The Audition Process by Michael Jahns, choreographer
Throughout my professional career as a performer, dancer, singer and actor, I have consistently been asked one question from younger performers: “Should I pursue a professional theatrical career?” My response has always been the same. If you have to ask, the answer is probably “no.” Any theatrical career carries with it a very different lifestyle, complete with an enormous amount of rejection. I have frequently spoken to other working choreographers, singers and dancers and artists about how they answer this often-asked question, and generally I’ve received similar answers. The late Bob Fosse consistently pointed out that 80-90% of the members of Actors Equity, the union that governs stage performers, were unemployed.
Therefore, if you can find any other career that they feel would bring them fulfillment, you should pursue it. Show business is a very difficult life, requiring much sacrifice. I feel I would be remiss not to mention considering this question before an individual undertakes any type of audition in the theatre.
Now that this fundamental question has been considered, I would like to give you a brief outline of the types of auditions a performer will encounter, as well as some of the practical aspects that all performers face within this process and a few general observations from a life in the theatre.
The triple threat of acting, singing and dancing
Because this subject is virtually limitless, this essay will focus on auditions for what are termed triple-threat performers. This pertains to performers who are not only actors, but singers and dancers, as well. I will also describe the audition process for dance-only roles.
There are several differences between auditioning for a play as opposed to a musical. When reading for a musical, the scenes tend to be more concise, tightly and economically written. The actor auditioning for musicals needs to provide an extremely rich subtext because in most well-constructed musicals, the climax of a scene is not in the writing, but rather in the song and/or dance. The song and/or movement are extensions of the plot and contain the scene’s highlight of emotional life. This is a crucial difference between reading for a straight play and a musical. For a musical, one needs to learn to extend the emotional line of the writing from the end of the written line through the movement, lyric and the melody.
One other piece of advice regarding a successful triple-threat audition: Generally, those conducting the audition need to watch you objectively and judge you. Thus, they won’t be available to act as the other half of the personal relationship that exists in the scene you’re performing. Therefore, you will need instead to imagine a third party (generally, the audience) to whom and/or with whom you can sing or dance. Your chief objective during any part of this type of audition is to create a relationship with that third party – the audience, imaginary or not, or your fellow dancers – a relationship that is warm, loving or needful. This will allow the auditors to do their job, to objectively judge the performers, and ultimately cast the piece being performed. For instance, when singing a love duet as an audition piece directly to the auditor, ideally the individual conducting the audition would smile back encouragingly and send back feelings to the performer. But, most auditors tend to stay more objective, in order to judge the performers and cast the play. Therefore, on behalf of most auditors, I suggest that you use the technique of imagining a third party, or the audience.
Exclusively dance auditions
Auditions for roles involving only dance can be conducted in several ways. One primary job all performers need to work on (hopefully, early in their careers), is to find representation, or an agent. This is an extremely useful tool in the audition process. If you can obtain a competent theatrical agent early in their career, the agent’s job will be to set up auditions for you. This is probably the most effective marketing tool a stage or screen worker can have in obtaining auditions. It is similar to having a third party set up a job interview, or blind date. You come into the process with a positive recommendation, and appointment.
Having an agent set up your auditions is very much preferable to what are known as “cattle call” auditions. In such auditions, up to 500 or even more performers are seen after they respond to an advertisement in one of the theatrical trade papers, which lists available positions in a production and a time when an unlimited number of hopeful performers can congregate for a limited amount of positions in a production.
The cattle-call process can be an extremely demoralizing type of audition. To begin with, approximately 500 or more dancers congregate, are given a number for identification processes and give the auditors a resume of their work in the theatre and an attached 8” x 10” glossy photograph for identification purposes.
After this process, the auditors conduct the process of “typing out.” This is a process that the dancer really has very little to do with. It has more to do with genetics than anything. The dancers are divided into groups of approximately 10 dancers at a time and asked to step forward. Individuals are then singled out by number and those who fit the “look,” who fit the producers’ idea of the physical look of the roduction, are asked to stay. Those not called by number receive a “Thank you very much,” which means “Goodbye.” All of this is done without the assembled dancers ever taking one dance step.
After all of the applicants go through this initial, very demoralizing process of typing out, the remaining dancers are asked to step forward again in groups of 10-15 and asked to do a double pirouette on each side. For those who don’t know the definition of a pirouette, it means a double turn based on one leg at a time. After completing this most basic of dance movements, another “typing out” happens.
