Dance in Context

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Bandwagon, 1953. Used by Creative Commons License.

This week I taught the dance portion of the Musical Theatre Master Class. I cram a lot into an hour- basic dance vocabulary for actors, with a heavy focus on ballet, history, choreographers and their famous works, plus practical experience in learning a combination. These are some of my favorite topics to discuss, and it’s pretty hard for me to keep it to an hour. Plus, that’s a lot to ask of my students in that time- focus, body control, memory.

But I think they are all important elements of Musical Theatre Dance. You can’t have jazz without ballet. Jazz, both dance and music, has a uniquely American history, that students should learn.

Students should know Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Fred and Ginger. They should see the similarities between Michael Jackson and Bob Fosse. Robbins and “West Side Story”, DeMille and “Oklahoma”, Michael Kidd’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, Fosse’s “Chicago” and more recently, Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out” are important touchstones in Musical Theatre Dance.

As teachers, we do a disservice to students if we separate the act of dance from it’s framework. Much of what students learn in dance classes is “choreography”. Combinations of steps, meant to be performed. Which is absolutely important to being a performer. You have to be able to execute. You need to be able a pick up a combination in a short amount of time for auditions.

However, students are often not getting the history, theory or context of what they are learning. And those really should be part of the experience. Especially in a field like Musical Theatre.

Knowing history and context can help you develop your character. Having the basic vocabulary of dance will help you pick up combinations more quickly. Becoming an appreciator of the classics will give a depth to your work and to your life.