This story is co-published with INDY Week.
When people find out that Michelle Dorrance, one of the most influential and sought-after tap dancers and choreographers in the world, is the daughter of famed UNC-Chapel Hill women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, it usually doesn’t take long for them to suggest that she might’ve inherited the fast footwork from her father.
They’re about half-right: Anson may have 22 national championships with his Tar Heels (who are currently vying for their 23rd), but Michelle’s mother, M’Liss, a former professional ballet dancer and the cofounder of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, also deserves credit.
And while agility may be the most visible thread connecting the passions of the Dorrance family, it’s not the only common ground that tap dance and soccer share. Soccer has its own kind of rhythm, and tap can be competitive.
“Tap dance is, at its core, an improvisational form that lives in battles, and trading, and one-upmanship,” Michelle says, “trying to create an idea that’s rooted in what the other person just executed, and taking it to a new place.”
Those connections are on display in a new video for Carolina Performing Arts’ (CPA) Artists are Athletes/Athletes are Artists series, featuring Michelle alongside one of UNC women’s soccer’s most creative players, senior midfielder Sam Meza.
Earlier this year, the first video in the series had former UNC star point guard Caleb Love and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performer Michael Jackson Jr. leaping through the air side by side.
“There is a disconnect sometimes between the arts and athletics, when in fact they’re both about coming together for a shared experience,” says CPA executive and artistic director Alison Friedman. “What I hope to do with these videos is to build bridges and show that there are parallels; there are similarities.”
The short films, just a few minutes long, premiere at halftime of a game and then live on social media. Recruiting Anson and Michelle next was obvious, says Friedman, between the family connection and “the intricacy of the footwork; the percussion of the taps and the kicks,” she says. It was obvious to Michelle, too. As soon as she saw that first one on Instagram, she had a feeling: “We’re next.”
On a soccer field lit like a stage, Michelle and Meza stare each other down; an implicit sportsmanlike challenge that seems to acknowledge that, though they’re on Meza’s turf, they’re equals.
As the video flips back and forth between the pitch and the stage, where Michelle’s taps are more at home, the two playfully mimic one another’s movement with dizzyingly nimble steps, each of them relaxed yet precise; intense and inventive.
It isn’t just the innate similarities between soccer and tap that make Michelle and Meza so simpatico in their physicality. It’s also Michelle’s deep understanding of the game, cultivated not only through years of watching her father’s teams but also through her own youth career as a soccer player, which continued through her freshman year at New York University—despite the fact that her prodigious dance career also began at a young age.
Michelle, who now lives in Brooklyn and whose speech patterns mirror her dancing—quick, rhythmic, sometimes surprising—grew up studying multiple forms of dance at her mother’s studio. It became obvious early on that she particularly excelled at one of them, able to rattle off crisp, complex tap sequences that shocked her teachers and led her to progress to the studio’s most advanced level as an elementary schooler.
By age 8, she was touring the world with the prestigious North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (then called the Children’s Tap Company). By the time she was a teenager, she’d worked with a laundry list of tap icons. All the while, she was dividing her time between the studio and the pitch, playing on club teams, and darting from rehearsal to practice and back.
“I really loved the game,” Michelle says. “There’s something about doing things in community that pushes the core of who you are. You’re really fighting for something that is bigger than yourself.”
Though Michelle thrived on footwork drills and ball handling, it was clear to both her and her father that she wasn’t destined for soccer greatness. (Growing up, when journalists would ask her if she planned to play for her father one day, she liked to respond, “Is your daughter going to be a reporter?”)
She was “quick,” she says, but not “fast.” “Put me in a sprint, and I’d be in the last third of the team. I was a sweeper, but as soon as speed became a major factor, I couldn’t be the last one before the keeper.”
Anson and M’Liss’s parenting style was intentionally hands-off, neither of them pushing Michelle toward their respective activities. M’Liss, in fact, encouraged Michelle to quit ballet in high school, as her time was limited and she struggled with the flexibility and grace required for it—though, she did, of course, love petit allegro for its small, quick jumps.