At last, the dancers who remain are taught a dance combination by either the choreographer or dance captain. They are then divided into groups a final time and put through the dance combinations several times, group by group.
The final cut is made by reshuffling the groups, doing the combinations a final time. One group of dancers (identified by number) is asked to step forward and thanked for their time. This is the final rejection. The remaining dancers are given a contract, and given pertinent information regarding the production such as a rehearsal schedule, dates and other important information.
Therefore, as mentioned at the start of this essay on auditions, being a performer requires serious thought and consideration of the sacrifice needed for a life in the professional theatre. Back to topics
ESSAY on CHOREOGRAPHY by Michael Jahns, choreographer
The art and process of choreography, as with any of the art forms – musical composition, painting, sculpture, etc. – is as diverse as the piece being created.
The formal definition of choreography is “the art of mapping or describing a region as distinct.” This is a definition brought to its most simplistic level, especially when it is being applied to the creative process. So many other factors are of concern when considering the whole of choreography as it applies to the creative process. Some of these can be the type of score one is working with, the vision of the piece being created, the dancers, musical scores, and the level of the creativity and skill of the collaborators a choreographer is working with.
A choreographer needs to consider two dynamics when creating a dance piece. These are framemaking, and then the “filing.” Framemaking is working an area which will then be filled with movement which can convey the ideas, music, dynamics and the structure of the piece that is needed. If the piece being created is choreographed with both sides, the framemaking and the filing or movement being considered, then the relationship between the two dynamics has a much more considerable chance of cohesive story-telling or expressing a coherent thought which is desired.
There are, of course, as many approaches to choreography as pieces utilizing movement. Of the many choreographers this artist has had the privilege of working with, I’d like to mention several to illustrate the differences that come from their backgrounds, and how these differences shape the individuals’ choreographic styles.
1. Jerome Robbins, who is known for choreography for Broadway stage productions such as “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and many other classic musicals, comes from a very structured balletic training. In addition to Broadway musicals, Mr. Robbins was a principal choreographer for the New York City Ballet among many other companies. While considered an extremely prolific and gifted choreographer, he had a reputation for being a rather difficult personality for dancers to collaborate with. Most audiences don’t realize that ballet dancers spend their entire training and performing careers working at a constant athletic level in the effort to make what is very unnatural to the human body appear easy, as well as elegant. Mr. Robbins, being the perfectionist that he was, thought nothing of berating one dancer in front of a group of 25-30 other dancers and collaborators. This could be done for as minor a reason as an arm being a fraction out of place. Obviously, this was extremely demoralizing to the performer. While ballet is an extremely precise use of movement, his harsh delivery where critiquing was concerned was less than productive.
2. Michael Bennett was one of, if not the lead choreographers, of the 1970s through the mid-1980s. His work included Broadway productions of “The Follies,” “Company” “Ballroom” and, of course, what many in the Broadway theatre consider to be the premiere dance musical of all time, the classic “A Chorus Line.” His style was a classic continuation of the dance forms ballet and jazz. One of the elements of his work that make it so unique was that like the man himself, his choreography expressed a certain sexual ambiguity. The men and the women were both required to perform movement that exhibited both male and female elements. In addition, the late Mr. Bennett’s work used stillness as a movement to great success. This is most clearly seen, for example, in the opening pose the dancers appear in on the album cover, which they periodically come back to throughout the play, at times holding that same completely still pose for up to 20 minutes as other dancers step forward to do their solo pieces. This is possibly one of the most effective uses of stillness executed in Broadway dance. For the dancers, this can be extremely difficult, yet periodically coming back to that exact same opening pose has an effect unmatched in the power and continuity it brings to the piece.
3. Bob Fosse. The final example of Broadway choreographers also happens to be one of this dancer’s favorite works to perform. Bob Fosse came from a background of Burlesque and Vaudeville. His work was filled with pelvic undulations, hip thrusts, and perhaps some of the most sexualized movement ever seen in Broadway theatre. This movement gave his musicals such as “Chicago,” Pippin,” and “Sweet Charity,” among many others, extreme individuality and sensuality. Mr. Fosse had a preference for featuring very long-legged female dancers as the centerpieces in his choreography while the men were generally used to frame the women through their movement.
