Posted: March 12th, 2023

Dance video Analysis

For this DVA, demonstrate you knowledge of Weeks 6 and 7 by connecting influences mostly from the most recent readings!


Part 1 - View your video and take notes

A. Watch the dance you chose.

B. Write down notes of your first impressions. (These are just your notes and do not need to be included in your assignment submission.)

C. Use your growing list of dance influences as a resource. Watch the dance a second (3rd? 4th?) time to determine which people, dance genres, dance styles and steps influenced the dance in your video.

[Note: all of the above leads to notes for the written analysis, which begins below...]

Part 2 - Write your analysis of the dance, including the following:

A. Show Information - You may need to do some detective work to find all of the above show info. Here is a GREAT resource:

IF YOU ARE ANALYZING A REVIVAL, GIVE THE INFORMATION (YEAR, CAST, CHOREOGRAPHER) FOR THE REVIVAL. You do not need to give info about the original production.

1. Name of show (year it opened on Broadway) - Show names are always in italics

2. "Name of song(s)/dance number(s)" - Song/dance title(s) in quotation marks. IMPORTANT NOTE: If there is more than one dance number in the video, you must name and analyze both!

3. APA citation for video. See Writing & Citing Guidelines - APA in your Course Home. To get video info, click on the video, then click the YouTube icon on the bottom right to "View on YouTube."

4. Choreographer(s)

5. Dancers - If there is a large company of dancers, list the lead(s) followed by "and Company", e.g. Dancers: Chita Rivera and Company.

B. Comments about what makes this dance special - Write a paragraph about why you like the dance you chose. Include details. ["Energetic and upbeat" is great, but not specific enough. "The way the dancers kicked their legs, with such energy, like they were punting footballs..." is much better, more descriptive. Please avoid using "a lot", which is slang for "many", "quite a few", "a large amount", etc.] Be sure to write about the dancing and what you found interesting, compelling, innovative, etc. A good strategy is trying to "sell" this dance to a friend, with specific ideas to get your friend excited to see the dance.

C. Dance Influences - This is the major part of your assessment...

For this DVA, demonstrate you knowledge of Weeks 6 and 7 by connecting influences mostly from the most recent readings!

1. Write a list of at least 4 influences from our content that you see STRONGLY represented in your dance. All significant influences from our course content should be included.

Influences can include:

People: Are there choreographers, performers, etc. that we have studied who danced or choreographed dance step phrases or styles that you see in the dance? [Again, "energetic" is too general.]

Shows: Does your dance strongly remind you of any of the shows we have discussed so far in the course? Why?

Dance steps/styles: What style(s) or genres of dance do you see in your video? How do you know?

Concepts: Be careful with this one. Sometimes, a dance can really remind you of an influence in a conceptual way. For example, Master Juba is both an influence as a person and Juba could also be used as a conceptual/structural influence for a dance. [Check your notes!] Precision dance is also considered a concept.

Your dance may or may not have influences from all of these areas. List only those influences that are STRONGLY evidenced in your dance. A reader--including me--should be able to see, from your description and your example, a direct connection from the dance influence to your dance. Please do not write up a kitchen sink list.

2. Next to each influence:

a. Describe characteristic elements of that influence.

b. Connect elements from each dance influence directly to an example of where you notice them in the dance video. Describe the example and include a timestamp from the video.

Part 3 - Check your work

Check the rubric! Full points are given only for exceptional work. Remember that the depth of your understanding of all course content can be clearly seen in the depth/quality of your work. Go to the Broadway Dance Video Analysis rubric in your ASSIGNMENT DUE DATES & RUBRICS Module.

Part 4 - Submit your work:

a. Attach a Word doc.

b. Please include your full name as the first part of the file name.



Reminder: Do not collaborate with another student on any assignment. Review course policies and penalties for plagiarism in the Academic Integrity Policies in your MUST READ Module at the top of the course.

· Please consider the following when completing this week's assignment.

· The Franchonetti Sisters’ dance and the Quadrille were just tools for us to connect ideas about society perspective in watching dances. Do not use them as an influence.

· Make sure you are reading all content. If the assignment is in Week 4, you can be sure that many of the significant influences that are connected to the dance videos are from Week 4. Same goes for Week 5. You should be taking notes and adding to your list of influences each week. As the weeks accumulate, your list of influences should as well.

