When the illustrious tap dancer Michelle Dorrance appeared at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, she came recently injured. Not so badly that she couldn’t manage a beautiful soft shoe, but seriously enough that it was a good idea to get someone to pinch-hit for her in the serious, double-time tapping while she continued singing. Fortunately, Dorrance had the best possible substitute in the wings, one of the all-time greats: Dormeshia.
The show, performed for a packed house as part of the Y’s Harkness Mainstage Series, was designed as a shared evening for the two dancers. (Video of the performance can be streamed through Sunday at 92ndY.org.) And their sharing the stage at the start was a good introduction to the chummy tone of the event.
This was the kind of concert that tap dancers perform for one another, following the traditional format in which each performer chooses a song and improvises with the band (in this case, the pianist Michael Jellick of Detroit), expressing the dancer’s individual style. On Thursday, the stars took the opportunity to “pass the mic,” as they said, inviting to the stage four younger dancers (plus two surprise guests), all worthy of the attention.
They also passed the mic in the literal sense, requiring each participant to get in a little public-speaking practice by telling a story about their influences. These shaggy speeches were less expert, but for audience members not in what Dorrance called “the tap family,” they were windows into tap family values: heavy on love of the art and gratitude for predecessors. There were more thank yous than at an awards show.
In his speech, the Brazilian dancer Leonardo Sandoval expressed embarrassment that at his first tap festival, in 2006, he didn’t know who the Nicholas Brothers were. In his dancing, he demonstrated how much he’s learned since then, effortlessly blending samba steps and body percussion into the jazz tradition of the Nicholases.
Christina Carminucci, in her remarks, thanked her teacher, Derick K. Grant, for transmitting the spirit of his teachers, now-dead elders including Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines. (“I don’t know if he’s an elder,” she said about Grant. “He’s an elder,” Grant yelled from his seat.) In her dancing, the most hard-edge and biting of the evening, you could see the influence of Grant and of Dormeshia but also an artist coming into her own.
Elizabeth Burke was the smoothest in the flow of her musical ideas, a real pro. Jared Alexander, the only dancer new to me, impressed with the fecundity of his imagination, at one point incorporating an imaginary jump rope, even if he seemed to get a little lost.
Some of the fault there lay with Jellick, a pianist more rhapsodic than rhythmic (and downright symphonic in his solo rendition of Chick Corea’s “Windows”). Most of the dancers struggled a bit to agree with him on tempos and to find endings. But some roughness adds to the realness, as the surprise guests, the 16-year-old Foreman twins, Ellis and Jaden, showed both in their terrific brother-act dancing and in their speech. (About their mentor, Maurice Chestnut: “He’s been so … well, I wouldn’t say nice, but really great.”)
There’s a reason that Dormeshia’s solo came last. She exemplifies the ideal to which the others aspire. In red, heeled tap boots, she dug into “In a Sentimental Mood,” going deeper and deeper with each diagonal cross of the stage. “You’ve got to know how to read the room,” she said before dancing. She knows that, and everything else.
But she wasn’t the end. As is traditional, Dorrance invited up all the tap dancers in the audience for an impromptu jam. They went down the line, each taking a turn, all ages and shapes and skill levels — Dorrance and the rest of the cast, even Dormeshia, just more tap dancers among them. That, too, is part of the spirit of tap.