In “The Blues Project,” tap dancer Michelle Dorrance and her company have teamed up with blues singer Toshi Reagon and a talented four-piece band to bring an evening to the Granada that expands the boundaries of tap dancing. This isn’t exactly a hybrid of two genres, but an extension of Ms. Dorrance’s long history of boundary-pushing within the realm of tap, and the musicians provide the background that places the numbers in a context of African-American history, from work songs to songs of the Civil Rights movement and beyond.
At first it may seem that blues is not as suited to tap as jazz is. But not so, Ms. Dorrance says. Tap and blues evolved around the same time.
“They both come from the plantation,” she says. “They both come from circumstances of great oppression. They come from dire circumstances and both art forms eventually transcend that into expressions of joy. And I find that incredibly powerful.”
Ms. Dorrance grew up in North Carolina. Her mom was a professional ballet dancer, and Michelle danced at her mom’s school. “But I had flat feet and pretty inflexible legs. I loved ballet but it was incredibly challenging for me. So I was encouraged, because I was so musical, to go into tap. As soon as you start tap dancing you are a musician.”
At a young age she was already improvising her tap routines, so obsessed and passionate was she.
Gene Medler of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble became her mentor, traveling to tap festivals where the legends of tap —some still performing in their 80s and 90s —gathered. She literally walked into a history lesson of tap. She met both the Nicholas Brothers, Peg Leg Bates and Buster Brown.
“It became my family,” she said. “To be a tap dancer is to be a historian by default.”
She also threw herself fully into the art form. She loved to perform, and she did so, as much as possible.
“I said yes to dance in every single tap company in New York City. Anyone who asked me, I danced for.” She also danced for “Stomp” for four years, and studied under Savion Glover, the man who brought tap back into the mainstream after changing its vocabulary.
But, she says, she was still looking for that certain something, and none of those companies were offering it. So, she says, she had to create it herself.
But it took breaking her foot to give her the time to rethink and plan something out just for herself. Dorrance Dance, not the most original idea for a name, she admits, was born.
“The Blues Project” came about through working with Toshi
Reagon on a show called “Celebrate the Great Women of Blues and Jazz.”
“I’d always wanted to create something that married tap and blues,” she said. “And I had been a fan of Toshi since I was 7. So I asked her, if I got a grant, would she consider doing a show with me. And she told me I didn’t need to wait for a grant.” Ms. Reagon plays guitar and sings live, but she keeps each performance fresh by bringing in new material.
She also brought in dancers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who also come bearing historical lineages from tap. “They are both cutting-edge soloists and brilliant improvisational dancers.”
The show has continued to evolve since its 2013 premiere. “It’s magical and has a different vibe night-to-night. Even when it’s the same song, Toshi might change the structure of the song. Even when Derick has danced the song before, he’ll explore a different angle. And that’s what tap is, it’s all about improvisation.”
She hopes that audiences will get a bit of history from the evening, but insists this is not just an act of preservation:
“We want people to see the possibilities in the show,” says Ms. Dorrance. “It’s not just about imagining a past —we want people to see a future inside what we’re doing.”