· Videos from the course content are there to reinforce the readings. Just because you see a dance step in one video, does not mean that the dance in the video is an influence for one of the videos you are analyzing if you see the same step. Remember, you are connecting significant dance influencers, styles, shows, etc. If you see a similar dance step or style, who is the choreographer of the first dance? That is the influence!

· Do not use videos from assignments as influences unless we studied them in the course content.

· A good rule is, if you read about it in the course, it is probably important. However, you need to find the influences that most connect to the dance. For example: Ballet is not usually a significant influence in a tap dance, especially when we have studied and will continue to study the most important tap dance influencers in history.

· Scholarly writing

· Use the full name or last name only (after 1st time a person is mentioned) when talking about a performer, choreographer, etc.

· "A lot" is a general slang term. Instead, find the quantifier that matches what you're talking about, e.g., "many", "several", "quite a few", etc.

· "In sync" is slang for "in synchrony" (e.g., "They danced in synchrony.") or "synchronized" (e.g., "The dancers' movements were synchronized.")

· Watch verb tense: Choose past tense and stick with it. Also, avoid "passive" verb tense ("When the dancer would kick, ..."). Instead, make the stronger statement "When the dancer kicked, ...)

· Place a proper heading on your assignment and make sure you are naming your file: last name first name DVA2.

1930s: Concert Dance Leaps Across the Footlights

Copyright ©2010

On Broadway

In the first years following the depression, black musical theatre continued to thrive. Eleven black musical shows opened in the first two seasons of the 1930s (Woll, 1989). Production costs for colored shows were much lower than those for white shows. Scenery was cheap or non-existent, and colored performers were often willing to work for whatever wages were offered.

Black performers continued to struggle against racial prejudice, even in the union that claimed to represent them. As the Depression settled in, changes in Actors’ Equity rules led to lower wages for black performers. When producer/director Earl Carroll wanted to hire fifty black actors for his new Vanities revue, he received a special waiver from Equity to hire them as “atmosphere” rather than as performers. By changing their status from “chorus” to “atmosphere,” Carroll was able to pay each performer only $19 each week (Woll, 1989).

Black performers also continued to battle racial prejudice in American society. Even Bill Robinson’s Broadway celebrity status did nothing to protect him on the street.

Florenz Ziegfeld claimed that Robinson was booked to perform in his upcoming Follies, but in reality, Robinson was engaged to perform in Brown Buddies (1930), a new musical revue produced by his manager, Marty Forkins. After three weeks of out-of-town previews, the show was scheduled to open at the Liberty Theater in New York. Two days before opening, Bill Robinson was shot.

He had left his hotel and was hailing a taxi to take him to the train station when he heard the screams of Mrs. Annie Bies. The white woman pointed after a fleeing black youth, who had her purse in his hands. Bill dropped his bags and gave chase, calling to the boy to stop. When the youth kept running, Bill pulled his gold-plated revolver and fired. He missed the youth. Patrolman Michael Horan heard the shots, ran in their direction, and seeing a black man with a gun, fired. Bill dropped. The purse-snatcher escaped, and Bill was taken to Mercy Hospital. Treated for a superficial wound in the left arm, Bill was released and resumed his journey to New York. Two days later he opened in Brown Buddies as scheduled, with his arm in a white satin sling, and managed to carry on until the finale, when suddenly he felt faint. He whispered to his fellow cast members, “Get me off.” Leaning on the arm of a large male dancer, he reached the wings and collapsed. But he went on as scheduled the following night. Asked how he felt about being shot while trying to help the woman who lost her purse, Bill stated he felt no rancor toward Officer Horan, which further endeared him to police departments all over the country. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, pp.197-8)

Brown Buddies was not a critical or a commercial success. The plot loosely supported several song-and-dance numbers. But Robinson brought down the house every night and received rave reviews. Wrote critic Richard Lockridge:

And now we move TO THE FEET OF Mr. Robinson---the subtle feet, the amazingly rolling eyes, the strange chuckling sounds with which he applauds the feet when they perform, always to his apparent surprise, some peculiarly difficult evolution. He croons with his feet and laughs with them and watches them in wide-eyed amazement as they do things which apparently surprise him as much as they do the rest of us, and please him, if possible, even more. (cited in Woll, 1989, p. 143)

Adelaide Hall was also credited with carrying the show.

