This story features “Dorrance Dance” presented by Strathmore. Learn more about this performance and get tix on the event page here.
Collaboration is key in Dorrance Dance’s “ETM: Double Down,” a unique combination of tap dance and technology to be performed at the Music Center at Strathmore on the evening of Friday, March 2. ETM is an acronym for Electronic Tap Music.
Michelle Dorrance, artistic director and founder of the 7-year-old New York City-based company, and her longtime friend Nicholas Van Young, tap dancer and percussionist, created a show that features their tap dance choreography in solos, duets and ensembles combined with music generated by Young’s electronic foot-operated drum triggers. Both also dance in the show.
Dorrance and Young met as teens who regularly traveled to tap dance festivals, she from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and he from Austin, Texas. Their friendship dates to the St. Louis Tap Festival when Dorrance was 14 and Young, 16. Since then, Dorrance said, “We have hoofed on subway platforms together, toured the United States in ‘STOMP’ (the hit show using rhythms, acrobatics and pantomime) together and played in a band (Darwin Deez) together.” In the indie band, Dorrance was the bass player, and Young, the drummer.
From the start, Dorrance said, “the two of us collaborating was always a dream, but it was also an inevitability. We have been abstractly collaborating for the entirety of our friendship, but formally collaborated on ‘ETM’ because of the technology Nicholas was incorporating into his solo work and how excited we both were to manifest that work with an entire company of dancer-musicians! “
“He is a mad scientist and I am a dear friend, just as eager to be coming up with new ideas alongside him as I am to be a subject in the experiment itself,” she added.
Young returned the compliments, recalling that Dorrance’s “expansive creativity in tap choreography and movement, along with her sophisticated musical phrasing, started to unlock possibilities … that were getting us both so excited.”
Dorrance worked with Young on “ETM: The Initial Approach,” which premiered at the 2014 Jacob’s Pillow summer dance festival in the Berkshires. Two years later, “ETM: Double Down” premiered there.
The second ETM piece evolved from the first. As the company toured with “The Initial Approach,” Dorrance and Young came up with “1,000 more ideas to ‘double down’ on,” Young said, referencing the second work’s title and explaining that “simple ideas led to large discoveries, and every time we workshopped an idea, 20 more were born. Needless to say, here we are, pushing ourselves to explore the sonic potential in tap dance and tap instruments.”
“In some ways,” Young said, “we have created the ultimate tap dancers’ playground, where you can let your imagination and your feet run wild.”
Dorrance agreed, noting that she and Young are “constantly inspired by the range of possibilities inherent in being both dancers and musicians, in the visual and aural. We also embrace embodying the organic and inorganic, the acoustic and the electric.”
An affinity for dance came early and naturally for Dorrance. “My mother was a professional ballet dancer and I studied at her school from age 3 to 17. By 8 years old, there was nothing I loved more than tap dance,” Dorrance remembered. After all, “What could possibly be more exciting than being a dancer and a musician at the same time?”
For being “the dancer I am today,” Dorrance credits her tap teacher and mentor Gene Medler, founder and director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble she performed with for a decade. Medler, she said, “sought out the living masters of our form–people like ‘Honi’ Coles, Buster Brown, “Peg Leg” Bates, Jimmy Slyde, The Nicholas Brothers, Cholly Atkins, who at the time were in their 70s, 80s and 90s–and took us all over the United States to study with them.” From the master educator, she said, “we learned the history of tap dance, its cultural significance and its unique nature as both a form of movement and music.”
Since then, Dorrance has danced with the likes of Savion Glover, Manhattan Tap, Damian Woetzel’s Vail Dance Festival Projects and the Martha Graham Dance Company, and has earned recognitions as a dancer and choreographer including two Bessie Awards (New York Dance and Performance Award, 2011 and 2015) and being named a MacArthur Fellow (2015) and a Choreography Fellow (2016).
Dance was part of Young’s heritage, too. His mother, a dance teacher at Austin’s Shirley McPhail School of Dance, introduced her young son to Fred Astaire movie musicals, took him to Austin On Tap performances and enrolled him in tap lessons at age 10. Young became an apprentice at 13, studying multiple dance styles and percussive music at Tapestry Dance Company. Under Tapestry’s Acia Gray and Deidre Strand, he became its principal dancer and resident choreographer.
Upon seeing choreographer David Dorfman’s work at the American Dance Festival, said Young, “I became really serious. I thought, ‘Maybe I will do this.’”
When Young was 22, he moved to New York City “to find out what all the hubbub was.” A nearly 10-year gig in the lead role and as rehearsal director with “STOMP,” he said, “solidified my interest in body percussion and tap dance.” While he realized “the synthesized possibilities are endless and the combination of this, with the acoustic sound and attack of tap dance, was a very exciting frontier for me to explore,” becoming a Dorrance Dance company member gave Young his “first opportunity to perform a solo using this electronic set up” in 2012.
The 2015 Bessie Award winner founded and directs his own company, Sound Movement, his “outlet for experimentation in a tiny black box,” while being “fully invested in Dorrance Dance.” In turn, Dorrance is on the faculty for Young’s Institute for Rhythmic Arts, which focuses on cross-training dancers and musicians.
“I won’t ever stop creating,” Young said, while checking out a new space and exploring the possibility of staging a tap performance in the round for “a more immersive 3-D experience.”
“The future of tap dance is absolutely limitless,” Dorrance affirmed. “My vision involves tap dance moving in every direction at once.” Her plan for her company is to continue “actively touring on what is a predominantly contemporary, modern and ballet-driven concert dance circuit. … while also educating our audiences–and presenting organizations–about tap dance’s very misunderstood history and about other incredible tap dancers/companies/choreographers they should seek out!”
Dorrance’s vision, she said, “is also to support tap dance as a mainstay at every jazz musical festival–like it once was during jazz’s heyday, to support tap dance on television, in films and particularly support good tap dancing on the Broadway stage.”
Furthermore, Dorrance calls for “a revolution in university dance and music programs to incorporate an accurate history of tap dance–the oldest American art form after Native American/First People’s forms. I am working to collaborate with historians and dancers to develop this as well as a second company of dancers dedicated entirely to lecture-demonstrations in order to spread the history and possibility of this great art form with the youngest hearts, minds and spirits!”
And so it goes, with Dorrance and her company, featuring her friend and chief collaborator, persisting in “honoring this incredibly sophisticated form and the masters that came before us.”
Dorrance Dance will present “ETM: Double Down” at 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $35 to $80, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. Learn more about this performance on the event page here.