Comments on the dance –


Now you may wonder what an old grump like me could say about dancing. Well, brace yourselves. For about two years in my late twenties I made my living as a dancer and a ballroom dance teacher.

Obviously, my bias is towards what the ballet types sneeringly refer to as “social dancing”. Ah yes, I lead, female follows. Good old atavistic, fun stuff. Ballet types do not seem to regard ballroom or tap or folk as “serious” dancing. On the other paw, I do not regard ballet as dancing. No, I am not disparaging same. What it is, to me, is quite beautiful gymnastics. Extremely difficult, but usually carefully choreographed. Relying more on careful counting and memorization than free-form and rhythm.

What has brought on these musings is watching the Michael Flatley Irish dance DVDs. It seems that every third or fourth generation rediscovers some form of tap, and Irish hard-shoe dancing is certainly one of the genetic ancestors of tap. Irish, tap, folk are almost always exuberant expressions of joyful music with a strong, driving beat and a happy melodic line.

The early Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson (Bojangles) collaborations were sheer joy to watch. Especially, see any of the routines involving stairs. Bill Robinson invented the up and down stairs tap routines back in his Vaudeville days. The reason that his taps sound a bit different than others you may have heard is that his taps are wooden rather than metal. Another one of his innovations.

For tap raised to high art, see any of the Eleanor Powell movies. Gorgeous woman. Also any of Frederick Austerlitz’s movies. Oh yeah, you know him as Fred Astair. For a special treat see the collaboration Broadway Melody of 1940. The dances in that are as near perfection as you will ever see.

Ann Miller’s Too Darn Hot routine in Kiss Me Kate is also superb.

The problem is that by the 1950s MGM trended toward ballet type routines in their musicals. See Gene Kelly’s later works, or even Fred Astair’s later movies and you will see what I mean. Great dancing, but not the joyous fusions of music and exuberant movement of the earlier stuff. Ballet is great, but it is not and cannot be the supremely stimulating rush of a tap or ballroom routine.

I am vaguely surprised that some movie mogul has not tried to incorporate Irish dance into a musical. And I’m not so sure it would work, anyway. It will be interesting to see what the next craze is, not that I’ll live long enough to find out if it takes another generation or so.


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