What all three of these prominent choreographers had in common was their unerring use of dancers well trained in all dance forms which ultimately allowed them to produce clean, elegant and athletic dances in which stories could be told effectively through the dancing alone. The majority of prominent choreographers of all idioms ultimately use one common source of documentation to retain not only the actual steps of their creations, but also their intentions in storytelling, dancer motivations and intended themes of movement. This science of collecting, abstracting and coding choreography for future reference was developed many years ago at the Labanotation Institute of Dance in New York City. Labanotation was developed as the primary way for choreographers to accomplish the above mentioned science of art documentation. It is a very precise language that, when seen on the page, very much resembles the symbols used in the eastern languages such as Japanese, Chinese, etc. These symbols very precisely notate not only steps, but also feelings, story points and requirements of performers to duplicate movement as precisely as it was intended to be presented when originally created.
Before closing, I must take a moment to digress in order to stress the importance of the type of venue which James Searles is striving to create for the Milwaukee dance and performance community. The value of affordable spaces in which art can be created can never be underestimated. By creating areas accessible for framemaking and it’s feeling at reasonable cost, it affords performers and choreographers the unique opportunity to develop the movement or filing in a space which will allow them to hone their choreographic and performance skills. This cannot be done in spaces that are cost prohibitive such as larger venues, or spaces incorrectly designed for performance, especially movement. Congratulations, Mr. Searles, for your vision and courage. I’m sure I speak on behalf of a large group of choreographers of varying notoriety whose careers could never have progressed to higher levels without visions and the expectation of those visions which are similar to yours. Spaces such as this are prominently on display for use in cities such as Chicago or New York. In Milwaukee they are curiously lacking and in disparate need. Back to topics
Profile – Katherine Zavada
Katherine Zavada grew up in Eau Claire Wisconsin, a town which had limited opportunity to study ballet. There was a fabulous teacher who occasionally would come with her professor husband who taught at Eau Clair University. I took theater classes and did children theater from sixth grade through high school. I lucked out getting leads in the college musical shows before I started college. Later I was asked to choreograph the musicals including summer stock.
I was married after my sophomore year and moved to Milwaukee where I had the opportunity to join the dance program at UWM. The rest is history. I had my chance to study ballet and other dance forms that I loved so much. When I did my last acting gigue, I had tallied 22 shows for Public Television. I had enough work to just do dance, my first passion.
I always knew I wanted to teach when I was at UWM. I am now teaching at this beautiful space at the Astor Theater and loving it. Contact information at River East Dance: www.artisticwebworks.com/red/
E-mail: email@example.com Back to topics
Katherine Zavada Performance
Katherine Zavada, 7270 Fish Hatchery Road, will be performing with Dandecircus on Nov. 12, 1981. at 8 p.m. at Milwaukee's Performing Arts Center.
On that evening, Dancecircus will be presenting its annual fall concert of contemporary dance works, including the Milwaukee premier of Ms. Zavada’s latest piece, “Sea Anemones,” which portray the territorial instincts of a trio of underwater creatures aroused by the intrusion of a stranger.
"Sea Anemones" is Ms. Zavada's third work for Dancecircus. A faculty member at UW-Parkside, she also teaches and does free-lance choreography in Milwaukee.
–Milwaukee Journal, 1979 Back to topics
Wisconsin Roof Ballroom Milwaukee, Wisconsin
With Wisconsin claiming more ballrooms in 1940 than any state, it is understandable that the state's largest city contained some outstanding ones. Among them were the Modernistic, the Wisconsin Roof and Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom. They continued in the tradition of the Wells Colonial Hall, which got its start in 1884 and continued holding dances into the 1930s.
On the state fair grounds, just off S. 84th Street, the Modernistic sponsored bands during the summer months. It was well patronized during its many years of operation, beginning in 1922. When it opened the season on May 22, 1937, 9,000 dancers passed through the turnstiles to do their fancy footwork to the music of Red Norvo, Frankie Master's and Bill Carlsen's orchestras.
Especially well attended during the fall, winter and spring months, was the Wisconsin Roof Ballroom located at 536 Wisconsin Avenue. This dance facility opened in April 1924 on the seventh floor of the then new Carpenter building. Later the Wisconsin Theatre also moved into this building and occupied the lower floors.
