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ARLINGTON — Tap dancer/choreographer Michelle Dorrance can improvise and kick it old school with the best of them. But as she and her spirited New York-based company showed Friday night at Arlington’s Regent Theatre, the Bessie Award-winner has made her most groundbreaking contribution to the evolution of tap through tight, polished choreographic numbers that put the genre to the service of theatrical context.

Drawing inspiration from music ranging from the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Fiona Apple to The Bluegrass Reunion and Big Maybelle, she crafts dances with personality, precision and charming touches of clever, sometimes daffy humor. She and her dancers, 14 in all for Friday night’s show, dress in a variety of mostly colorful street wear, and they don’t just show off prodigious technical feats, they become a community of characters who hint at engaging narratives. I think the only time I stopped smiling was in line for the ladies’ room at intermission.

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A red-tuxedoed Josh Hilberman hung up his tap shoes to be the evening’s amiable MC, and tap maven Thelma Goldberg and the lively kids of her Legacy Dance Company filled the stage with a polished traditional hoofing routine choreographed by Barbara Duffy. But the night really belonged to Dorrance and her crew. “A petite suite (revisited)” vividly showcased the stylistic variety in Dorrance’s work, from the hard-stomping precision of “the Machine” to the rubbery-limbed looseness of “the Rag” to folk-tinged line dance in “the Waltz.” The group’s men got to tear it up in “the Boys,” with a sassy, swishy-hipped Nicholas Young, outfitted in gold headband and shorts, camping it up hilariously.

The world premiere of “Jungle Blues” unleashed undulating torsos, rolling hips, and shimmying shoulders. Knees and feet swiveled side to side like well-oiled levers, and dancers slid across the floor and balanced on toes. Chris Broughton showed off acrobatic splits and flips.

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Dorrance herself cut loose in an improvisation with bassist Greg Richardson, unfurling ripples of delicate taps or hammering out aggressive heel stomps, periodically springing into the air, limbs angled off center or flexed feet tapping heels like ballet beats. In “Two to One,” Dorrance in tap shoes and a barefoot Mishay Petronelli cast the spotlight on legs and feet as they went in and out of synch. Derick Grant showed intensity in a hard-edged jazz tap improvisation, and Young pointed tap in a more adventurous direction by dancing on a platform with amplified pitch sensors, after first creating a looped electronic score. But one of the most effective numbers was simply tap at its most elemental. The full company finale of layered, contrapuntal rhythms thundered with a thrilling, irresistible groove.


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.