How I teach tap
During her technique class at Broadway Dance Center, Michelle Dorrance jokingly asks students to imagine going to a morgue, cutting off a dead guy’s foot and attaching it to their own ankles. She winces and laughs at this gruesome image—but it works. The group’s “nerve-taps” (fast, continuous beats in one position) improve; the sounds from their relaxed feet are clearer and even.
Dorrance’s class is jam-packed in the studio, and the students—a handful who are tap teachers—hang on her every word and demonstration. Although she’s worked with huge names in tap (Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Dianne Walker, Brenda Bufalino and Savion Glover, for starters), she doesn’t draw attention to her accolades or show off. Mixing humor with a down-to-business attitude, the 32-year-old tapper extraordinaire tells it like she sees it. She’s still performing and building her own creative voice, so she’s able to give her students practical tips and help them tackle steps she sometimes struggles with herself.
Dorrance grew up in a family of teachers—her mother owns a dance studio and her father is a world-renowned soccer coach. But she also credits Gene Medler, who teaches tap at her mom’s studio, as her foremost mentor. “He found a way to make a lot of heady technical exercises very accessible,” she says. “I’m constantly referencing him.”
Medler, the director of North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, encouraged young dancers to teach others. “The second you knew a few dances, you’d lead a two-hour session of cleaning or teaching repertory to new dancers,” says Dorrance, who joined the youth company at age 8. “By the time I was 12, I was teaching the entire rep of NCYTE, including works by Savion Glover and Barbara Duffy. As I got older, Gene would have me sub for his classes.”
Today, much of Dorrance’s classroom material comes from her own experiences onstage. “Being a teacher and performer really keeps me on the ball,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘What do I see in others as a common technical flaw, and what do I want to be stronger at technically in my own performance?’ I make myself vulnerable to students—I confess my flaws—and we work on them together.”
Dorrance structures her BDC classes in sections, starting with warm-up drills that work on technique (both articulated and relaxed) and build stamina. Next, “marathons” help students perfect challenging steps. “Essentially, it’s working something into the ground—whether it’s harnessing single-stroke notes [nerve-taps], pull-backs or paddle and rolls—so you leave with a better kinesthetic understanding of the step, push your technical level and gain strength and clarity,” she says.
Most of all, Dorrance loves to address requests that help individual students work through technical kinks. Even if the request isn’t related to her prepared class material, Dorrance switches gears. “Sometimes there’s a student who will come three weeks in a row asking for the same step,” she says. “I love that, because it shows she’s not satisfied with her level of execution. So we’ll work together in front of the class. We can all learn something.”
In this video, Dorrance breaks down a 5-count wing, a step that she often includes in her intermediate or advanced classes. Popularized by tap legends the Condos Brothers, the step (requiring crisp footwork and extreme leg and core strength) involves jumping in the air for a long time, simultaneously staying close to the floor—a hard concept to master that Dorrance says is not commonly found in other genres. DT
From North Carolina, Michelle Dorrance graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her company credits include the North American tour and New York cast of the off-Broadway show STOMP, Derick K. Grant’s Imagine Tap! and Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker. Dorrance was a founding member of Savion Glover’s company Ti Dii, and she has performed with Heather Cornell’s Manhattan Tap, Barbara Duffy & Company, Max Pollak’s Rumba Tap, Tony Waag’s Tap City on Tour and Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble. In addition to joining the faculty of Broadway Dance Center in 2002, Dorrance has taught master classes and performed in tap festivals internationally in Brazil, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Japan and Germany. She received a 2011 Bessie Award for her works, Remembering Jimmy and Three to One, with her new company, Dorrance Dance/New York.
Photo by Matthew Murphy