Dor­rance feels the pres­sure, but she’s ready to dance

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY LINDA HAAC

It’s been three years since tap dancer ex­traor­di­naire Michelle Dor­rance re­ceived the MacArthur Fel­low­ship, also known as a Ge­nius Grant. And while the award comes with a hefty prize of $625,000 — with no strings at­tached — it also comes with a whirl­wind of op­por­tu­ni­ties and pres­sures.

Life in New York City now, with in­creased na­tional at­ten­tion and a grow­ing tap com­pany, is “a lit­tle crazy here and there,” she said in a phone in­ter­view this week.

“But ev­ery­thing’s un­der con­trol, I hope,” she added.

Dor­rance, a 39-year-old Chapel Hill na­tive, will take a pause from the frenzy to re­turn home with her com­pany, Dor­rance Dance. They will per­form Mon­day, Nov. 12, and Tues­day, Nov. 13, as part of UNC’s Carolina Per­form­ing Arts se­ries at Me­mo­rial Hall. The com­pany will present three works, in­clud­ing a piece called “Myeli­na­tion,” based on a neu­ro­log­i­cal process that in­su­lates nerves.

“The ti­tle is very aca­demic and sci­en­tific,” Dor­rance said.

She last per­formed in the Tri­an­gle this sum­mer for the Amer­i­can Dance Fes­ti­val in Durham. She was one of five dancers to show­case a solo she chore­ographed for her­self as part of the “Won­drous Women” show.

With “Myle­na­tion,” she said that she chore­ographed the piece to probe var­i­ous be­hav­iors, prac­tices and skills, in­ves­ti­gat­ing how they lead us to be­come who we are, what path­ways we fol­low go­ing for­ward.

She said her fa­ther, well­known UNC women’s soc­cer coach An­son Dor­rance, used to tell her: “You are how you spend your time.” What be­hav­iors you de­velop, kind­ness for ex­am­ple, is im­por­tant, she said.

“Es­pe­cially in our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate,” she said.

Michelle Dor­rance has seen a great deal of me­dia ex­po­sure lately, in­clud­ing from The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post, thanks to her work with the Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre (ABT). That com­pany pre­sented her piece “Dream within a Dream (de­ferred)” dur­ing the New York fall sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter with bal­let dancers stomp­ing and slid­ing on point shoes and clap­ping their hands.

Com­bin­ing bal­let and tap is fraught, but Dor­rance was will­ing to try it. She said dancers stepped out of their com­fort zones.

“They re­ally con­tin­ued to grow as it was be­ing per­formed,” she said. “They were a per­cus­sive mu­si­cal score them­selves.”

As a chore­og­ra­pher, Dor­rance will tell you she’s cre­at­ing mu­sic with her feet. Her fo­cus is rhythm tap.

She’s quick to say how much she owes her early teacher and men­tor, Gene Medler, of the Bal­let School of Chapel Hill, a

dance stu­dio be­gun by her mother, bal­let teacher M’Liss Dor­rance. As for Dor­rance’s early per­form­ing ca­reer, it was with Medler’s in­ter­na­tion­ally known North Carolina Youth Tap En­sem­ble (NCYTE).

This De­cem­ber, her com­pany will per­form for the first time at the Brook­lyn Academy of Mu­sic, the trend-set­ting venue with a site-spe­cific work chore­ographed by Dor­rance and Ni­cholas Van Young. Not quite two years ago, the two at­tracted at­ten­tion with their rhythm work, the “Ro­tunda Project,” for the Guggen­heim Mu­seum’s ar­chi­tec­turally sig­nif­i­cant ramp in Man­hat­tan.

While jug­gling these new works and venues, she also is tak­ing on the de­mands that come with win­ning a Ge­nius Grant. Her fo­cus has al­ways been her dancers, she said, and she soon felt like she was drown­ing with non-danc­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“Since the MacArthur specif­i­cally, I def­i­nitely have had to nav­i­gate a lot more ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks,” she said.

When she won the award, she quickly saw how it af­fected her com­pany.

“When I got it, there wasn’t a struc­ture that was sus­tain­able,” she said. “I didn’t think I was start­ing a busi­ness. I couldn’t get emails re­turned. The com­pany, even be­fore the MacArthur, was grow­ing even faster than I could man­age. I was so naïve.”

Dor­rance Dance needed a bet­ter struc­ture for its long-term sur­vival, she said, and a friend, An­gelina Bur­nett, res­cued Dor­rance, telling her to think of her next steps as re­build­ing a bike while rid­ing it. Bur­nett con­ducted an in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal au­dit and de­vel­oped a strate­gic plan. She helped with fund­ing. The com­pany soon had a pro­duc­tion man­ager work­ing also as au­dio man­ager, not an easy hire, and a new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Dor­rance said. “None of this is pos­si­ble with­out the help. I am re­ally, re­ally grate­ful.”

Still, she said, “There are days that I don’t put my tap shoes on.”

“The les­son I’ve learned: I’m the only one that can say, ‘no,’” she said. “I re­al­ize the skill set I need is time man­age­ment.”

Her ul­ti­mate goal is to broaden tap’s au­di­ence and to ed­u­cate them about the art that she has made her ca­reer.

It is re­ward­ing to watch her dancers grow and per­form on stage, she said. She loves lis­ten­ing to their sound, the clar­ity of it, the voices and tone of mu­sic that their feet make.

De­spite her “ge­nius” award, Dor­rance said, she doesn’t feel she’s ar­rived as a tap dancer, though that na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion gives Dor­rance plenty of praise.

“I have a lot of work to do as a dancer, a hoofer, a tech­ni­cian,” she said.

Turn­ing 40 next year, the tap­per plans to keep on danc­ing.

“We all want to die with our shoes on,” she said.


Tap chore­og­ra­pher Michelle Dor­rance, cen­ter, re­hearses with Amer­i­can Bal­let The­ater dancers for her work “Dream within a Dream (de­ferred),” in New York in Septem­ber. As a chore­og­ra­pher, Dor­rance says she’s cre­at­ing mu­sic with her feet. Her fo­cus is rhythm tap.


Dor­rance, a Chapel Hill na­tive, re­turns home with her dance com­pany for two shows this week at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Cour­tesy of Matthew Mur­phy

Michelle Dor­rance re­ceived the MacArthur Fel­low­ship, also known as a Ge­nius Grant, in 2015. The award comes with a hefty prize of $625,000 – with no strings at­tached.

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