Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance recently won a MacArthur Fellowship, one of the nation's most prestigious awards for artists and creative thinkers. It comes with a $625,000 stipend over five years, which can be used however the recipient chooses.
For Dorrance, the award - sometimes called a "genius grant" - was a lifeline.
"I have incurred a tremendous amount of debt creating this company," she said of Dorrance Dance, her tap troupe, which opens Wednesday at Dance Affiliates' new NextMove series at the Prince Theater. "There's not a lot of funding out there for tap dance. I have been fortunate to receive a number of other awards" - a Princess Grace, a Bessie - "which is the only reason we haven't gone bankrupt."
Even when, after a series of missed calls, the MacArthur Foundation finally got through to her, "I thought it was a credit-card company. There was no doubt in my mind."
The foundation's September announcement said Dorrance was chosen for "breathing new life into a uniquely American art form in works that combine the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance."
Since then, Dorrance has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where she helped Colbert fulfill his dream of mastering some tap steps. Her name and her art form have gained attention.
But little else has changed. "I don't have [the award] yet, so I'm still poor," she said, adding that "the first year, I'll pay off as much debt as possible, and put the rest aside for taxes - it's not a fun answer. Then, of course, I should probably have a savings account or IRA. I'm 36."
Once the emergency phase has passed, Dorrance plans to stabilize her company and perhaps even open a rehearsal and performance space for tap in New York.
The daughter of former professional ballerina M'Liss Gary Dorrance and University of North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance, she grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has performed in the Off-Broadway touring show STOMP, at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and in the Apollo Theater's 70th anniversary performance, among others.
She always knew she'd spend her life dancing but chose tap rather than following in her mother's pointe shoes because "I have flat feet and I'm not flexible."
"I was very musically inclined . . . as a very young kid. My mother regrets not putting me in piano lessons," she said. "I was very inspired to compose. I used to memorize tons of music when I was 2 years old, before I could even say the words. Very immediately, tap was my love. It's been who I am and what I love for almost as soon as I could remember."
This week's program at the Prince will be a cross-section of Dorrance's work, featuring The Blues Project, SOUNDSpace, and a short excerpt from ETM: The Initial Approach.
"It's a huge range of what we do," she said. "We're making it happen, and it's fun because we have a large cast of dancers in the show. I love working with as many dancers as possible."
At least 10 will be on stage, some of them doubling as drummers, bass players, and pianists.
Dorrance's SOUNDSpace was created for New York's St. Mark's Church, where metal taps were not permitted on the wooden floors. Dorrance met that challenge by teaching herself to make alternative equipment.
"We made wooden taps," using a Dremel rotary tool and many different heads, she said. "I had to hand-make them. We did that because I wanted to use that space in a very unique way. I actually loved the idea of that."
The wooden taps will stay behind this week, but standard metal taps are not the only instruments her company members will employ.
"I love using leather-soled shoes, which were the original tap shoes," she said. "There will be leathers in the [Philadelphia] show."
The variety of sounds is vital, she said, because tap is about the music as much as the movement.
"Would you rather be seen or heard? Heard, undoubtedly," Dorrance said. "People don't think about it, and it's a shame. We are equally responsible as musicians as as dancers.
"Whenever we choreograph, we are also composing. Every once in a while, I'll have a visual idea. But the composition comes first. My attention to that element is a reason people think I'm so different."
One of her biggest goals, though, is for tap to be considered more seriously, as an art form and not just entertainment.
"Honestly, with or without money, that's one of my charges, dreams, and desires," Dorrance said. "For our country to know our first indigenous dance forms. Tap is a great form for the people, by the people."
Dorrance Dance Wednesday to Sunday at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.