Music meets dance at the feet of North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble

Michelle Dorrance by Matthew Murphy and Kenn Tam

Tap shoes and bare feet beating on the floor, and hands beating, bare, and with sticks, shakers and drums. At opening night for the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble’s Gotta Dance at Carolina Theater in Durham, everything was copacetic.

Dancers of NCYTE

The Chapel Hill based company made up of 40 dancers from the triangle and beyond was complemented by guests Michelle Dorrance and Travis Knights. The show was a great mix of styles, with everything from classics to cutting edge contemporary pieces.

Saturday, the live jazz trio played the dancers on stage with Take the ‘A’ Train for the first dance, a classic by Charles ‘Honi’ Coles. Most of the company, ages ranging from 9 to 18, filled the stage with increasingly fast tapping in wonderful unison.

Guest Michelle Dorrance, former NCYTE member and recent Bessie Award recipient, choreographed several of the company’s dances. The innovation in choreography that earned her the award was apparent right away. In the first, to Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the dancers moved rhythmically around the stage, gracefully ape-like, dancing as much with their torsos as with their feet. That was followed with a charming wobbly-legged rag doll duet, one of my favorites of the night. All of Dorrance’s work is active and exciting; dancers slide, jump and scoot, and use their whole bodies while producing dynamic rhythms.

Michelle Dorrance by Matthew Murphy and Kenn Tam

Another piece of innovation was a dance choreographed by Derick Grant to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Cello in D Minor. A couple tap danced on each side of a dark stage under a spotlight. Feet flying to the classical music, they never moved from under the bright light, creating the interesting effect of a black and white photo or a memory.

A piece from the repertoire since 1999 that I will never tire of is Song for My Father, choreographed by Margaret Morrison. The movement and rhythms were smooth and seemed to glide across the floor without disturbing it. After the music faded away it was replaced by the dancers beating a primal rhythm with drum, a shaker, and an unidentified percussive thing, while taking turns dancing solo improvisations.

The Stair Dance was a duet on and up and down two sets of stairs. Sisters Treva and Amanda Hickey (ages 10 and 14) never flinched as they leaped from the top step to the bottom and tap-toed quickly back up.

The older members, and some of the younger ones showed their own style in short improvised solos throughout the evening. This was their chance to show off “tricks” and speed, as well as intricate understanding of the music and rhythms. Their commitment to study and practice, mixed with passion and creativity make them top-notch performers.

Guest tap dancer and all-around performer Travis Knights engaged the audience with a story of how he came to tap, and dedicated his dance to the memory of Sammy Davis Jr. He went from a funny rendition of Me and My Shadow with a French(Montreal) accent to some serious tapping, playing with the audience and the band.

Travis Knights

Michelle Dorrance danced Two to One, with Mishay Petronelli, to Aphex Twin by Nannou. Petronelli was shoeless, the two of them were in black tulle. Side by side they began to move slowly, feet first. Dorrance’s artistic expression has created something without a category – a percussive modern dance. It would have been equally at home and well-received at the American Dance Festival. After Petronelli left the stage, Dorrance broke it down tapping her trademark slides and footwork.

The dancers of NCYTE have performed all over the world, and will be heading to Chicago for the big tap festival The Chicago Human Rhythm Project this summer, where they’ll meet up with some of the world’s greatest tappers and learn new dances.

I’ve been watching NCYTE for over a decade now, and many dancers have come and gone, each with his or her own style. Some things haven’t changed, though. The level of performance, professionalism and skill has remained consistent, as well as the dancers’ graceful confidence under the leadership of artistic director Gene Medler.

If you want to see what it looks like when the music and dance become inseparable, go see NCYTE. Your last chance to catch them on the stage this season is Sunday, April 29 at 2:00 at the Carolina Theater in Durham. Gotta Dance!

Graduating seniors from left to right, Taylor Hartzog, Caroline Vance, Isabelle Carson DeWitt, Sam Hickey


by Denise Cerniglia

By Denise Cerniglia

Postmodern experientialist of the arts. Follow my public posts on Facebook at to keep up with mostly dance, some opera and classical music happenings. Also, visit my dance photo blog at


  1. That sounds awesome! I love that there are folks out there creating category-less dances like “percussive modern!”

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