Between the COVID-19 pandemic and this summer’s social protest movement, 2020 has been challenging for the live performer. Michelle Dorrance is a world-renowned tap dancer who is using this time of cancellations and remote performances to contemplate new ways to use her art to incite and inspire.
Dorrance is a native of Chapel Hill, the daughter of ballet dancer M’Liss Dorrance and University of North Carolina head women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance. As a child, she studied at the school her mother founded, the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, under Gene Medler, founder and director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. There she learned all about the African origins of percussive dance and the debt tap owes to Black American innovators. This history continues to inform her work, especially in 2020, when Black art is being highlighted to amplify how much Black lives matter.
Host Anita Rao talks to Dorrance about her childhood in Chapel Hill; her school Dorrance Dance and its mission to educate and provide opportunities for dancers in a medium that is still marginalized; and the role live performers can play in social protest.
Dorrance credits her parents for instilling in her the sense of commitment to achievement that has yielded her career success. Though she knew early on that ballet would not be her medium and that soccer would only be a recreational sport for her, she was able to dedicate herself to learning the craft of tap dance because of her parents’ example. “Because both of my parents were incredibly successful in their forums, I learned early on what it took to be that successful,” she notes. “My father, in the 80s and into the early 90s, was coaching the US Women's national team on top of coaching the men and the women at North Carolina. ... I think really, it's just discipline that you have to have in order to achieve anything. So of course, I learned a tremendous amount of that from both of them.”
She also credits her tap dance instructor and mentor Gene Medler for teaching her not only the techniques of tap but its deeply segregated history. As part of the tap troupe Medler founded, Dorrance met many of the living legends of the craft as a kid, including Jimmy Slyde, Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates and Charles “Honi” Coles. Though those men’s names may be known among those familiar with tap, Dorrance says Black female dance legends are far lesser known.
“We also really don't know a lot of the women. One of the women that I met during this time was Jeni LeGon. She was signed to MGM and she was an unbelievable black female soloist, which is almost unheard of at the time,” says Dorrance. She goes on to list several other unsung Black women heroes of the genre. “Alice Whitman was known to be one of the greatest tap dancers ever. Every man will attest to this, almost begrudgingly. And all we have about the Whitman Sisters are writings.”
She says that the artistry of women innovators was not captured often enough on film. “It's one of those things where you're digging into history books, written largely by white men, and the history of tap dance is peppered with a handful of women but mostly champions men. It’s devastating. There are so many women that have been educators, who have educated an entire generation of dancers in my generation and the generations under myself. This is a tradition that is carried by really brilliant women of color whose names are very often not spoken.”
Dorrance intends to use her company, Dorrance Dance, to raise the profile of a new generation of dancers from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It is work she is actively considering, even as the pandemic continues to make large public gatherings for live performances difficult. “Does that mean touring with the big truck that unfolds into a stage outside in parking lots or huge grassy areas? Do we need to reinvent the idea of sharing what we do in a unique way? Yeah, I think so.”