Studios' early experiments with sound tended to imitate Broadway or Prologs, vaudeville shows at motion picture palaces. Among the featured dance acts were precision tap lines, ethnic (called "character") dances, adagio or exhibition ballroom work, and such eccentric work as rag doll dances. Examples of all four can be seen in The King of Jazz (1930), the finale of which features successive episodes of ethnic dancers representing immigrants as they march into an onscreen melting pot.
As Hollywood relaxed into sound technology, dance directors developed a new structure for dance-based routines. As exemplified by Busby Berkeley's films for Warner Bros., the routines opened on a traditional stage but expanded into 360-degree effects possible only on a soundstage. Berkeley's first feature films were Samuel Goldwyn vehicles for the comedian Eddie Cantor (1892–1964), such as Roman Scandals (1933). In 1933 he began his association with Warner Bros./First National with 42nd Street . Based on a popular melodramatic novel about a dying director staging a musical during the Depression, the film switched the focus to Ruby Keeler (1909–1993) as a spunky understudy and became a popular icon of the early sound era. Warner Bros. produced a cycle of comedies, featuring its contract character actors, singers, and dancers, about staging musicals during the Depression, including Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), with its Pig Latin "We're in the Money" opening, and Footlight Parade (1933). Apart from solos for Keeler, most of Berkeley's choreography is based on simple movements made by a large number of synchronized dancers, sometimes magnified by mirrors and cameras.
The extraordinary acrobatic dancing of the Nicholas Brothers enlivened musical films in the 1940s, and offscreen they were also considered one of the best tandem tap teams of the century with major careers in musical theater. The children of pit orchestra musicians, they were influenced by the up-tempo early jazz of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Both were coached by performers on the black vaudeville circuit who appeared at their parents' theater in Philadelphia. They adopted the tandem tap style, then epitomized by Buck and Bubbles, emphasizing synchronization of movements in complicated rhythms. They ended with "flash" sequences, including their signature leaps over each other in full, stretched-out side splits. They moved to New York and appeared in revues at Harlem's hottest nightclub, the Cotton Club, through the 1930s, where they were influenced by both the music and the personal style of Cotton Club orchestra leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Like Calloway and Ellington, they were featured in shorts, soundies, and early sound films, including Vitaphone shorts such as Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), featuring the composer Eubie Blake, and the Eddie Cantor comedy Kid Millions (1934). Their Hollywood roles were sequences in feature films that could be cut for the segregated markets in the South. They worked with Cotton Club dance directors Nick Castle and Geneva Sawyer, who had relocated to Twentieth Century Fox for a series of seven backstage musicals featuring jazz. In each film the brothers added spatial elements to the tandem and flash dances. They enlivened their splits sequence in Orchestra Wives (with the Glen Miller Orchestra, 1942) by adding runs up walls and flipping over themselves and each other. Their best-remembered variation is in the black all-star revue Stormy Weather (1943): in tribute to co-star Bill Robinson, whose specialty was tapping up and down staircases, the Nicholas Brothers restaged their signature moves down successive stairs.
They continued to tour with jazz ensembles, moving from the big band sound to bebop, and to appear on stage, notably in the musical St. Louis Woman in 1946. Harold Nicholas appeared as an actor in Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and other movie comedies. They received Kennedy Center honors in 1981 and are recognized as a major influence on later tap dancers such as Gregory Hines, Maurice Hines, and Savion Glover. The Nicholas Brothers, with the Copasetics and other greats of their generation, were featured in the documentary short Tapdancin' (1981) and the feature film Tap (1989), and are the subjects of the documentary The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance (1992).
Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Down Argentine Way (1940), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Stormy Weather (1943), The Pirate (1948)
Hill, Constance Valis. Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Most are based on social dances or on tap dancing but are done on staircases. Mirrors and reflective floor surfaces expanded black and white design schemes. All of Berkeley's work features his signature techniques—animation, stage scenes that open up to huge sets, and prismatic overhead camera shots.
Many of the Hollywood dance films of the 1930s and 1940s were film versions of popular modern-dress musicals, with dance sequences expanded rather than reimagined. The studios assigned their staff choreographers and arrangers to the task, and the prevailing Hollywood style determined what reached the screen. Operettas, made popular by the singing film stars Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965) and Nelson Eddy (1901–1967), used social dance to set place and time.
