down by the rushing river where force wears those boulders down? Is it underneath my covers? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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