America and the Broadway stage continued to struggle along hand in hand. Bread lines became a daily event for many New Yorkers. As breadlines grew, so did evidence of social unrest. The Great Depression swiftly forced Americans to take a realistic view of personal necessities. It had a dual polarizing impact on theatrical themes. On the one hand, there were musicals and revues that helped audiences escape the grim realities of current life.

Anything Goes (1934)

Anything Goes captured the spirit of musical comedy and spotlighted dancing and singing. Here is the title song from the revival, performed on the Tony's in 1988. Patti LuPone, a star of the Broadway stage, plays Reno Sweeney in this version. You will remember Sutton Foster from the Tony Awards that we watched a couple of weeks ago. Foster was a divergence from the usual casting of the female lead. Foster, to me, is a cleancut girl-next-door. Normally that role would go to a brassy, woman-of-the-world, someone more like LuPone:

Video: Anything Goes


You may also enjoy watching this video below. The video shows Sutton Foster and company in a rehearsal of the full version of the title song. (The Tony Award performance was about half the length!) The rehearsal scenario offers you a glimpse of the performers as humans rather than just as a part of a glitzy picture. For instance, you will notice after the big dance, Foster stands centerstage breathing deeply, while the chorus begins to sing. Later, she turns upstage for several counts to catch her breath before her last big note!

Video: "Anything Goes" rehearsal

[If time is short, watch a minute or two]


Escapism continued to play on Broadway. On the other hand, realism and political satire also became staples of the Broadway stage. Broadway dance reflected both ends of the escapism/realism spectrum. Even revue shows managed to stitch together entertainment and social commentary, touching on political topics with increasingly barbed satire communicated through song and dance.

Dwindling ticket sales continued to plague Broadway theaters, forcing many dancers and singers to join the ranks of the unemployed. But, according to Broadway historian, Laurence Maslon:

Out of this adversity came an extraordinary decade of artistic growth for the Broadway musical, which, next to the daily newspaper, became the most vibrant and incisive indicator of what was going on in America. Never again would Broadway reflect its country’s concerns with such crystal clarity. (2004, p. 131)


The Americana revues incorporated contemporary American life into song and dance numbers. The third revue, which opened October 5th, 1932, was notable for two reasons. First, it included the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” a lament about the plight of the working man reduced by the Depression to begging on the street. This song became the signature ballad of the great Depression. Second, this last Americana revue brought modern dance--then called “The New Dance”--onto the Broadway stage.

Concert Dance Invades Broadway

First of all, what do we mean by “concert artists” and “concert dance?” For the purpose of our course, we will use the following simple definition: concert dance refers to dancing that occurs on stage, by trained dancers, in front of an audience that expects to see only dance for the evening. Traditionally, ballet, modern dance and world dance pieces, performed by dancers trained in these styles, are considered concert dance.

At the time concert dance became prominent on Broadway, dancers in New York City enjoyed a fluidity of opportunities that allowed for them to juggle Broadway show employment with concert dance rehearsals and performances. The technical training of the dancers was valued by the Broadway community. Often, modern dance companies were hired to perform their repertory pieces within a show. Though this practice did little to support the storyline, it probably saved producers money, since the initial period of rehearsal that it took to put together each dance piece was already done.

Now, back to Americana. A revolutionary modern dance company, the Humphrey-Weidman Company performed repertory works that were interpolated [interjected between parts] into the Americana revue. [The show credits two companies, the Charles Weidman Dancers and The Doris Humphrey Dance Group, who correspond to the choreographer of each piece.] Jose Limon—who would later achieve fame with his own dance company and his own signature modern technique—performed in Americana as part of the Humphrey-Weidman Company. [Limon performed in 7 Broadway musicals and 4 Broadway dance specials.] In the following reading, he talks about the Humphrey-Weidman school during the Depression and Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman’s participation in the Broadway community:

Doris and Charles were whistling in the dark, so to speak, to keep up their spirits and courage.