Vestiges of vaudeville and Broadway dance remained in the large number of films with backstage settings or with visits to the theater or nightclub built into the plot. The most prevalent style derived from live theater performance was the retention of the proscenium orientation, with the action taking place as if on a stage and the camera standing in for the audience. Gene Kelly (1912–1996) never broke free of frontal performance but developed many experiments to vary the form, such as his duet with Hanna-Barbera's animated mouse Jerry in Anchors Aweigh (1945), choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen (b. 1924). In "The King Who Couldn't Dance," Kelly teaches the cartoon mouse to tap. The setting is curtained like a stage set, with the throne in dead center. Following the pattern of a tap duet, he demonstrates steps, and the mouse repeats the movements, gradually dancing alongside and finally with him, bouncing off Kelly's biceps.
A defining aspect of dance in films of the 1930s through 1950s was movement inspired by or growing out of walking. Many of Hermes Pan's (1909–1990) solos and duets for Fred Astaire (1899–1987) convey a naturalness by beginning with walking. Classic examples include the "Walking the Dog" and roller skating sequences in Shall We Dance (1937), and the stroll through Central Park with Cyd Charisse (b. 1921) that begins and ends "Dancing in the Dark" in The Band Wagon (1953). The most famous walking dance in film is performed by Gene Kelly to the title song in Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Royal Wedding (1951) includes a classic pedestrian prop dance and two dances possible only on a sound-stage. In the first of two sequences danced onboard a ship, Astaire, one-half of a sister-brother dancing team, partners with a coat stand when his sister (Jane Powell) fails to show up for rehearsal. Their social dance number a few scenes later begins conventionally, but the performance is converted into acrobatics when the ship encounters a storm. They attempt to dance, but when the floor begins to tip their steps are turned into slides. Later in the film, choreographed by Nick Castle, Astaire is dancing alone in his hotel room when he begins to push off against the wall. This movement usually signals flips off the wall (as in Donald O'Connor's "Be a Clown" number in Singin' in the Rain ), but instead, he taps his way up the wall and on to the ceiling. The magical effect was produced on a soundstage equipped with hydraulic lifts.
Other memorable examples of pedestrian dances in film include the "garbage can" found percussion trio in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), choreographed by Gene Kelly; the Olympic team exercisers who ignore Jane Russell singing "Isn't Anyone Here for Love?" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), choreographed by Jack Cole (1911–1974); and the rhythmic sawing and log splitting performed by the frustrated brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), choreographed by Michael Kidd (b. 1919).
Surrealism was a second strong influence on choreographers for films of the 1940s and 1950s, with Jack Cole and Eugene Loring (1911–1982) at the forefront. Many dances featured moves for separated parts of the body, such as Loring's orchestra dance for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), written by Dr. Seuss. In Charles Walters's Easter Parade (1948), Ann Miller's (1923–2004) "Shaking the Blues Away" is famously accompanied by instrument-playing arms.
Broadway choreographers were only occasionally hired to reproduce their work. Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) did the stage and film versions of Oklahoma! (on Broadway from 1943, but not filmed until 1955), but not Brigadoon (1954), although both had dance sequences that were integral to the plot. Oklahoma 's dream ballet, "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," had already influenced many film choreographers by 1955. The French postcards that the villain Jud keeps in his shack come to life in her imagination as symbols of sexual depravity. The blank faces and angular movements of the "Post Card Girls" inspired Bob Fosse (1927–1987). Many directors and choreographers have copied or adapted empty soundstage with abstract clouds painted on the cyclorama for their dream sequences, most notably the "Gotta Dance" scene in Singin' in the Rain . Michael Kidd reproduced on film his movements for two highly stylized shows—the Damon Runyon gamblers in Guys and Dolls (1955), and the comic strip come-to-life, Li'l Abner (1959). The King and I (1956) was filmed with Jerome Robbins's (1918–1998) "Siamese" dances intact, including the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence. Robbins choreographed and co-directed West Side Story (1961), which scuttled the musical's dream ballets but kept the famous opening dance sequence.
Dance reemerged in Hollywood with the disco era, through popular films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and its many imitators, and the 1950s-era musical Grease (1978), choreographed by Patricia Birch. The Wiz (1978), choreographed by Louis Johnson (b. 1930), employed modern, tap, and jazz techniques, as well as club and break dancing around New York City locations. Dance was featured as atmosphere and plot material in La Bohème (1990), an Australian television production on which Baz Luhrmann (b. 1962) served as opera director, and Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge (2001), directed by Luhrmann. The popular and critical successes of Moulin Rouge and Rob Marshall's (b. 1960) version of the Bob Fosse musical Chicago suggest that the musical is still a viable genre.
