Unforgettable

Sometime back in the late 1990s, Michael Jackson lay on a dance studio floor, studying the quicksilver feet of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. “How do you make all those sounds so fast?” he wanted to know. “Show me.” And so, in weekends of marathon practice over the next 11 years, that’s just what she did. The King of Pop’s tap training wasn’t the first time that royalty engaged a private dance instructor. But it may have been the first time that such a master was a Mrs. Sumbry-Edwards is one of the greatest tap dancers walking the planet today. Her technique is astonishing, her stage presence disarmingly elegant. A professional since childhood (in Black and Blue), she’s been routinely singled out with leading roles and was the first woman to be cast in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Five years ago she created a stir by offering classes—provocatively called “Mastering Femininity in Tap”—on tapping in heels. Now she performs freelance and runs Harlem Tap Studio with her husband and fellow dancer, Omar Edwards. When word got around that Danspace Project was to present Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards: A Shared Evening to open its “Rhythm & Humor” series, the show quickly sold out.

Michelle Dorrance by Matthew Murphy.

The 75-minute performance loops from sublime to ridiculous and back in a collision of spectacle and style, glamour, and quirk. If there’s a theme unifying the two artists’ work, it’s tribute: Dorrance’s to Slyde, Sumbry-Edwards’s to Jackson and her mentor, Paul Kennedy. The Danspace sanctuary inspires Dorrance to play with perspective, scale, and footwear. (None, that is.) Sumbry-Edwards sticks to a more conventional staging and aesthetic, her Broadway-ready work worlds away from typical Danspace fare. Thanks to the choreographer and guest curator David Parker for inviting them to perform.

Dorrance, too, is one of tap’s luminaries (with deft footwork and natural comedic gifts, she was a perfect complement to Sumbry-Edwards in Jason Samuels-Smith’s Charlie’s Angels). Her Remembering Jimmy begins in the dark, the sanctuary rumbling with syncopated footfall, a muted drum. Lights fade up: blue glow. We’re at the edge of a clearing witnessing a white-clad tribe in stockinged feet enact a slip-slide-stamp ritual in the far beyond. They could be shades or angels; their repeated stepping seems metered by breath and makes the sanctuary softly boom. Cross currents of movement and counter-rhythms interrupt the pulse; a group splits off and orbits the flock. Dorrance scuttles in a stork-legged scoot, forms a tight trio right before us, seems to vanish, then reappears, spotlit, on the horizon. She’s in tap shoes now. Her percussive oration builds to a roar—her body opening out in double-winged Xs, and ends with a fanfare that elicits cheers.

Dorrance has an eye for spectacle and she’s not afraid to build emotional heat. Her movement choir shows an early modern dance sensibility: while honoring Jimmy, she evokes Doris and Martha. (Think The Shakers; think Primitive Mysteries.) But slides, as Slyde himself used to say, can never be regimented by counts. Though performed en masse in Remembering Jimmy, each slide we see is unique—and a little dangerous, too. If Dorrance’s communicants share a credo, then, it’s not Shaker-like penitence. It’s risk.

Sumbry-Edwards’s Blood on the Dance Floor is set to Jackson hits of the 1980s and ’90s, when the star’s image was still wholesome and his popularity high. The choreography is suitably sunny and foot-mad, replete with devilishly braided patterns at dazzling speed, and the exultant dancers look like they’re having the time of their lives—no wonder the audience starts clapping along. But Sumbry-Edwards is up to more than fireworks. Her two solos (Liberian Girl and Gone too Soon) are meditations on loss. In the first, she is the enchanting beloved of the song. Wearing an African print dress, she ribbons across the dance floor, swaying her hips and curling her arms overhead. In the second, simple tap phrases erupt in dense rhythm clusters, statements of fact overcome by feeling.

Throughout, the program’s 22 dancers are motor and muse for the choreographers’ conceits. As an ensemble, they’re musically sensitive technicians. And they switch impressively among styles: the musical theater of Sumbry-Edwards’s Blood on the Dance Floor, the formalism of Dorrance’s Remembering Jimmy, and the carnivalesque of her a petite suite. Joseph Wiggan flashes aerial stunts and a wicked smile; Cartier Williams taps an exegesis on the state of his soul; Ryan P. Casey makes his 6 feet 8 inches glide and buckle; Caleb Teicher has the fire, the feet, and the insouciance; Claudia Rahardjanoto the warmth and charm.

Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards welcomed a tap audience to Danspace and a Danspace audience to tap: a shared evening, indeed. 

Contributor

L.J. Sunshine

L.J. SUNSHINE is a freelance writer, researcher, and dance archivist.

ADVERTISEMENTS