With many beautiful ornaments, its tasteful decorations and so many dreams coming true there, the Wisconsin Roof gained its nickname of "Aladdin's Palace."
Out of the 31,000 square feet available to the ballroom usage, 18,035 square feet were reserved for the dance floor. Its size made it the largest one in the state. Around the hardwood floor ran a promenade separated from it by latticework. A featured attraction of the promenade was a fancy lounge called Peacock Alley, which was beautifully decorated and furnished with large plate French mirrors, overstuffed divans, soft chairs, and a large piano.
Refreshments were available close to the dance floor served from a 130-foot bar with the walls behind it featuring paintings of ships. Near by was a balcony jutting out from the hallway by Peacock Alley. From this disguised fire escape, called "Moonlight View," couples could gaze at the heavens, peer down at the cars scurrying around with lights tracing their paths, or engage in some romancing.
In the late 1930s and the early 1940s, between 3,000 and 10,000 people congregated in this ballroom during an evening. In one typical April evening in 1940, 7,000 patrons each paid fifty cents to dance to the music of Frank Meekins and his orchestra. During World War II, the period of its greatest popularity, the ballroom operated seven nights a week with an occasional matinee. Sailors from the Great Lakes Training Base, looking for a good time dancing and maybe romancing with the Milwaukee girls, made up a heavy portion of the patrons. To maintain order, however, the management did not permit jitterbugging, fad dancing, or cutting in.
In a few short years after World War II ended, the Wisconsin Roof suffered from a post-war slump in the ballroom business. Unable to remain profitable, the Roof shut down in 1958, with Max's Merry Makers playing for its farewell dance hosted by Carl Dunlap, manager of the Wisconsin Roof for many years.
Excerpt from the book, Ballroom Echo’s. This book can be found in the humanities section of the Milwaukee Public Library. Back to topics
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov 6, 1999
Blake Was a Lifelong Leader of the Band by Eldon Knoche
Jerry Blake, whose big-band sounds set Milwaukeeans' feet to dancing for decades, has died in Las Vegas at age 80.
Blake was leader of the house band at George Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom at the Eagles Club from 1950 to '68.
He arranged a quantity of music for Wayne King and, to a lesser extent, for Lawrence Welk.
Though the Jerry Blake Band made appearances in Chicago and New York, his big-band and swing music was heard mostly in Milwaukee and at convention and resort areas, such as Lake Geneva. He once had as many as seven bands appearing simultaneously around the area.
At the Eagles Club, his band backed up Frank Sinatra Jr., Tony Bennett, Myron Floren, Fabian and other musicians.
Blake was born Marvin W. Voigt and used that name onstage until Devine urged him to adopt a name with more show-biz pizzazz. Voigt talked it over with his family and chose the surname of a British poet he admired, William Blake. Why he picked Jerry as his first name has been lost in time.
As the musical director at the ballroom, Blake often brought celebrity bandleaders home for supper after the weekend shows, according to his son, Richard Voigt. On Friday, Voigt said he recalled seeing Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Wayne King, Sammy Kaye, Lawrence Welk and Crazy Guggenheim in early mornings at the family home. Voigt could not remember why Guggenheim was there, but he did recollect that the comedian put away more steaks than anyone else.
Blake's band also opened for Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
When the ballroom closed in 1968, Blake contracted to play events and parties at Allen-Bradley, First Wisconsin and other corporations and continued sending his bands to weddings, school proms, country clubs and private parties. Blake appeared at Summerfest, in concerts at the Civic Center Plaza, at charity balls and at Gov. Warren Knowles' inaugural ball. He played for Milwaukee Public Schools recreational programs and at Green Bay Packers games in County Stadium and backed up Irish tenor Dennis Day at the Washington Park band shell.
Blake was booked into the Marc Plaza's Empire Room and the Wisconsin Roof Garden, popularly known as the Roof. Until the Roof on the seventh floor of 536 W. Wisconsin Ave. was converted into office space in 1958, it had the reputation as one of the most romantic spots in Milwaukee. A promenade off the dance floor included a balcony, called Moonlight View, overlooking the city. It was said that many a sailor saw the beginnings of a romance there.
