Technique: Michelle Dorrance

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

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.

"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From Coppélia. Photo by Toshi Oga, courtesy of MOGA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Nanette Grebe/Getty Images

Have you heard the story about the dancer who needed a double hip replacement…at age 16?

It's not an urban legend—just ask iconic choreographer Mia Michaels. In a video series about dance injuries, produced by Apolla Performance Footwear, Michaels tells the tale of a teenage comp kid who pushed so hard she ended up in surgery.

That dancer's harrowing story was one of the inspirations for the Bridge Dance Project. The new initiative—brainchild of Jan Dunn, co-director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and Kaycee Cope Jones, COO of Apolla—aims to connect members of the competition and commercial dance communities with dance science experts. While many academic and professional concert dancers have benefited from recent advances in dance medicine, that information hasn't made its way to most of the young students in convention ballrooms. And as the technical demands on those students increase, so does the number of injuries.

We talked to Dunn and Jones about how the Bridge Dance Project was born, the initiative's long-term goals, and why young competition and commercial dancers should make injury prevention a priority.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From "Boston—Our City." Photo by Rachel Hassinger, courtesy of BalletRox

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox