Dance Review: Crackling Out The Blues

This is Michelle Dorrance’s break out year, or perhaps more accurately the year people outside the intimate tap community got to know her by sight and reputation.

Dorrance Dance in The Blues Project. Choreography by Michelle Dorrance, Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Composed by Toshi Reagon. At Jacob’s Pillow Doris Duke Theatre, Becket, MA, July 24–28, 2013.

By Debra Cash

Thank Mark Zuckerberg.

Michelle Dorrance at 2013 Gala;. Photo: Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance.

Michelle Dorrance at 2013 Gala. Photo: Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance.

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance and musician and composer Toshi Reagon owe as least one aspect of their brand new collaboration, The Blues Project, to a birthday greeting delivered on Facebook.

Reagon exemplifies the social activism of her legendary Civil Rights movement parents (Cordell and Bernice Johnson Reagon were founding members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of this writer’s personal heroes, is best known for her leadership in the beloved a cappella women’s group Sweet Honey in the Rock) and rocks out her own smash-the-stereotypes sound with her band, BIG Lovely. Her work had been on Dorrance’s playlist since Dorrance was an 18-year-old, NYU freshman.

But it took a virtual friendship to bring these two musicians—one dancing, one playing—together in the real world. Toshi Reagon routinely celebrates her January birthday with a blow out at Joe’s Pub in New York. Dorrance posted a happy birthday video of her tapping boots to Reagon’s Facebook page.

As Reagon explained during a public interview on the back porch of Blake’s Barn at Jacob’s Pillow this past Saturday, she was perplexed (who is that?) and charmed. She wasn’t new to the dance world: previously, she had collaborated successfully with both Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women and choreographer Jane Comfort. She’d heard from New York friends that Dorrance was a terrific dancer.

Soon after, when she was curating a celebration of great women in blues and jazz for the Schomburg Center—“eight badass singers in New York”—she invited Dorrance to add her tapping sounds to the mix. Reagon interlaces her fingers together to show how neatly and naturally the women’s sensibilities matched.

This is Michelle Dorrance’s break out year, or perhaps more accurately the year people outside the intimate tap community got to know her by sight and reputation.

It’s a short drive but a far distance between venues like the Regent Theatre in Arlington where she has appeared alongside tap-dancing youngsters to winning the 2013 Jacob’s Pillow award with its $25,000 prize.

This past week, the collaboration between Dorrance and Reagon, The Blues Project, had its world premiere at the Pillow. From the initial, dragging riffs of Reagon’s guitar, Dorrance, Reagon and a crackerjack team of dancers and musicians move from set ensemble pieces to on-the-edge improvisation. The traditional rhythms of tap and swing are tightened up a few notches to meet the beat of the new century.

The Blues Project breaks into two distinct compositional arenas. In the first, a multiracial troupe of fierce, younger tappers, the women in country party dresses, the men in vests, mark off the space as if making room for the music to take center stage. Individual sounds cohere in a volley of sound and wash of attitude; the dancers slide backwards in risky traffic patterns. When Karida Griffith dances barefoot, she underlines tap’s African origins; sneakers add friction to the dancers’ slides. Nicholas Van Young’s turns his broad chest and tattooed arms into a set of bongos with some deft body percussion (during a moment of bluegrass, he hung an old-timey washboard around his neck and pounded it with spoons). The Blues Project‘s jitterbug could use some polish, but Dorrance daubed the choreography with spicy air moves that saluted the great Frankie Manning. Dorrance’s a resourceful and inventive ensemble choreographer. Can Broadway assignments will be far behind?

The Blues Project‘s sizzles during semi-improvised solos. Dorrance looks loosey goosey in her Dorothea Lange-era, checked gingham dress, but her footfalls in flat, grey shoes ring as crisply as pistol shots. At each performance, Reagon surprises Dorrance with the music she is going to play: during Saturday’s matinee, the song was about rain on the windows. Dorrance calibrated her footwork in volume and coloration so magically that a lyric like “baby don’t climb those stairs you’re going to bloody your feet” played out as both a description and a prayer. Dorrance works like a great jazz singer discovering the truth of her inner life while we overhear and marvel.

Derick K. Grant, a bearded bear of a man in a black head scarf, is best known for his long association with Savion Glover’s Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. During his Blues Project solo turn, he looked down at his shoes as if he were observing feet he wasn’t sure he could trust. Slip-sliding in a circle of light, Grant had a distinctive sound, the metal on his shoes clanging with the sound of heavy industry.

Where Grant’s dancing was about slides defying invisible barriers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards performance was all about precise placement. This woman knows exactly where she is going, and why. Like Dorrance, Sumbry-Edwards is slight, her slim shoulders set off by the sweetheart neckline of a pale, printed dress. As Reagon doodled down towards the treble end on her guitar’s neck, Sumbry-Edwards matched her intricate trill for intricate trill. As the words of Langston Hughes’s “Dream Variations”  turned into a chant, Sumbry-Edwards offered a master class in how many ways a great tap percussionist could subdivide a beat.

What Toshi Reagon says she learned from her parents is true for these dancers as well: “the sound your body makes is a place of refuge and your true home.”

Michelle Dorrance and Dancers and Derick K. Grant will appear on Martha’s Vineyard August 2–3, topping a tap mini-festival at The Yard.

Debra Cash, Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance,, is a founding Senior Contributor to The Arts Fuse and a member of its Board of Directors. In 2017 she was honored as Champion of the Arts by OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center.

c 2013 Debra Cash

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