Genius Grant winner Michelle Dorrance feels the pressure, but she’s ready to dance at home

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, well-known 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.


What: Dorrance Dance performs “Myelination,” “Jungle Blues” and “Three to One” as part of the Carolina Performing Arts series

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and 13

Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, UNC

Tickets: $27 and up

Info: carolinaperformingarts.org or 919-843-3333

Discussion: Free pre-show discussion on the science behind “Myelination,” Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at UNC’s Gerrard Hall with Sarah Catherine Vick, UNC microbiology and immunology Ph.D. student, and Amanda Graham, Carolina Performing Arts associate director of engagement.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer