Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance has been earning acclaim and awards for years, but none bigger than the one announced Tuesday. Dorrance, who grew up in Chapel Hill, is one of 24 new fellows of the MacArthur Foundation – good for a $625,000 grant over the next five years.
“I’ve got to hang on until next year, keep my credit-card payments up,” Dorrance said Monday. “And then all my debt will just go away. I don’t even know what I’ll do! Except cancel all six credit cards. But I’m almost beside myself when I think about it.”
Now 36, Dorrance grew up dancing at the school run by her mother, ballet dancer M’Liss Dorrance (her father is Anson Dorrance, coach of the UNC-Chapel Hill women’s soccer team). By age 15, Dorrance was attracting press plaudits from The News & Observer, which included her in a 1995 “Star Watch” story about talented locals including painter Beverly McIver, actress Lauren Kennedy and musicians Ben Folds and Ryan Adams.
Since leaving Chapel Hill for New York in the late 1990s, Dorrance has danced all over the world, including a four-year stint in the percussion show “Stomp.” She has performed at the Cannes Film Festival and the 2002 Winter Olympics, but she still finds time to come back to Chapel Hill to dance on a regular basis.
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Dorrance won a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award two years ago, a prestigious honor that includes dance world giants Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham among its previous winners. Still, not much can compare to a MacArthur, an award that one does not apply for but is selected for in a highly secretive process.
The MacArthur Foundation gives its awards – with no strings attached – “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Winners are informed through an out-of-the-blue phone call. This year’s MacArthur class includes authors, scientists, artists and poets. Dorrance got the big news a few weeks back after a series of missed phone calls that were starting to alarm her.
“There was a strange and kind of scary voicemail: ‘I have an urgent matter to speak to you about,’ ” she recalled. “Oh my gosh, is this the bank? Or a scam? Or the mother of a young tap dancer who wants me to write her kid a competition solo? Finally we connected, and they asked, ‘Are you somewhere where you can receive confidential information?’ Oh. My. Gosh. I told her I was on a subway platform, and I heard what sounded like a roomful of people laughing. ‘I think that will work,’ she said, and that’s where they told me.”