Michelle Dorrance: 'I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing' Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. For her, tap dance is the ultimate art form. "To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time — there's nothing like it," she says.

Michelle Dorrance: 'I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing'

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The MacArthur Fellowships were announced today, 24 of them, and we're talking with some of this year's fellows. Each fellow recieves $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Michelle Dorrance's work is tap.


SIEGEL: Michelle Dorrance is a dancer and choreographer. This is from her piece "Sound Space." And she joins us from New York. Welcome and congratulation.

MICHELLE DORRANCE: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Through the magic of radio, we've just been able to demonstrate something about your approach to tap, that it's as much to be heard as to be seen. Is that right?


SIEGEL: Describe that a bit.

DORRANCE: I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me. To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there's nothing like it. There's nothing else like it. You're equally responsible for your movement as you are for your sonic communication. And I don't know. There's something that's really organic in your footfall. There's something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.

SIEGEL: That clip from "Sound Space," by the way, was of a performance at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in the lower Manhattan where, as I understand it, no metal taps are allowed on the floor. So you could've had a platform built and had the dancers work, and that - but that wasn't what you did. What did you do?

DORRANCE: I worked there before, and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wood floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided, no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet. We used socked feet. We used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later, aluminum taps.


DORRANCE: So exploring that and exploring those ideas in that space where you can hear something like this - me rubbing my hands together 50 feet away - that's exciting.

SIEGEL: It occurs to me. I believe St. Mark's in-the-Bowery is where the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, as it was, Peter Stuyvesant, is buried.

DORRANCE: Yeah. I think that's true - in the cemetery there.

SIEGEL: Since he famously had a peg leg, I assume...

DORRANCE: I didn't know that - like Peg Leg Bates the tap dancer.

SIEGEL: I think Peter Stuyvesant had the peg leg some centuries before Peg Leg Bates.

DORRANCE: (Laughter). I know, of course.

SIEGEL: So I think he would've generated some sound himself.

DORRANCE: (Laughter). That's awesome. That's so great to think about that as a precedent.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). You choreographed a piece called "The Blues Project."


TOSHI REAGON: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, yeah, oh, oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: We can hear you tap dancing.


REAGON: (Singing) It's a planet of resistance. It's a whirling flame of choice.

SIEGEL: And the person who's performing here, who's singing, is Toshi Reagon. And the song she's singing, "Misty Mountain," it actually - it was a surprise to you when she sang that.

DORRANCE: It was a surprise to me. Every single night inside of that show, she'll surprise me with a different song for my solo.

SIEGEL: So you're - I mean, in that case, you're not just both a dancer and a musician, but you're a dancer and an improvisational jazz musician at the same time.

DORRANCE: Exactly. Well, and that's truly the tradition - the great tradition of tap. In its roots, it is improvisational. That's the way it was innovated and the way it, you know, was communicated.

SIEGEL: What do I do with all the associations I have of tap dancing with minstrel shows and with, well, certainly not a very high form of entertainment?

DORRANCE: I - it's very interesting. It's such an important part of the tradition. And I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is, of course, reflected in the form. So I don't know. I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. You know, it is born of some of the most oppressed people. Our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

SIEGEL: Michelle Dorrance, once again, congratulations on winning the MacArthur Fellowship this year, and thanks for talking with us.

DORRANCE: Thank you so much.


REAGON: (Singing) Is it up the misty mountain where wild flowers blind the ground - ha? Is it down by the rushing river where force wears those boulders down? Is it underneath my covers?

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