For the last few decades, tap dancers have been looking back in order to move forward. Tap holds an unusual place in the dance world, not always taken, or taught, as seriously as ballet or modern dance. Its development in the first half of the 20th century was followed by several decades of audiences – and dance students – who lacked exposure to the art of tap as it was performed by great artists, athletes and innovators such as the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The current renaissance of what could be called classical tapping was initiated in large part by Gregory Hines, helped along by his protegé, Savion Glover, and carried on by a passionate corps of this generation’s tappers.

One of these, Michelle Dorrance, is in residence this week at the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston with her troupe Dorrance Dance, and will play sold-out performances Thursday and Saturday. Dorrance has won awards that include the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant” and the Princess Grace Award.

In just over an hour at Tuesday evening’s Show & Tell event, Dorrance talked and tapped her way through a captivating whirlwind historical tour of tap dance, interspersed with demonstrations and film clips.

“Tap nerds are footage nerds,” she quipped, explaining how vintage video offers virtual mentoring to today’s tappers.

With plenty of audience involvement, the lecture demonstration felt like a conversation, just as Dorrance’s art form has always been rhythmically conversational.


Explaining how tappers have always learned from one another by innovating upon imitation, Dorrance charmingly conducted a conversation with herself, performing a quick routine on the spot and then jumping to the side to demonstrate an evolution of the routine, as if in response.

She traced tap’s history back to its roots among African slaves and Irish indentured servants, using quick dance sequences to illustrate the grounded movements of African dance and the erect posture of Irish step-dancing, and then moved through a timeline of key tap dancers.

As she described each legend’s style, Dorrance dropped briefly into it, revealing an impressive movement dictionary.

Dorrance explained tap’s integral relationship with early 20th-century jazz: how every big band traveled with a dancer, and how musical styles such as stride piano and bebop picked up rhythms from tap.

Because tap is central to the history of African Americans in entertainment, Dorrance found moments to interject remarks about race and respect, notably when discussing Robinson’s refusal to wear “black face.”

Late in the program, three of Dorrance’s dancers joined her on stage to help demonstrate key routines passed down from tap masters, and then the audience was invited up to learn the classic “Shim Sham.” The festival’s student dancers crowded the stage for this opportunity.

Dorrance was smart and gracious throughout Tuesday’s presentation, sharing contagious passion with humor and generosity, demonstrating diverse styles with versatile mastery.

The next Show & Tell presentation will be July 19, with Doug Varone.

Jennifer Brewer is a Portland-based freelance writer.

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