There are many things to love about tap dancing. There is the shuffle, an even beat made from the balanced forward-backward brush of the ball of the shoe across the floor. More rhythmically, the flap involves a syncopated brush forward that ends in a separate tap with the ball of the foot. For more complexity, the riff requires the toe and heel to dig through the ground in separate movements that create a deeper and longer sound. The riffle combines the riff and the shuffle, which can also be combined with a flap for a fuller opening sequence.
Each of these steps makes up a distinct sound that must be perfected with a clarity similar to hitting keys on a piano. When put together, the individual notes create a sequence of taps and stomps and scuffs and drags that create rhythmic music with the feet. When done at the highest level, these sounds are crisp and energizing to watch. When performed by Dorrance Dance at the Power Center last weekend, they are downright mind-boggling.
The 10-member company, headed by MacArthur “Genius” recipient Michelle Dorrance, spent the weekend in Ann Arbor as part of the University Musical Society’s 2019-20 season. On Saturday night, the audience took up almost every available seat in the theater, clapping and gasping and wooing for the entire 70 minutes of the dancers’ rhythmic art. The group performed two shorter pieces — “Jungle Blues” and “Three to One” — before the titular show of the evening, “Myelination.” Though different in style, all three pieces highlighted the crisp genius of each tapper onstage.
“Jungle Blues” acted as an homage to older jazz. Dancers dragged their taps along the tap dance specific floor and allowed the conveniently placed microphones to absorb the graceful sound. One member completed a blurringly fast section of improvisation, while another moved around the stage through exaggerated weight changes complemented by the loud noises made by his shoes every time he fell. The piece warmed the audience to the sounds of distinct beats and happy music.
“Three to One,” darker in presentation, built off of this introduction. One dancer, wearing tap shoes, stood in between two barefoot men at the center of downstage. Together, they completed sequences of the same movements — three sets of feet, two of them silent and one of them loud. The dichotomy was fascinating, and a bridge section of jumps with eerie contemporary dance added to the piece’s dark beauty.
“Myelination” was more than twice as long as the first two, with a myriad of mood-shifting vignettes to showcase individual dancers’ talents. The choreography blended impressive shades of hip-hop alongside the tapping. The range between the two styles created a breadth that visibly excited the dancers; all ten beamed with joy. Unlike the prior pieces, “Myelination” also incorporated a live band onstage. The music melded seamlessly with the energetic percussion of the tapping. At times, a dancer would join the band playing instruments — one was handed an electric guitar, another surreptitiously took over the drums — blurring the lines between music and movement. In essence, Dorrance Dance asked: Why separate the two at all?
One of the greatest advantages of tap dancing over other dance styles is its potential for noise. Often the only noise considered in tap is loud metal percussion, an unapologetic clanging that is most impressive when it is clear, precise and rapid. Dorrance Dance included plenty of this skillful, crowd-pleasing noise. But they also explored the less obvious musicality in tap — the soft swish of a body crawling across the floor, thump of knees on the ground, the way a melodious voice can make every staccato ding feel ten times more intense.
At the end of “Myelination,” we joined the entire crowd as they stood up and cheered. It was a dance performance that felt like a rock concert. And at the end of the night, it made both of us want to dig up our old tap shoes and surrender to the joy of noisy energy once again.