Like Beyoncé or Prince, the tap dancer Dormeshia is singular enough to need no surname. In her field, she is unsurpassed in all-roundedness. Other tap dancers make artistic compromises. They sacrifice elegance for complexity, or sound for visual beauty, or the reverse. Not Dormeshia. In her dancing, nothing is missing. Music and motion are a unified impulse, a perfect whole, and every time she improvises, the history of tap meets its cutting edge.
Among tap dancers, she has long been known as a master, commonly described as the greatest. In the words of Michelle Dorrance, the most acclaimed tap dancer of recent years, “the rest of us sit at her feet.”
This professional reputation, though, has never quite translated to wider recognition, or even just steady opportunities to work. Despite being underutilized in the 2013 retro revue “After Midnight” on Broadway, she won an Astaire Award for her performance, and she has also won Bessie awards, the concert-dance equivalent of Tonys. Yet the tap leader Jason Samuels Smith has a point when he says that Dormeshia, 43, “hasn’t really gotten her props yet.”
Could that be about to change? Talk to tap dancers right now, and you hear a lot of hope. For a long time, it seemed there was room for only one hoofer to succeed. But lately there’s been an uptick in interest for, as Dormeshia puts it, “several things on the menu.” A crucial example: For the first time ever, the Joyce Theater in Manhattan has programmed three tap shows in a single season. One is Dormeshia’s.
While nothing is missing from Dormeshia’s dancing, a few years ago, she began to sense that something important was missing from tap today. In classes she taught across the world, she noticed that students were often technically impressive and “saying a lot of things,” yet lacking something fundamental — swing.
Swing is a notoriously hard term to pin down. Let’s just say that it’s a groove or rhythmic feel central to jazz — and, because tap and jazz developed together, central to tap. And yet many young tap dancers, were “completely unaware of swing,” Dormeshia said. They didn’t know what it was, much less how to embody it.
So when she got the chance to create a show for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2016, she decided to remind people of the missing element. That show, “And Still You Must Swing,” will have its New York debut at the Joyce Theater, Dec. 3-8.
The production, accompanied by a jazz trio, is a collaboration with Dormeshia’s fellow hoofers Mr. Smith and Derick K. Grant. Top-of-the-line technicians, deeply versed in tradition and seriously charming, Mr. Smith and Mr. Grant could hardly be bettered as partners to exemplify swing — and to show how a return to roots can also push the envelope. They “eat, breathe and sleep tap dance,” Dormeshia said, as she does. They’re also old friends, and camaraderie makes a terrific team.
Yet, as Mr. Smith stressed in a recent interview, Dormeshia is in a class by herself. “She is the standard,” he said. “Dormeshia sets the bar for everybody. She’s the queen.”
The basis for that ranking and the title of Dormeshia’s show can be explained together. The phrase “And Still You Must Swing” is a quote from the 1985 documentary “About Tap.” Explaining the challenges of his art, the revered tap master Jimmy Slyde says in his gnomic fashion: “There’s balance involved. There’s movement involved. And still you must swing.”
What he’s talking about is how a tap dancer must attend both to the upper body and to footwork, all while doing the essential thing: making music, telling a story. Nobody else does all of this better than Dormeshia.
Technically, there seems to be nothing she can’t handle. A few years back, when Mr. Smith, a ferocious innovator, was choreographing a show starring Dormeshia, he tried to stump her with the hardest steps he could devise. “Every phrase I did, she picked it up like it was nothing,” he recalled.
The ease is the wonder. Almost never is there a rupture in poise, as her flirtatious shoulders and sophisticated arms ride above her eloquent feet. For her, there appears to be no contradiction between hitting hard and dancing like a lady. The famous overstatement about Ginger Rogers is actually true about Dormeshia: She really can do everything backward and in high heels.
“She makes it all look possible, like you could do it,” Ms. Dorrance said. “But you can’t.”
One effect of this ease is outstanding clarity and confidence. The in-demand choreographer Camille A. Brown, who has a dance cameo in “And Still You Must Swing” that highlights tap’s African roots, remembers being blown away the first time she saw Dormeshia dance. “To see this black woman be so unapologetic gave me courage,” Ms. Brown said.