Things were going from bad to worse in the country. The unreal world of politics, senseless and strident, would impinge crudely on our minuscule universe. One day we learned that a certain Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of whom we had been vaguely aware as a remote figure in a place called Albany…was now president. So removed, so isolate, so ignorant were we when it came to anything that did not concern our obsessive preoccupation with dance!

This innocence was not to last much longer. There was widespread deprivation, hunger, misery, and protest. The wolf, raging and slavering, was at the door, making ready to lope up the stairs of many homes in America, including ours on Eighteenth Street. Most of the girls in the company came from comfortable middle-class families and were immune to the contagion of poverty. But others were not so fortunate. Those who were on their own, who had to work as salesgirls or waitresses or at odd jobs, felt the pinch, as did the young men.

It was at this point that the writer, J.P. McEvoy, whose musical revue, Americana, was being produced by the Shuberts, persuaded the producers to engage the Humphrey-Weidman company to perform some of their concert pieces intact, as part of the show. It was agreed that “The Shakers,” “Water Study,” “The Little Soldiers,” and “Ringside” would fit nicely into the production. Doris chose not to appear personally. Charles would; moreover, he was to create several original production numbers for the show.

Opening night at the Shubert Theater on Forty-Fourth Street was a sensation. Americana had for its theme the Depression that was afflicting the land, treated with irony and compassionate humor. McEvoy had written an unusually adult show, and the miracle was that it was such a great success. The dances, especially, excited comment. For the first time the New Dance was introduced into the commercial theater, a prophetic and auspicious event that was to lead to a fecund association over the next decades. Charles, in particular, was to function successfully in the Broadway arena, presaging the later success of Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins. (Limon, 1998, pp. 38-9)

Below is a reconstruction of one of Doris Humphrey's pieces that appeared in Americana. Picture the society who was just getting used to jazz. Imagine the reaction of the audience to "The New Dance."

(2011) Water Study was choreographed by Doris Humphrey in 1928. This video shows a reconstruction of the work.

The piece is performed in silence and the only sounds are those the dancers make as they move.

Modern dance began to infiltrate Broadway. The addition of serious, “real” themes to musical offerings paralleled the journey that many concert dance artists were taking in their choreography and performance. With its exciting new commitment to the exploration of “real” emotions and its determination to shatter the boundaries of movement in traditional dance (namely ballet), modern dance opened up new possibilities for movement on the Broadway stage. Broadway shows benefitted aspiring modern choreographers, too, providing them with regular employment that enabled them to pay their rent, fund artistic dreams and perform regularly for an audience.

As Maslon said, the artistic side of Broadway flourished. This was particularly true for dance. With the inclusion of modern dance, the technical training of Broadway dancers and the emotional content of Broadway choreography both expanded. When these two elements came together on stage, the result was revolutionary.

Dance Integration

Although Show Boat had made great strides in integrating music and script, dance numbers had yet to be intricately woven into the fabric of musical storytelling. One of the most consistent forces in the evolution of Broadway dance is the interpolation [interjection between parts] of random dance styles into the current standard dances. A wide range of dances often co-existed in the same show. Broadway historian, Mark N. Grant, cited the musicals The Student Prince and The Desert Song as examples of musicals that “used interpolation, mixing in extraneous dances like vaudeville numbers, fairy ballets, eighteenth century gavottes, Spanish-flavored dances” (2004, p. 249). Early shows that included modern dance did little to change the practice of interpolation. Though the theme of current national events ran through the Americana revue—and modern dance was certainly a main event of the period—you can well imagine the disjointed evening experienced by the show’s audience. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Water Study" are two very different numbers!

Many of the dancer/choreographers who were revolutionizing concert dance in America also danced on Broadway stages. We will continue to discuss the impact of concert dance on Broadway as the unit progresses.

Broadway News

Another show that chronicled national happenings was As Thousands Cheer (1933), a revue show that regularly rotated numbers to keep up with current events.