There have been feature films about dance as a profession since the silent era. Most, like Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929), include performance as well as backstage scenes. Ballet films tend to be highly melodramatic, among them Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's influential The Red Shoes (1948), in which a ballerina torn between love and art commits suicide. Ben Hecht's forgotten Specter of the Rose (1946), and The Turning Point (1977), directed by Herbert Ross (1927–2001), a former ballet dancer and choreographer, are equally obsessed with the emotional life of dancers. All three inspired their viewers to experience live performance. Similarly, art cinemas and university film societies made Soviet and French ballet films available in the 1960s and enlarged the audiences for touring ballet companies. Carlos Saura's Spanish collaborations with the flamenco choreographer Antonio Gades (1936–2004)— Bodas de sangre (1981), Carmen (1984), and El Amor brujo (1986)—achieved great popularity in the United States.
Fame (1980), based on New York City's High School of the Performing Arts, featured adolescents in ballet, modern, and jazz dance training. The modern dancer Louis Falco (1942–1993) staged the famous "improvised" sequences, in which the characters groove at lunchtime and spill onto the street. Dance (social and modern) has frequently been used as a language of self-expression in such popular films as Flashdance (1983) about a welder who wants to dance; Voices (1979), about a deaf woman who wants to dance; and Footloose (1984), about a teen who wants his town to dance.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epitomized exhibition ballroom dance in film and beyond. Both dancers had stage careers before their first film pairing. Astaire and his sister Adele began in vaudeville as children, reaching Broadway as specialty dancers in Over the Top (1917). Their reputations grew in New York and London with roles in the Gerhswins' Lady, Be Good (1925) and Funny Face (1927), The Bandwagon (1931), and many other musicals and revues. Adele retired in 1932. Rogers reached Broadway via Charleston competitions, vaudeville, and stints as a band singer. In Hollywood, she had roles that combined comedy and tap dancing in Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 .
They were playing secondary comic roles when they were paired by Dave Gould for "The Carioca" number in the RKO musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). Their subsequent collaborations, staged by Hermes Pan, who had been Gould's assistant, were all starring roles. The classic Astaire and Rogers films were plotted musicals with songs by Broadway's greatest songwriters— The Gay Divorcee , with songs by Cole Porter (1934); Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Carefree (1938), by Irving Berlin; Roberta (1935) and Swing Time (1936), by Jerome Kern; and Shall We Dance (1937), by George and Ira Gershwin. Each accommodated at least one newly invented social dance, one competitive tap routine, and one love duet, as well as a tap solo for Astaire. Pan's romantic duets began simply, often with rhythmic walking, and progressed through flowing movements to lifts and dips, before returning to a quiet ending. Astaire and Rogers were cast in the title roles in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), RKO's tribute to the pre–World War I ballroom dancers. The RKO publicity machine promoted them, the films, the songs, and ballroom dances extracted from the musicals.
Although they reunited for the backstage musical The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), their dance partnership ended in 1939. Rogers went on to star in comedy roles for MGM and Twentieth Century Fox; Astaire kept dancing in film and on television, primarily to Pan's choreography. He was able to adapt his expertise to each partner—in tap with Eleanor Powell, languorous ballroom with Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse, and musical comedy with Judy Garland, Jane Powell, and Leslie Caron. For many, his tap solos with props were the highlight of the films. They began with objects setting a rhythm, such as the ship's engine in "Slap That Bass" in Shall We Dance . Although Astaire is recognized as one of the greatest of American dancers, as a popular quip has it, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels."
Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Roberta (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time . New York: Perennial Library, 1987.
Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book . New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Gallafent, Edward. Astaire & Rogers . New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
In the 1980s Music Television (MTV), and following it, VH1 and Black Entertainment Television (BET), popularized music videos as an integral part of promoting recorded popular music. Many were filmed and spliced performances, relying heavily on editing, but
some were staged and choreographed. Some refer clearly to film choreography, such as Madonna's "Material Girl" (1984) music video, an adaptation of Cole's staging of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , complete with human chandelier. Memorable music videos as dance include the robotic, stylized "Video Killed the Radio Star," and Michael Jackson's (b. 1958) take on a West Side Story –like gang war in "Beat It" (1982). Jackson's "moon walk" excited his teen fans and reminded their elders of the African American tap greats who developed such eccentric steps. Other directors worked with seemingly spontaneous dance steps, adapted from break dancing, voguing, and hip-hop, including Prince's "Purple Rain" (1984). The recognizable editing style associated with music videos, fast cross-cutting between the performance and dance scenes, has spread to influence feature films as well as television.