Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance is among the new wave of tappers smashing the stereotypes of men in dark suits and Broadway babes in tights and heels. On stage, she’s a tomboy in a skirt, her legs bare, her long brown hair swinging, her toothy grin untamed, and she is racking up acclaim and awards with the virtuoso confidence of a Serena Williams at Wimbledon. She’s won a Bessie Award (the Oscars of dance), was the first tap choreographer to receive an award from the Princess Grace Foundation and the first to win the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, joining artists such as the legendary Merce Cunningham.
Dorrance will close the second mixed bill in Off the EDGE, a much-anticipated celebration of dance taking place through February 1 at the Rialto Center for the Arts and sites across the city. Billed as a “biennial dance immersion,” Off the EDGE this year showcases some of the best and most innovative dance artists from London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Chicago and Atlanta, representing contemporary dance, hip-hop and ballet. Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance company, Dance Heginbotham and the much-loved Hubbard Street Dance are among them. Many of the works feature live music. There will be free dance experiences at the Healy Building downtown and Kennesaw State University (a co-presenter), and flash mobs with Atlanta’s CORE Performance Company. (See full listing at the end of this article and check our Facebook page for flash mob updates).
Dorrance has appeared in Atlanta once before, in the cast of the hit show Stomp at the Fox Theatre. This time, her performance will be more intimate: just her and vocalist Aaron Marcellus, an Atlanta native and American Idol favorite. Together they will perform “Oh, Yes It Will,” a 15-minute duet they’ve performed only once before, at last year’s Jacob’s Pillow gala.
Marcellus will perform songs from the 1930s, ’60s and ’70s, including the 1964 Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “We close with Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’,’” Dorrance says. “I think it’s a beautiful, political song. It isn’t necessarily related to [President] Obama, but it touches on a lot of what’s happening politically now. What we are still struggling to accomplish.” Dorrance is talking via Skype. She’s sitting in a Tokyo hotel room, eating edamame and chicken before heading out to teach a workshop. She talks about the Trayvon Martin verdict. “We’ve come a long way, but I think the American people still have some growing up to do.”
If it seems strange for a tap dancer to make a political statement, Dorrance reminds us that tap began as a revolutionary form of entertainment that united the African American slave community with Irish indentured servants way before, she says, “America’s democracy was really realized. They turned a painful experience into a very joyful expression.”
But politics aside, Dorrance plans to have fun on the Rialto stage this week. She will improvise the entire piece. “I like to have a structure,” she says, explaining that Marcellus sings the song selections the same way at each performance. “But inside that I also like the freedom to explore what the energy feels like in the room, what the audience is like, what I am feeling. It’s a nice freedom.”
In both tap and jazz “you have phrases, either musical or rhythmic, that you come back to,” Dorrance says. She calls this mix of improvisation and set phrases “improvography,” a term coined by tap great Gregory Hines to describe improvisation that includes “moments and grooves” that the performer returns to, like variations on a theme. The piece will close with Marcellus’ friends and family coming on stage for a rousing a capella finale.
“‘Change Is Gonna Come’ is the strongest piece that Aaron and I have done together and I think Atlanta will appreciate it culturally,” Dorrance says. “Artistically it lets us explore and emote and it involves things we care about. And we will play with it a little bit on the night, depending upon how we feel.”
Dorrance, 34, and Marcellus, 29, met in New York several years ago. They are each other’s biggest fans. He takes her tap classes, she takes his singing classes. “He is way ahead with his tap,” Dorrance says, “further than I am with my singing.” They tease each other about doing a song and dance routine together some day.
It could happen. Music is a driving force for Dorrance. Her taste is wide ranging, from slide guitar to trumpet and everything in between. As a teen, she created a solo to the Beastie Boys’ “Flute Loop.”
Dorrance grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a soccer coach father and a mother who owned a ballet school in Chapel Hill. At eight, she joined the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and performed at tap festivals across the United States and internationally. After graduating from New York University’s Gallatin School, her stunning virtuosity and quirky style got her gigs with pretty much every tap ensemble that existed at the time. She now has her own company, Dorrance Dance / New York.
She credits a long list of tap teachers, peers and ancestors for her success, but she also draws from contemporary dance, hip-hop, house dance and ballet. Tap innovator Savion Glover, however, looms large as a mentor. “I wouldn’t be dancing the way I am without Savion,” she says. “I was so influenced by him through my teens and early 20s.”
Dorrance gave three performances in Tokyo this month, each in houses of 2,000 seats or more. It was one of several international engagements she’s had in the last few years. Japanese tap dancers, she says, are just as educated as their American peers. “Japanese audiences are huge fans of American jazz music and tap, but the soil that nurtured these great art forms is right here in the South,” she says. She promises an opportunity to celebrate that on February 1, to show Atlanta audiences how thrilling tap can be.
Off the EDGE Performance Schedule:
Friday, January 31
Dance Heginbotham ▪ New York
Wayne McGregor, Random Dance ▪ London
Atlanta Ballet, Wabi Sabi
Compagnie Käfig ▪ France
Saturday, February 1
Hubbard Street Dance ▪ Chicago
Wayne McGregor, Random Dance
Kennesaw State University Dance Department
Michelle Dorrance and Aaron Marcellus