As Thousands Cheer had as its concept the daily newspaper, with each number and skit taken from (or performed in ironic contrast to) a headline…projected across the proscenium [the arch at the front part of the stage that frames it]. This structure allowed Hart to parody such wet-ink-fresh subjects as Gandhi, … the building of Rockefeller Center, and the outgoing Hoover administration (the sketch has the lame-duck ex-president and his wife running up a huge last-minute long-distance bill on the eve of FDR’s inauguration). [Composer Irving] Berlin took a gentler swipe at ribbing Josephine Baker (“Harlem on My Mind”), Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (“How’s Chances?”), even the hoary conventions of the revue format itself (“Supreme Court Hands Down Important Decision”), which says that revues are forbidden to reprise their most memorable songs in the finale. (Maslon, 2004, p. 167)

More Concert Dance

Earlier in the course, we discussed the inclusion of ballet dances in musicals and variety shows. (Remember The Black Crook?) Concert dance had been included in Broadway offerings for decades.

Dancers en pointe [wearing ballet dancing shoes called “pointe shoes” that have hardened toe boxes to stand on the very tips of the toes] and ballet choruses continued to make appearances in many shows that also included vaudeville-style acts.

Albertina Rasch

Albertina Rasch was the first documented female dance director on Broadway. Although she trained at the Opera Ballet School in Vienna, when she came to America, she quickly grasped the commercial possibilities of the musical theatre. She opened a dance studio in New York and began to choreograph for Broadway and Hollywood. She formed her own company, which she called “Albertina Rasch and the American Ballet” (also billed as the Albertina Rasch Dancers and the Albertina Rasch Girls) and combined syncopation with ballet steps--often en pointe!—to originate a new style of dance that she named “symphonic jazz” (Austin, 1997, p. 67). “Rasch Girls” were featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 and Ballyhoo of 1932.

Rasch’s goal was to entertain. She made little attempt to integrate storyline into her dance numbers (Kislan, 1987). She often included a “dream ballet” in the shows for which she choreographed. [The dream ballet—which would soon be beautifully integrated and eventually overused in future musicals—is a musical dance sequence that allows the choreographer to take the audience into a character’s dream, basically allowing anything to happen! Rasch used this device often. She choreographed three dream ballets for the musical Lady in the Dark (1941) (Wilmeth, 2007).

Rasch had an extensive career as a choreographer. However, her twenty years staging and choreographing thirty Broadway musicals, revues, revivals and plays (including the 1927 and 1931 editions of Ziegfeld’s Follies) did little to bring her notoriety in Broadway history.

In contrast, accounts of Rasch’s punitive personality have traveled through the decades. According to author Debra Hickenlooper Sowell, Rasch “had a reputation for being difficult to work with; she was demanding and spoke harshly to her dancers in a vocabulary studded with obscenities” (Sowell, 1998, pp. 100-1).

Rasch’s behavior, however, was not rare in the field of dance. In fact, tyrant choreographers and directors were more the rule rather than the exception, especially in concert dance. Artists such as Rasch often employed a Darwinian, “survival of the fittest” method of dance training. Those dancers that were not physically and emotionally strong enough to stand up to hours of rehearsal and strings of verbal abuse were weaned out. Some performers thrived under such methods.

Like Buddy Bradley, Rasch taught and coached star performers, including film star Jeanette MacDonald.

In an era when male dance directors dominated Broadway, New York producers made an exception for the "Czarina," as she was known, because of her business sense and her grasp of the public pulse. MacDonald enrolled at Rasch's studio in the Steinway Building on West Fifty-seventh Street...While less stalwart pupils were intimidated by the instructor's accented bellow, thumping cane, and scalding sarcasm, Jeanette took instantly to her demands for discipline, stamina, and consistency...

An emancipated European, Rasch believed that the United States offered the greatest promise for democratizing the female body politic. In dance, she insisted, if a woman's body is "lithe and resilient and perfectly controlled," and if she possesses "an abundant vitality," she will project, regardless of her actual social stratum, the manners and mental attitudes Europeans typically associate with aristocratic breeding. MacDonald was an exemplar of this philosophy. She learned from Rasch how to tone down her chorus-girl prance and walk across a stage with stately grace in an American manner, without affectation. Rasch also believed that classical art forms had to be adapted to a New World context. She argued for American ballet and opera geared not to an intellectual elite but to the general populace, in much the same way as baseball and motion pictures have mass appeal. (Turk, 1998, pp. 47-8)

Whatever method Rasch used, her career flourished. Her instinct for the type of dance that would sell tickets coupled with her ballet background resulted in a dance style that was at once technically beautiful and commercially appealing. Rasch’s innovative combination of syncopated steps with ballet put her original stamp on show choreography. Though she rarely received rave reviews from journalists or accolades from historians, her work is noteworthy as a precursor to contemporary styles of dance. Said musical theatre historian, John Kenrick:

