Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill native brings tap dancing to the masses

More than 40 dancers crowded outside a dance studio Friday afternoon waiting for an opportunity to improve their ripple, shuffle and wings.

“She is so amazing,” said Caroline Brodie, 10, of Durham.

She is Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer, choreographer and 2015 MacArthur Foundation fellow who is helping to reinvigorate tap dancing.

The dancers at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill were waiting to take her 90-minute beginner-intermediate class as part of the N.C. Rhythm Tap Festival, running through Sunday.

Dorrance, a 36-year-old Chapel Hill native, started each move with a slow count: One. Two. Three. Four.

She progressed to a faster count: one-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four.

And then a rapid-fire “one-ee-anda-two-ee-anda-three-ee-anda-four-ee!”

Dorrance stamped out the rhythm. The students followed as best they could, showing that making music with your feet isn’t as easy as she makes it look.

The class was one of six Dorrance would be teaching during the festival, which includes three days of workshops and a sold-out performance Saturday with Dorrance and other renowned dancers such as Elizabeth Burke and Derick Grant.

Gene Medler started the festival about 16 years ago as part of an effort to reinvigorate the tap dance art form and help it make some money.

Tap grew out of slavery and plantation life, Medler said. When slaves were forbidden from using drums, they turned to other percussive options, such as washtubs, spoons and their own bodies.

“Rhythm tap dancing directly parallels with the growth of jazz,” said Medler, 67.

But the art form faded as popular music shifted from swing jazz to bepop and rock ’n’ roll, Medler said. Then there was television, which required artists to constantly come up with new material, and Agnes de Mille’s choreography for the hit Broadway musical “Oklahoma,” which ushered in contemporary dance.

But trends shifted again, Medler said, as swing jazz made a comeback, and performers Gregory Hines and Savion Glover re-invigorated the art form with a funk beat.

“(Hines) brought it to the table before anyone,” Dorrance said. “Savion brought it to the next level. It was Savion’s rhythmic sensibility that infected my generation. It is hard to say anyone from my generation and under is not influenced by Savion – and therefore Gregory, because of that.”


Dorrance, the daughter of UNC soccer coach Anson Dorrance and dancer M’Liss Dorrance, started taking lessons at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, which her mother founded, almost as soon as she could walk.

Medler started working with Dorrance when she was 7 years old.

“I lucked out,” Dorrance said. “I was young and good, but if I had been 16 or 17 it would have been so different. ... We traveled with Gene to I think the second-ever St. Louis Tap Festival.”

Medler said he couldn’t tell right away that his student would become a dancer and choreographer featured across the world.

“In the first couple of years, she was just a noodle,” Medler said. But Dorrance grew daily, he said, determined to be a dancer.

“Michelle is the future of tap dancing unfolding in front of us,” he said. “She has a joy and intensity on stage that is just unparalleled.”

MacArthur grant

Dorrance left Chapel Hill for New York in the 1990s. She toured with the off-Broadway production of “Stomp,” for four years before she founded Dorrance Dance in New York.

In September 2015 Dorrance was named a MacArthur fellow, which includes a $625,00 grant over the next five years.

“Dorrance’s choreographic sense of tap as a musical and visual expression is bringing it to entirely new contexts and enhancing the appreciation of tap as an innovative, serious, and evolving art form,” her MacArthur biography states.

Dorrance is using her grant funding to pay off debt, and hopes to become one of the few dance companies in the nation to give dancers a salary and health benefits.

When she walked into the Chapel Hill dance studio Friday she showed no airs that might come with such accomplishments and praise. Her goal for the weekend, she said, was reconnecting and working with students.

“It’s also a group of real tap lovers,” she said. “Whether they are beginners or advanced professional students, the beginners are almost more hardcore than the advanced students. ”

During the class, she asked students to relax. She showed them how to swing their legs and feet into the tap and make just the right tone. And she made them promise to try their best even if they are terrible.

“It was fun and challenging,” said Zubin Narayan, 10 of Chapel Hill. “But not so challenging that I get extremely frustrated.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges