Grace. Poise. Style. Sass. And those are just words to describe Elizabeth Burke’s stage presence. Start talking about her precise, clean sounds, her unexpected and sophisticated rhythms, and the way she finishes each movement, from toes to fingertips to smile, and you could go on for days. It’s easy to see why 18-year-old Elizabeth, a North Carolina native now in her first semester at NYC’s Marymount Manhattan College, has tappers across the country singing her praises.
Elizabeth is one of those rare performers who knew from Day 1 that they were meant to dance. When she was 5, her mom took her to see the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE) perform at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. The moment the show was over Elizabeth turned to her mom and said, “I have to do that. Find out how.”
She started training with NCYTE director Gene Medler at age 6, and at 7 she auditioned for the group’s company. She got in—and stayed with NCYTE until graduating from high school this past June. Though she has also studied ballet, modern and jazz, Elizabeth was drawn to tap from the start. “The more I learned, the more people I studied with and the more I was around the artform, the more evident it became to me that tap was my second nature,” she says.
As a member of NCYTE, Elizabeth studied and performed around the country. The company hosts the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival each summer, in addition to traveling to other festivals, including Chicago Human Rhythm Project, the L.A. Tap Fest and Tap City in NYC. Elizabeth has also trained with many of the greats, including Dianne Walker, Brenda Bufalino, Derick Grant, Ayodele Casel, Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold, Jason Janas, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance (also an NCYTE alum), among others.
“I feel like I’ve tapped into all of their styles, and hopefully have developed my own as a hybrid,” Elizabeth says. “Someone once came up to me after a performance and said, ‘You’re a mix of Dianne Walker and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards.’ I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition. Dianne is the epitome of smooth and crystal clear and clean, and when she dances it’s effortless, elegant, flawless and beautiful, but doesn’t hit too hard. Dormeshia is a force to be reckoned with. It’s not that she hits hard all the time; she’s just such a powerful voice onstage. Everything she does has meaning behind it. I was honored to be compared to those two dancers.”
Medler, who’s been Elizabeth’s primary instructor for more than a decade, is also one of her biggest fans. “She’s a natural mover,” he says. “She’s very integrated—her entire body dances the rhythm—and that gives her a great deal of emotional directness. She keeps it real.” He remembers her drive being strong even as a child: “Once, we were doing a move in class and she got on the wrong foot,” he recalls. “She was really upset with herself, and I said, ‘Elizabeth, it’s okay, we’ll iron it out.’ She said, ‘But it’s a lost opportunity to express myself!’ She was 9 years old!”
Elizabeth also has a fan in Michelle Dorrance, who started as Elizabeth’s teacher and mentor and has become a friend and colleague. “I love watching and listening to Elizabeth dance,” Dorrance says. “She has excellent technical skill, speed and execution, as well as remarkable clarity and musicality. Her sense of musical expression and personal style while improvising and choreographing are so tasteful, so appealing, so refined and so incredibly rare at such a young age.”
Now a freshman at Marymount, planning to major in communication arts with a minor in arts management and to dance in her free time, Elizabeth certainly has her hands full. However, she never questioned the importance of a college degree: “Dianne Walker instilled that in me,” she says. After graduation, “I would love to choreograph, teach classes at various studios and tap festivals and maybe even run my own company someday. And I definitely want to keep performing.” She laughs, perhaps realizing that she’s proposed almost every career possible for a dancer. “Really, as long as I’ve got my tap shoes on, I’m going to be okay.”
Thanks to those shoes—and the support of her friends and mentors—the sky’s the limit for this new New Yorker. “She has a bright future,” Medler says. “She’s in love with dance, and that’s powerful. And she’s so interesting to watch—very inviting, and not just in the face, not just with the smile, but also with her body movements and how she phrases and creates moments and tells the story. Maybe that’s the way to sum up Elizabeth: She’s a beautiful, passionate storyteller. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, and how she says it is special.”
Birthday: May 11, 1992
Favorite color: “I’ve got an allegiance to University of North Carolina’s ‘Carolina Blue,’ but that comes in second to red.”
Favorite food: “My dad’s banana pudding.”
Favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Favorite TV shows: “Law & Order: SVU” and “Grey’s Anatomy”
Favorite movie: “Forrest Gump is one of my all-time faves. I’m leaving out tap-related stuff on purpose because it’d be too hard to choose!”
On her iPod: Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Little Brother, J. Cole. “I’m big into jazz and hip hop.”
Most memorable dance moment: moment in an 11-year chapter of “We were at Chicago Human Rhythm Project this past August, and Gene Medler was getting the JUBA! Award for everything he’s done for youth tap dance across the world. NCYTE performed at the tribute, Michelle Dorrance gave a beautiful speech and former company members performed one of Gene’s pieces. It was probably one of the most moving moments of my life, seeing Gene getting the recognition that he deserves for everything that he’s done for youth tap. That was my last performance with NCYTE, and it was a culminating my life.”
Most embarrassing onstage moment: “When I was around 8 years old, NCYTE had Savion Glover as a guest performer. I was doing a sand dance [a smooth, easy-going dance performed in a sand box], and I could see Savion backstage out of the corner of my eye. The edges of the sand box are raised to keep the sand in, and at the end of the dance we were supposed to hop over the boxes to get offstage. Instead of hopping, I tripped over the edge and fell on my butt! When I got offstage, Savion greeted me with a hug. It was embarrassing, but Savion gave me a hug, so it was all right.”
Advice for DS readers: “Stay true to yourself and be comfortable with who you are. But don’t ever be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and take risks. Pushing yourself is important. Being nervous is a good thing.”