Michelle May could tell a story with her feet alone. Equipped with her signature orange tap shoes, she builds suspense by peppering sequences of impossibly fast footwork with carefully placed moments of stillness. Her audience has just enough time to catch up before she tears off into another orange-tinted blur.
But Michelle isn't just a waist-down dancer: She delivers a larger-than-life performance with her whole body. Her stage persona is so full of energy, it's hard to believe the 17-year-old considers herself shy. “I'm really introverted when you first meet me," she says. “Performing lets me take off that mask and reveal my quirky, confident side."
Born and raised in Palos Verdes, CA, Michelle first discovered tap at the Peninsula School of the Performing Arts. By age 10, she'd reached the studio's highest level, so she sought out Chloé Arnold's open tap class. Arnold introduced her to Sarah Reich—a member of Arnold's Syncopated Ladies crew—and Reich became her primary tap mentor. Michelle began attending Reich's Monday Night Tap Experience, a class that brings in a different teacher each week. “The first time I went, I was in way over my head," she remembers. “But eventually, the group became my second family." Michelle expanded that family when she joined Gregg Russell's company Tap Sounds Underground in 2012.
At the beginning of her sophomore year, Michelle joined her high school's hip-hop team, which piqued her interest in the style. Soon she was competing with several crews, including Pharside & Phoenix's Young Skull Club. The exposure inspired Michelle's unique style of tap, as she began integrating hip-hop–inspired upper-body movements with her footwork. “The blend kind of became my signature," she says.
That distinctive flavor helped her become a 2014 National Young Arts Finalist Scholar and a 2015 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts semifinalist. “Before, I didn't know if I could really make it," Michelle remembers. “The recognition helped me start to think about my future in dance."
So what does that future look like? A recent graduate of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, Michelle is about to enroll at the University of California, Los Angeles. She plans to major in dance and world arts and culture, and to explore dance on film. “I'm really interested in movement as it relates to cinematic art," she says. “I'd love to be a director, to help take dance into the film world and to make the images in my head come to life."
“One of the most impressive things about Michelle is her will to improve on her weaknesses. She's always had amazing technique, but watching her growth as a performer and a leader in rehearsals has been incredible." —Gregg Russell, director/choreographer of Tap Sounds Underground
Birthday: September 4, 1997
She's listening to…anything by The Weeknd.
Favorite tap step: Cramp rolls
Her go-to stress reliever: “Going up to the roof, taking in the view and listening to chill music"
Non-dance hobbies: Soccer, track and foosball
How she gives back: “I'm part of a community program called Ready, Willing, and Able, which pairs high school– and college–aged dance mentors with teens and young adults with disabilities. It's such a rewarding experience to see my passion for dance make the students so happy."
Dance idol: Gene Kelly
Performers she'd love to work with: “It may seem random for a tapper, but Desmond Richardson and Fik-Shun."
Favorite quote: “An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means it's going to launch you into something great." —Anonymous