When the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival commissioned a new work from internationally known tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance last year, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. Now the fruit of that labor, THE BLUES PROJECT, comes to her native Chapel Hill.
Carolina Performing Arts presents the show as part of its 10th-season celebration, tying into artistic director Emil Kang's wide-ranging interest in American roots music. The quick feet of Dorrance and her star-studded company, Dorrance Dance, will beat out the music in Memorial Hall this week.
"This is like a dream!" Dorrance says by phone. "I just love coming home anyway—and coming home to dance in Memorial Hall. Getting to know Emil has been wonderful and being in the season is truly an honor." She can add that honor to her Bessie, her Princess Grace Award and her Jacob's Pillow Dance Award.
Dorrance, now a resident of New York City, created The Blues Project with other tappers in collaboration with a renowned musician, the daughter of a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock's Bernice Johnson Reagon.
"I had a dream of collaborating with Toshi Reagon—I'd been a fan since I was 17," Dorrance says. Reagon had invited Dorrance to dance in her history of the blues revue, and in return, Dorrance invited Reagon to make the music for The Blues Project. Reagon and her band, BIGLovely, perform in the show.
"People still come up to me after shows and say, 'Oh, I get it—tap dance is music,'" Dorrance says, adding drily, "I think a lot of people are not as familiar with the history of the blues and of tap dance as they could be."
Michelle Dorrance is the daughter of M'Liss Dorrance, co-founder of The Ballet School of Chapel Hill, and Anson Dorrance, the longtime UNC women's soccer coach. "We say I'm a great cross between my parents," she laughs. "I was bound to do something with my feet."
She played soccer from an early age and took every class at The Ballet School. Although she liked it all and continued to play soccer through college at NYU, it was clear that she didn't have the makings of a soccer star or a ballet dancer, for all her willowy height.
"I have flat feet and am not terribly flexible," she says. "I have quick feet but can't run fast. But I'm musical, and tap is a very musical form that I loved immediately. I'll die with my tap shoes on."
This child of talented parents was also a child of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, where teacher and mentor Gene Medler opened her eyes to the history of the art form—what those who live it call "tap lineage."
"Gene studied with [Charles 'Honi' Coles] and brought that information back," Dorrance says, "and then took us to the next festival."
Like all dance forms, tap dances are passed from body to body. In the '90s, dancers who'd learned from "the great hoofers" began to organize festival-workshops to pass on the tradition, and passionate artists like Dorrance soaked it into their bones.
Now her mouth works almost as fast as her feet when she gets on the subject of tap history, and she returns annually to the NCYTE camp to share her knowledge and skills.
"It's the first street form of dance—a blending of the Irish and the African," Dorrance says of tap. "Blues and tap dance come from our country's most oppressed people, and the arts become a form of transcendence. We are historians—we have to be—though we are not telling a history in the show, but evoking a history, moving through hardship to a place of joy."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hometown hoofer"