“My wife and I are so accustomed to parents who go overboard with the talent of their children,” Anson says. “And we weren’t going to be those parents.” Early in Michelle’s career, the Dorrances found themselves at the Bessie Awards—the Oscars of the New York City dance world. “Our kid wins,” says Anson, “and we turned to each other and said, ‘You know what? Maybe she’s actually pretty good.’”
“Pretty good” understates Michelle’s artistry and skill as a tap dancer and choreographer. (In addition to that Bessie, she’s won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a Doris Duke Fellowship, and much more.) But it’s probably a fair assessment of her soccer skills—even if she was good enough to make NYU’s Division III team.
“I really can’t believe that I played my freshman year,” she says. “I went to NYU to educate myself, but I came to New York City to tap dance. But I don’t regret it, I loved my team.”
It wasn’t long after quitting the NYU soccer team that Michelle was chosen by legendary tap dancer Savion Glover to join his company in 2001. From there, her career exploded—a four-year stint in Stomp off-Broadway, the Bessie Award, and then a shift toward choreography that has established her as one of tap dance’s leading innovators, known for forging unexpected collaborations, experimenting with sound and technology, and bringing tap onto new stages and into new spaces.
You could say that the drive to not just excel in her field but to push it forward is a trait Michelle inherited from her dad, too. Though he’s probably best known for developing and popularizing the physical, attacking style of play that has come to define the U.S. Women’s National Team, which he coached from 1986 to 1994, he also claims to be the first coach to use the language of dance to describe soccer movement. (It’s now common to hear patterns on the field described as “choreography.”)
Still, Anson is adamant that, aside from playing the drums in high school, he doesn’t share in his family’s creativity.
“I identify more with the warriors on my team than the artists,” he says. “Part of the spine of any great soccer team is to have the warriors win the ball for the artists. Basically, we carry the piano to the stage, and then we let the artists take over and actually play it.”
“I want arts to be everywhere,” he goes on. “I really regret that I have absolutely no talent for them. Have I not enjoyed my athletic life? No, I have loved every second of it. But I’d love to be able to play an instrument, I’d love to be able to sing, and I’d love to be able to dance.”
Michelle still has deep ties to her hometown. Her company, Dorrance Dance, will perform its Nutcracker Suite at CPA on December 13, and she’s a reliable presence at the annual NC Rhythms Tap Festival. This year, though, she’s been back in Chapel Hill more than ever.
“Are we going to win this year or what? I’ve been flying down for games,” she says. She laments that she missed out on getting a “23 in ’23” T-shirt—her father’s team is currently seeking its 23rd National Championship and is ranked third in the country at 10-1-8. (Editor’s note: Shortly after the INDY published this piece, the UNC women’s team dropped from 3rd to 13th in the rankings.)
Though still consistently one of the best teams in the NCAA, winning used to be more of a given for Anson’s Tar Heels. From 1982 through 2009, there were only eight years in which the team didn’t win the National Championship.
“I want them to win this year—I want them to win every damn year,” says Michelle. “And my generation is used to us winning constantly. But this is my dad’s dream for the women’s game, that it is this hard.” She recalls watching the first Women’s World Cup in China, at age 11, and how little people paid attention to women’s sports then.
“I watched this dream come true,” she says. “I watched my dad champion women’s sports, and it has everything to do with the way I see myself in my own field.”
It is perhaps a dream fulfilled, too, that Michelle found something both distinctly her own and yet so connected to her parents. “A lot of the things I gravitated towards loving in both of my parents’ forms have such a deep relationship with the thing that I fell in love with so quickly in tap and could execute as a young person, which is incredibly quick footwork,” she says. “Footwork, to me, is music.”
Lauren Wingenroth is a Carrboro, North Carolina-based writer reporting on arts and culture, health and fitness, sports, lifestyle and more. She is a former editor of Dance Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, ESPN, Playbill, American Theatre, Well + Good, and CND Magazine, among others.