By 1980, Blake was tired of Wisconsin winters and ready to retire. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had been visiting Las Vegas more than a half-dozen times a year and were drawn to the first-class musical talent the city attracted.
They moved to Las Vegas, and within a couple of years, Blake was appearing once or twice a week at Arizona Charlie's hotel and casino. Using some of the musicians he had worked with before, many of whom had also retired to Las Vegas, he led an orchestra for more than 15 years at Arizona Charlie's and occasionally at the Santa Fe hotel and casino. He gave his farewell performance at Arizona Charlie's last New Year's Eve.
In both Wisconsin and Nevada, the license plate on his auto read "Maestro."
Blake was born July 16, 1919, in Milwaukee to Elsworth and Viola Voigt and trained as a classical pianist. As a freshman or sophomore at North Division High School, he was doing all the arranging for the school band and was asked to take over conducting the band, Richard Voigt said. He also organized his own band to play at parties.
Drafted into the Army in 1941, he was leading a band at a base in Asheville, N.C., when he received his assignment for overseas duty. However, his commanding officer wanted him to entertain the troops at home. So Blake spent World War II rehearsing his band, arranging music and playing for a weekly radio show and at dances on and around the base.
At war's end, the commanding officer allowed Blake to take all his arrangements home with him. Within a week of returning to Milwaukee, he had a band organized and three show dates lined up.
With a 12-piece band, Blake played at the Eagles most Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights year-round. Sometimes, to the delight of thousands, he led his band onto the dance floor to do the hokey pokey with the crowd.
Three times Blake's band was named best dance band by the National Ballroom Operators of America. The first time, Lombardo himself presented the prize. Back to topics
Dance in Film by Amie Ferrante
When I was asked to write a piece on dance in film by Jim Searles, well, asked isn't really the right word, more like, arm twisted, I thought to myself, "Sure. Why not?! Piece of cake!" Then I got to thinking about what I wanted to say about dance in film, and realized, that it wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.
There is a rich and full history of dance in film. It seems that since film came into existence, filmmakers have wanted to try to capture the ethereal gracefulness and elusiveness that is what makes up a dancer, be they male or female. Some of the earliest films of dance are of the elusive Anna Pavlova. While the sound is virtually nonexistent, and the speed that the film plays at is not what would be a true speed for her to dance at, there she is, preserved for eternity on film for all the aspiring ballerinas of the world to view forever. A direct link to the glory days that were the 1890's in Russia when Tchaikovsky composed his standards and they were performed for the first time for the Tsars and Tsarinas; Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.
Now, you may say to yourself, well, what does that have to do with contemporary filmmaking. Just hang on...I'll show you.
As movie technology progressed and sound was added to film, it made the possibility and ability to capture dance, even more accurately onto film. Some of the most spectacularly staged, and I do mean staged, not choreographed, numbers came out of The Ziegfeld Follies movies and the Busby Berkeley numbers. Don't get me wrong, those are absolutely marvelous pieces, the massive stage productions, but, choreographic works of art? Well, that is this dancer's opinion. I love watching them as much as the next, but I wouldn't put them in the same category as say, Jerome Robbins "West Side Story".
Anyway, back to the pre-WW II movies...Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers...I still have to laugh when I hear what the original critique of his screen test was:
“Can sing and dance a little”. Talk about your understatement of the year. (But, he wasn't the last one to be underestimated, and I'll elaborate on that person at a later date.) I digress. Fred and Ginger are still the epitome of grace, style, and poise. While their films aren't necessarily Oscar caliber, the influence that they have had on society, from their first movies, all the way through 2003 is astounding. While Fred never really actually owned any of the Fred Astaire Ballroom Schools, having sold his name, they are still in existence, and competitive ballroom dance, commonly called dancesport now, is very common, and the Olympic Committees are being lobbied to have it included as an actual sport. I wonder what Fred would think about that?
Now, I did mention something about that Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, and promised that I would tie in his ballets from the 1890's into movies; so, I guess I'd better get about doing it. Well, ballets have been filmed since film was able to capture ballerinas and danseurs, male dancers, onto film. If one were to do an Internet search for ballets on video format, there would be a plethora of available titles, ranging from the aforementioned classics, to Agnes De Mille's Rodeo, to Antony Tudorfs Jardin Aux Lilas (The Lilac Garden), to Billboards, a Joffrey Ballet piece where that company invited varying choreographers to choreograph the music of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. What few people know is that there are excerpts of many of the great ballets worked into contemporary film.
