HomeCultureArt & Theatre

All you need to know about tap dancing

All you need to know about tap dancing

We chat to tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance about the peculiarities of tap dancing and her new production, Myelination... 

RD: What are the origins of tap dance? 

One of the first accounts of tap dance (called buck dancing and/or buck and wing before it was called tap dancing) in the US dates back to the 1700s on a slave plantation. In the mid to late 18th century, drums were taken away from African-American plantation slaves because they were used to communicate and to organise escapes and uprisings.

Body percussion/hambone (known then as "patting juba") and tap dance were born both out of a necessity to communicate and survive, as well as an outlet for expression. Outside of Native American traditions, tap dance is the first “new” dance form to develop in America. The origins have an incredibly powerful effect on the form to this day.

"It is one of the most varied dance forms on the planet and absolutely one of the most cutting edge"

RD: Who are the people who brought it into the mainstream?

Most people think the dancers of the movie-musical era brought tap dance into the mainstream but that history is much more interesting. In 1844, African American dancer, William Henry Lane (known as “Master Juba” or “Juba”) defeated the famed Irish American dancer, John Diamond, in a public contest at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City, for the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World.

Master Juba. Image via wiki commons 

There were a great number of touring “minstrel groups” with “jig dancers” or ‘buck dancers” at the time, but Master Juba became the most world renowned. His success in America brought even greater success in England, where he was a critical favourite and the most written about performer of the entire 1848 season. The writings about Master Juba’s dancing describe him as the most technically masterful but also the most creative. He could imitate every famed Irish dancer of the day, imitate them imitating him (mocking the minstrel tradition of blackface), and then dance an inimitable style all his own, “like no one had ever seen before”.


RD: What’s the biggest misconception about tap dance?

There are so many misconceptions about tap dance, I barely know where to start. To address two—some think it lives in a very narrow aesthetic (the one popularised by the movie-musicals of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s). I find it to be one of the most varied dance forms on the planet and absolutely one of the most cutting edge.

Another major misconception is that the sounds of the tap shoe are secondary to the dance. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of our audience members are still having these “ah-hah” moments when they’re watching not just Dorrance Dance, but tap dancing right now. Many have not been exposed to the sophistication and depth of tap dance as music, nor exposed to the form’s tremendous growth over the last 40 years. We still get the feedback: “Oh my gosh, its music!” A tap dancer is equally responsible for their music as they are for their dance. I would love to challenge audiences investigate this. The MUSIC of our dancing is one of the most defining features of tap dance. It transcends time and transcends genre. The possibilities are truly endless.



RD:  What do you prioritise: the music or the visual aspect?

Music is at the root of almost everything I create. And by "music," I can mean a particular composition or song, I can mean a rhythm in my head or its counter rhythm, I can mean a feel, I can mean the tension that we can build between two feels, and I can also mean what emotions arise from any/all of that music. It’s not that I don't draw inspiration from concept, narrative, visual or movement based ideas, it’s just that in order for any of those things to be honest, their songs must come first.


RD: What’s the hardest part of your job?

The business. The business. The business. And now that I’m a little older, carving out time to take care of my body so that it can still do what I ask of it.


RD: What does it take to be a tap dancer and what do you look for in your dancers? 

Dorrance Dance is made up of truly unique dancers and musicians. I want to work with dancers who have an unconquerable respect for our art form, its traditions, and its possibilities. I seek dancers that are genuine and generous performers and I seek those that value both composition and improvisation, discipline and spontaneity, meticulous precision and taking risks. Each dancer must have a unique improvisational voice. My dancers are singular personalities, unique physically, unique in their rhythmic sensibilities, and in their tonal expression and inflection.

To bring these disparate personalities together as an ensemble is so exhilarating to me. To let them live as individual artists within the work, to ask them to solo, SO important. I'm not stupid. I don't want to watch myself for an hour. I want to see them. I want to create a show that I want to watch, and they are integral to achieving that.


RD: Tell us a bit about your new production—why is it called Myelination?

The short scientific definition is: Myelination is the process of a fatty sheath (myelin) forming around (and electrically insulating) the axons of certain nerve cells in the brain. Myelin was once overlooked as inconsequential matter (white matter) in the brain and was later discovered to be integral for the nervous system to function properly. Furthermore, the thicker the myelin sheath surrounding a given axon, the faster the electrical impulse travels in the brain travel.

"Along with improvisation, innovation is innate and embedded in the very foundation of the development of tap dance"

I first learned about the existence of Myelin from a fascinating book my father gave me called, "The Talent Code." In it, highly successful practice methods are discussed and in relationship to those, myelination is revealed as instrumental in learning, developing skills, refining behaviours and reactions, and also maintaining/embodying that learning. I discovered that the kind of practice that builds myelin most effectively is a deeply acute and intense practice and a unique kind of repetition as opposed to long, drawn-out, less effective practices.

My translation of all of this—to be exceptional at what you do, you must build as much myelin as possible as often as possible.

It was my initial intention first: to challenge myself and the dancers to literally build new skills and achieve new and dynamic levels of technical execution during both the rehearsal process (for the extended version of "Myelination") as well as the performances, and second: to develop ways to conceptually address and abstractly embody/communicate elements of brain function in the work itself.

Further along in the process (through my experience in a few close personal relationships) I ended up learning quite a bit about psychological and cognitive dysfunction and it led me to research the brain's role versus society's role (family, environment, socialisation) in relation to that dysfunction. The same process of myelination that protects positive, exceptional skill development is also responsible for building sheaths that protect pathways of practised destructive behaviour. I think this is particularly resonant right now, as we watch many world leaders proselytise hatred and oppression, daily. “We are how we spend our time.”


RD: How do you try to push the traditional boundaries of tap dance?

Tap dance is first and foremost, an improvisational form. Along with improvisation, innovation is also innate and embedded in the very foundation of its development. These elements are an integral part of jazz music, a legacy that tap dance often inspired and informed. “Pushing boundaries” and exploring one’s own unique voice are part of the ethos of jazz.

My generation was charged with this by our elders (in their eighties and nineties at the time). They didn’t want us to dance exactly like them. They wanted us to take what they taught us and make it our own, push it, reverse it, build on it, reinvent it. This is what I try to do now, and what the dancers I admire do best—whether it is a musical idea, a technical idea, a feeling, or something conceptual we’ve never before explored, we work hard to live pushing the edge.


RD: What do you want the audiences to take away from the show?

Rather than trying to dictate what they will walk away with, I’d love to ask a few things of our audience as they walk in. Relieve your minds of expectations. Walk in with no preconceived notions of what a specific dance form, or dancer, should look like. Allow yourself to be vulnerable to what the work might make you feel, and know that every interpretation and experience is valid. It is so powerful to experience people using their breath and body to share. Thank you so much for sharing with us.


Myelination and other works by Dorrance Dance will be on at Sadler's Wells between November 14–16


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter



Loading up next...