Offstage — when speaking in an interview, for instance — Dormeshia is much more tentative and circumspect. “She has a lot of discretion and class,” Mr. Smith said, “and it can be difficult for people who aren’t aggressive to put themselves in the forefront.” Still, Mr. Smith believes, “her time in the spot is coming.”
Most ballerinas her age would be thinking of retiring now, yet as a tap dancer, Dormeshia is in her prime. Mentors like Slyde and Mable Lee danced into their 80s and even 90s, and there’s much truth in Mr. Smith’s contention that “the older you get in tap, the better you get.”
Dormeshia conceded a similar point about gains in experience. “Some would like to call it wisdom,” she said, laughing.
But the experience she brings isn’t only lived years. It’s a now-rare connection to tap’s past. As Dianne Walker, one of tap’s foremost matriarchs, explains it, “What Dormeshia has over almost everybody else is an intense, personal relationship with the true masters of this form.”
That relationship began very early. At 3, Dormeshia Sumbry began taking classes in recreation rooms of Carson, Calif., with Paul and Arlene Kennedy. The Kennedys’ mother, Mildred, had performed as “The Brown Bomber” on the New England vaudeville circuit, and they were hooked up to a black tap tradition that had fallen into decline.
It was a do-it-all tradition. The Kennedy motto, Dormeshia recalled, was “taps as clean as the Board of Health,” but “you had be aware of the upper body, too.”
Dormeshia was 7 when Ms. Walker met her. “She was quiet but already could do anything and everything,” said Ms. Walker, who herself had studied as a child with Mildred Kennedy. “She put in a lot of effort and she loved tap, but you might not have known it, because she wasn’t as emotionally expressive as other kids. She kept it inside. But she took it in like nobody else.”
Kennedy recitals attracted tap legends like the Nicholas Brothers and John Bubbles. But Dormeshia’s exposure to an earlier generation of tap masters dramatically increased when, at 13, she joined the cast of the Broadway revue “Black and Blue.”
Slyde was in that cast, as was the great Bunny Briggs. So was Dormeshia’s contemporary, Savion Glover. In the Paris run of the show, Mr. Glover had been the only child, the chosen one. But when the production transferred to Broadway, Ms. Walker, who had moved up from featured dancer to assistant choreographer, lobbied for more kids to get exposure. Dormeshia soaked it up, watching from the wings, whenever she wasn’t onstage, eight shows a week.
After high school, she joined the seminal company Jazz Tap Ensemble, learning to choreograph and to improvise with live music. She still kept a lot inside. In video from one performance, the guest artist Gregory Hines and another male dancer show off as she shyly clings to the back. When Hines kids her about her wallflower reluctance, she responds by doing everything the men had just done, better than they did it.
Mr. Glover’s career — and status as the young king of tap — took off with the 1996 Broadway show “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” The show’s original crew of dancers was all male, though later in run, Mr. Glover brought in Dormeshia, because she could do the boundary-stretching choreography, even if she had to do it in drag.
Tap was her life, and life continued. At 22, she married a fellow tap dancer, Omar Edwards. At 23, she had her first child, with two more to come. There are many reasons Mr. Glover’s career skyrocketed and Dormeshia’s didn’t. But Ms. Walker, who knows firsthand the difficulty of balancing a tap career with motherhood, emphasizes the importance of Dormeshia’s choices: “There was no way Dormeshia could’ve stepped out on the front line while she was trying to raise her family.”
Dormeshia, for her part, acknowledges that factor. “I built my life around my children,” she said, adding in a related key, “I do what I do, and I come right back home.”
Aaron Mattocks, the Joyce Theater’s new director of programming, said that he booked “And Still You Must Swing” after hearing everyone who knew about tap say that Dormeshia was the best dancer ever. “Maybe she’s not the best at self-promotion,” he speculated.
Now that Dormeshia’s two oldest children are in college, though, she said she’s “getting a bit of an itch to be out there more.” Most animated in conversation when discussing how the next generation of tap dancers inspires her, she mentioned thinking again about things she’s always wanted to do: “I’ll just say, maybe you’ll see more of me soon.”