By Danielle Purifoy
When I met Michelle Dorrance twenty years ago, she was already one of the best technical tap dancers I’d ever seen, and an inspiration to all her fellow members of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. She was only 15 then, and it was difficult for me to imagine that she could become a better dancer. The Blues Project is tangible, rock-out worthy proof that she did. The big difference between then and now?besides the Jacob?s Pillow Award?is that she has perfected her storytelling.
The thing to know about tap is that it is more than one art form, at once dance, music, and storytelling. Tap dancers use their feet to accompany other instruments or for solo percussion, and their bodies move that music through space and time, often portraying a particular dance tradition, from the upright rigidity of Irish step dance to the looser, more fluid rhythms of West African dance. Just this combination of music and movement in one body has an aesthetic appeal that is sufficient for fair tap dancing or even pretty good tap dancing.
But the best of tap, as Michelle and I first learned from our teacher Gene Medler, uses the music and the dance as vehicles to tell a story, to reveal to the audience something more subtle than dazzling technical prowess. The best of tap doesn’t just have something to show?it always has something to say. When it’s done well, the relationship between the dancers and the audience is transformed, and like friends, they lean in and share the unfolding narrative together.
What better medium for storytelling than the blues? Dressed in part like actors in a folksy play, Dorrance Dance pays homage to this rich American music in The Blues Project, embodying its sound and the range of its emotions with expert technique, grace, and soul-inspiring verve. With an original score composed and performed by Toshi Reagon, and the company of other tap greats and co-choreographers Dormeisha Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant, this show certainly offers the best of tap, and what is?at least for now?the best of Michelle Dorrance.
Danielle Purifoy is a lawyer currently pursuing a Ph.D in environmental policy at Duke University. She is an alumnus of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, based in Chapel Hill and under the artistic leadership of Gene Medler.