Most people have heard of the movie, and actually seen the movie "Bye, Bye, Birdie", that wonderful salute to pop culture and the generation gap still exists between high-school teens and their parents. (Some things never change!) The movie, in and of itself, has some of the best choreography, especially the number that occurs in the Shriners' meeting in the basement of the bar. What many people don't realize is that the ballet scene, towards the end of the movie, is actually The Rose Adagio from the classic ballet "Sleeping Beauty". Many people have actually thought that that piece was made up just for the movie. It wasn't. That is a fairly accurate interpretation of what the original choreography is supposed to have been. Without that scene, where Dick Van Dyke slips the Russian conductor a speed up drug in his milk, there wouldn't be that great scene in the movie where he speeds up the tempo of the music and the poor ballet dancers attempt, in vain, to keep up with the ever increasing tempo of the music.
So, we have here, an 1890's ballet, one of the greatest, encroaching upon pop culture and almost preventing the "One Last Kiss" song from being sung on the Ed Sullivan Show. The original filmmakers had the right idea about attempting to capture dance on film. It is the only way to capture the elusiveness that is a dance performance, but I don't think that they were aware that their attempts to capture beauty and grace and to preserve it for posterity would have led to one of the most hilarious scenes in a movie.
DANCE IN FILM PART II by Amie Ferrante
Since last I wrote, I have given what I want to write about this month, great thought. I am fascinated by connections, always have been always will be. How and why things happened in the past and how they affect the future and the present is truly fascinating to me. What would appear to be a series of unconnected events can link up, meld, blend, and, voila! A new dance form/art is born. Then, we have this "new" medium, film, to capture its childhood and document its teen years, and capture its adulthood.
I know that some of you are wondering what "new" dance form I am talking about. Have I got your attention? Well, the "new" dance form is tap dancing. While it may seem as if it has been around for years, it actually hasn't. Its forerunners have been around for hundreds of years, and that is the connection that I want to explore now, the connection of tap dance, to the past and film.
I'll start by stating a few "givens". The United States, amongst other countries, imported slaves from Africa for years. When Africans were brought here, at first, they were allowed to keep their drums and use them. After the Cato slave rebellion, when slaves "called" to other slaves to join them along the Atlantic coastline, drums were confiscated, as the slave owners were afraid that the slaves would use the technique of "talking" drums again, to organize another revolt. The Africans, once their drums were taken away, turned to stamping out the ancient tribal rhythms in the dirt, so as not to lose this important part of their heritage and preserve what little original identity they could.
At the same time, the United States was also importing indentured servants from Ireland and Scotland. These indentured servants brought with them the "hard shoe" dancing from their native lands. Now, it isn't quite clear how the two forms of dance met and blended, specifically, but it is clear that, at some point, they did, and the result was tap dance. When tap dance first emerged is questionable. Some think it emerged as late as the 1890's, others as early as the 1830's. Unfortunately, there is no filmed documentation of its emergence, and, as it wasn't necessarily an upper class dance form; there isn't much documentation of its emergence.
What we do have filmed documentation of are some very interesting mutations and morphings that tap dance has gone through. Previous to "talkie" movies, dance was not that interesting to film, as there wasn't any music available, other than the accompaniment provided by the movie house pianist or organist... okay, and the rare movie house that actually had its own "house" orchestra.
Once sound was introduced, a whole new world of filming was possible, not to mention a whole new ability to stage fantastic, fabulous productions, each one more elaborate than the last, in an attempt to vie for the customer's dollar.
Who can forget the Busby Berkeley movies, the elaborate sets, the gorgeous dancing girls, and the innovative use of staircases to create depth to the scenes? Then, there are for me, the totally forgettable numbers where some choreographer had the bright idea to put some taps onto pointe shoes. For the reader that isn't familiar with ballet, pointe shoes are designed to operate, optimally, when the leg is rotated and "turned out" from the hip. Tap dance is not necessarily designed to work from a turned out position, although there are some steps that involve a little bit of "turn out", but not to the extent that is necessary to dance en pointe. While an interesting novelty, it did little to further the art forms of either dance, or film.
