Home Life Arts and Style Q&A with Local Legend Michelle Dorrance

Q&A with Local Legend Michelle Dorrance

The founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance talks tap, Chapel Hill and her upcoming Carolina Performing Arts performances

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Photo courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Chapel Hill native Michelle Dorrance comes home September 14 and 15 to perform at Carolina Performing Arts in her company’s show “ETM: Double Down.” We chatted with her about her recent MacArthur “Genius Grant,” what it’s like to come back to the familiar Memorial Hall stage and her favorite Chapel Hill bites. 

What were your motivations for starting your company Dorrance Dance? What do you hope the group accomplishes for audiences in their performances?

I started Dorrance Dance in hopes to share the incredibly dynamic range that tap dance has to offer; in order to engage with audiences on a musical and emotional level through dance [and] spread the great history and legacy of this American form throughout the country and the world. Of course, I love experimenting, creating my own work, my own choreography, my own compositions, but I [also] love sharing the brilliant individual voices and styles that are pushing the form forward today. I am so proud of and inspired by my dancers and peers. What moves me most is when an audience member’s appreciation for our art form grows; when someone sees depth and range where they once saw something more two-dimensional. Opening minds is what changes the world for the better. This is the work that inspires me.

You were the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Program award or “Genius Grant” in 2015 — what a big deal! What is the grant helping you to achieve?

I am tremendously humbled by this honor. I can barely articulate it. This grant will help us in so many ways! First: Paying off debt! Moving into 2017: health insurance and salaries for dancers and employees, I hope. Moving into the future: our own rehearsal space! Tap dance is treated like the bastard of the dance forms – the Jon Snow, if you will. Everything we aim to do aims to change this. There are countless homes for ballet, modern and contemporary dance in New York City and only one home for tap (The American Tap Dance Foundation) with studios less than half the size of a concert stage. Because of the MacArthur, we have the capacity to change this.

You grew up in Chapel Hill. How does it feel to be returning home for this performance?

Chapel Hill is one of my favorite places on the face of the earth. It will always be my home, and it is an incredible honor and a thrill to be coming home to perform. I grew up spending my afternoons, many evenings and countless weekends at my mom’s [M’Liss Dorrance’s] school, The Ballet School of Chapel Hill, rehearsing with Gene Medler’s North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and attending my dad’s [Anson Dorrance’s] UNC Women’s Soccer games, all of which took place so close to Memorial Hall – in fact, my first performance at Memorial Hall was one of our yearly recitals. (This is before the renovation and central air conditioning!)

Are there aspects of Memorial Hall as a venue that you need to adapt your performance to, or that you especially enjoy?

Performing in Memorial Hall is an absolute joy. Bringing [the show “ETM: Double Down”] to Chapel Hill will be a new animal. The show is so technologically demanding, but I really look forward to performing it in such a special and historical place.

How would you say growing up in Chapel Hill helped to form you as a dancer?

The biggest reason I am the dancer I am today is because of my training in Chapel Hill. I also have to acknowledge what a huge impact attending [American Dance Festival] performances with my mom had on me. Lastly, the brilliant musicians that made up the local music scene in Chapel Hill in the 1990s inspired me as a musician and composer, endlessly. To this day I wish I could gift my experience growing up in Chapel Hill to others. … I am so incredibly grateful for it.

Do you have any Chapel Hill “musts” for when you’re in town?

  1. Biscuits! I make sure to eat at every single one of my favorite local biscuits while in town. Bojangles, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen and Time-Out.
  2. I always try to get to one of my uncle’s incredible restaurants, Squid’s, 411 West (where I was once employed!) or Spanky’s. Bonus visits would be to Mama Dip’s, Breadmen’s, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, Crook’s Corner – all of which were around before or during my childhood.
  3. If there’s time, I love going to see local music. One of my best friends and favorite voices of all time, Miriam Chicurel-Bayard, sings with Mary Johnson Rockers and the Spark. Many of the former Squirrel Nut Zippers (who are absolute rock stars to me) still play regularly, which simply blows my mind.
  4. Depending on the season, a big must: Carolina games. My favorites being soccer and basketball.

Want to attend a performance? Get your tickets here.

Associate Editor Laura Zolman Kirk is a Kentuckian turned Chapel Hillian and totally in love with this special slice of North Carolina.