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Pushing the Boundaries of Tap

Date: Sep 20, 2013


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There are certain hallmarks of autumn in New York: hot lattes replacing iced coffee, the crisp autumnal smell reminiscent of schoolrooms bristling with possibility-and the lineup at Fall for Dance.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary and running from September 25-October 5 at New York City Center, the yearly festival continues to maintain a mission of diversity in geographical offerings, with choices from New York City stalwarts like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the recently re-formed Dance Theatre of Harlem programmed alongside far-flung troupes like Dance Brazil, Britain's HeadSpace Dance, and the Netherlands' Introdans.

Fall for Dance also includes a wide swath of genres, from contemporary and flamenco to classical Indian dance and tap. This year, Michelle Dorrance, tap performer and founder of Dorrance Dance, steps up to represent the legacy of this percussive American art form.

With long limbs and an angelic face that sometimes mischievously responds to the laser-fire taps about to fly forth from her feet, Dorrance has risen as a young legend and articulate authority on the tap scene. Her fierce attack is cushioned by a depth of movement, emotion, and stylistic range, and she is well-known for integrating contemporary, hip-hop and body percussion, as well as narrative and character into her work.

Dorrance is a master at blending all of these modern elements in a fluid process while still respecting the traditional roots of tap. So what isn't she good at? Labels, it turns out: "I try not to separate the types of tap dance between 'hoofing,' 'Broadway tap,' and 'rhythm tap' and which type of tapper I am within those terms," she says. "You might see theatrical movement and narrative from me, but there's always a focus on clarity, rhythm, and sound. I love hip-hop, I love house, I love modern dance. But even more, I like re-appropriating those influences in a broad way."

Her choreography and dancemaking process also reflect this mindset of amalgamation. "There might be something I want to do rhythmically, or a groove I'm interested in pursuing," she says. "Other times I'm interested in a piece of music, specific characters, or a visual manifestation of percussion. Unlike many other choreographers, instead of thinking about movement first, I think about rhythm first, about the music coming out of my feet."

Now, Dorrance will be exploring this "movement music" as she transforms "SOUNDspace"---a site-specific, evening-length piece she created last January at St. Mark's Church---into a 15-minute version for the proscenium stage. "Originally, the piece had 13 dancers, including a contemporary and hip-hop dancer, and one musician," she says. "I was fascinated by the acoustics of that grand space. I played with different textures, since we weren't allowed to dance on the wood floor. So then, I mixed in bare feet, sand boxes, leather-soled tap shoes, and even handmade wood taps like dancers used in Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's day. The sound within that monstrous space, along with the historical presence of the church and the tap legacy shaped the outcome."

Molding a new incarnation for a standard proscenium stage requires facets of Dorrance's artistry that weren't used in the sprawling church atmosphere. "I'm enraptured by how I can isolate the space with light and small movements," she says. "So now, leg and feet manipulations are front and center."

Dorrance is also focusing on allowing the escalating groove of the music to reach the City Center audience. "Everyone can connect with the way a percussive score grows," she says.

The technical issues with the move have been challenging: Since most other performances in the festival require a Marley floor (a slick, black surface that doesn't allow for tapping), Dorrance is hauling in a small wooden panel instead of working with a non-tap surface as she did at the Church. She says working on such a limited floor is "forcing me to make interesting choices. I'm having to be inventive with moving dancers around each other in more unique patterns and formations."

While Dorrance Dance is the only tap group featured this year, Dorrance herself stands in firm support of adding more tappers to the festival. "There's a lot of incredible technical innovation happening right now in tap specifically," she says. "Tappers are doing cutting edge, risky things that are pushing the boundaries of our artform. We're taking traditional steps and inverting them, expanding the technique and athleticism. It's thrilling to see what physical bodies are capable of, and as a tapper, it's not just what's developing in movement, but it's a musical possibility, too."


Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in New York City

Photo of Dorrance Dance performers by Matthew Murphy