As film progressed, many great tap dancers, amongst other dancers, emerged and started to develop and shape the art form of tap dance. Fred Astaire, while mostly known for his skill as a tap dancer, actually did much to develop filming techniques with his innovative choreography and insistence on not "breaking" the scenes during filming. He insisted that a number be filmed all the way through, no stopping and starting, thus challenging the camera men and film crews to extend their knowledge and skill at getting the shot right the first time. There are many stories of his partner. Ginger Rogers, coming out of shoots with blood on her shoes from her feet, as they had to dance scenes over and over until they were correct.
Fred Astaire also innovated the use of props, in tap dancing. Who can forget that marvelous scene where he dances round a room, all while seeming to stand perpendicular to the floor, in Royal Wedding? The dances with a hat rack? Drums and drumsticks, which contemporary dancers continue to imitate to this day?
One of my favorite tap dances of all time is from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, directed by Vincent Minelli where Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance through their lives. It is the only time the two great tappers actually danced together, so, if you have yet to see it, I would urge you to rent it this weekend.
Then there are the Nicholas Brothers. Wonderful innovators in choreography. The dance with the stairs, where they simply leap over each other and land in the splits? Brilliance, sheer brilliance. I had the infinite pleasure and privilege of taking a few classes with Harold Nicholas, a few years back.After class, I asked him who did their choreography and how they came up with the idea for jumping over each other on the way down the stairs. Believe it or not, he told me that they were simply trying to outdo each other, and, simply kept on going with it, once one had done it in rehearsal.
Again, mistakes, chance meetings, happenstance – one never knows where things being viewed came from, what their past is, what their future is. The next time you sit and watch one of the great tap pieces on film, stop and think about tribal drumming from Africa, or, maybe the more obvious, indentured Scottish or Irish servants, and you can see the history of this great art form. Back to topics
Ballrooms in Milwaukee by Rev. Catherine B. Balistrieri-Busateri
(A fictional adventure)
Let’s take a trip back in time. Imagine it's 1939. It’s the end of the Great Depression, and before World War II. “Gone with the Wind” is playing at the local cinema, and it is the end of Prohibition. The economy is bouncing back, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is our President. The disposition of the Country is hopeful and big-band music is all the rage.
Orchestras like Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Milwaukee's own Woody Herman are playing all of the popular ballrooms throughout the country.
Women are beginning to increase in the workplace and are earning their own money. However, the first and foremost priority for women is finding a man.
These days, birth control is nonexistent, and an education is considered wasted on a woman. A woman's goal is to find a man, marry, and have babies soon after high school. Most parents do not permit their daughters go to cocktail lounges or bars. The girls who do are considered “bad girls.” Other than church, there is no place to meet a mate except for the ballrooms.
There are a number of ballrooms in the Milwaukee area. Two of them are in my vicinity on the lower east side. One is at the top of the Shorecrest Hotel and the other, the Swan Ballroom in the Antlers Hotel.
It's Saturday night. My girlfriends and I want to go dancing, and meet some men. A good way girls can socialize with a group of men is at the ballrooms. There, one can dance the night away, while husband hunting.
We arrive at the ballroom, the band is playing, people are dancing, and everyone is having a good time. I am secretly seeing the bandleader. He is really cute and he has a great big, shiny tenor saxophone. My parents would not approve if they knew. The only reason they let me go dancing is so I can meet some “nice boys.” Certainly not a musician who carries “hooch” in a flask. I love his music, and I think I am in love with him. He always comes and sits with me on his breaks. He told me earlier he had some big news for me, so I am anxiously awaiting his next break. Maybe he is going to ask me to marry him, or at least go steady. I know he does not like it when I dance with other men, but I love to dance, and dance I will.
Finally, it’s a break time. Or should I say his big break. He tells me the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra has asked him to go on the road with them. He will be leaving in a day or two, and he does not know when or if he is coming back. It’s Great news for him; but bad news for me. I am 21 years old and unmarried; I do not want to be a spinster, but I am not one to let the grass grow.
Oh well, there will always be ballrooms in Milwaukee, I guess I will just keep on dancing.
Note: Before the Charleston: pre WWI dances are the Texas Tommy, Foxtrot, Animal Dances, Waltz, Tango, Maxixe. May I refer to www.streetswing.com a superb dance history site Kurt Lichtmann, http://www.ithacaswingdance.com/
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