As respect for dance rose on Broadway, Rasch became one of the first "dance directors" to be referred to as a "choreographer" …Rasch received equal praise for massive ensembles in The Great Waltz (1934) and intimate routines in Jubilee (1935). She was one of the first to treat dance as a serious element in musical theatre. (2003, "Ziegfeld Follies III")

Then, along came George Balanchine…

George Balanchine (1904 - 1983)

George Balanchine was born Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg, Russia. He began studying piano at the age of five and ballet at the age of nine. In the summer of 1924, he and three other dancers defected from the Soviet Union, while on a dance tour of Western Europe (George Balanchine Foundation, 2002).

Balanchine and his comrades joined the Ballets Russes, a world renown London ballet company. After several years of performing and choreographing ballets—as well as a wide variety of dances for the Cochran Revues in London, a fateful partnership was proposed.

The young American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein…harbored a dream: To establish a ballet company in America, filled with American dancers and not dependent on repertory from Europe…He met Balanchine after a...1933 performance and outlined his vision. Balanchine was essential to it. Deciding quickly in favor of a new start, Balanchine agreed to come to the United States and arrived in New York in October 1933. "But first, a school," he is famously reported to have said. (George Balanchine Foundation, 2002, p. 2)

Together Kirstein and Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet, which continues to train dancers today and is the feeder school for Balanchine’s company, The New York City Ballet Company.

Balanchine’s immense impact on the world of ballet is well documented in dance history. Less well known are his contributions to Broadway dance. Balanchine got his first musical theatre job on Broadway via his friendship with a Russian composer, who was working on the 1936 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies (Kristy, 1996). The choreographer for the show was Robert Alton. Balanchine was brought in to choreograph dances for Josephine Baker. According to author Bernard Taper:

At considerable expense the Shuberts had brought Josephine Baker from Paris, and it was Balanchine’s assignment to fashion some dances that would display to advantage her dusky elegance and her talented, world-famous derriere. As much as anybody else, Balanchine admired this derriere of hers, but there was little original he could do for it. It was already, so to speak, institutionalized and not to be tampered with. (1987, p. 178)

Neither the Balanchine numbers nor the show created much of a stir.

Honorable Mention: Robert Alton

Robert Alton choreographed at least thirty-two musicals, revivals and specials [including Anything Goes, Pal Joey (starring Gene Kelly) and three editions of Ziegfeld’s Follies] from 1933 until his death in 1957. He is known for his commitment to showmanship, musicality and high expectations for his professional dancers. Said Alton about musical theatre choreography, “I have exactly six minutes in which to raise the customer out of his seat. If I cannot do it, I am no good” (cited in Long, 2001, p. 16).

On Your Toes (1936)

Next, Balanchine was hired to choreograph On Your Toes.

Tamara Geva and Ray Bolger, starred in Balanchine’s dream ballet for the show: “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Ballerina Tamara Geva, who had defected from Russia with Balanchine, was his first wife. Ray Bolger—best known as the scarecrow in the film, The Wizard of Oz—was a comic, eccentric dancer.

In the ballet, Bolger’s character is in love with the ballerina. He’s in trouble with the mobsters in the scene, who threaten to shoot him if he doesn’t keep dancing. At the end of the dance sequence, Bolger performed a desperate final dance that brought the house down every night. Ray Bolger considered himself an actor who happened to use dance to express his character. Known for his loose-limbed dancing, Bolger often improvised [made up spontaneously in the moment] his movement. He danced from the inside out. In other words, if he was committed to his character and the feelings/story his character needed to express, Bolger felt his movements would reflect those emotions. Balanchine agreed, and ironically, Ray Bolger’s dance at the end of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” so praised by critics, was improvised at each performance!

Having been exposed to modern dance on the Broadway stage, audiences continued their education in dance “choreography” via Balanchine. With his Broadway adaptation of the title “choreographer”—previously used in programs only for concert dance—Balanchine helped clue both audience members and theatre reviewers into the new importance of dance in Broadway musicals. He focused attention on dance as an expressive vehicle to move the story and a notable contributor to the entirety of the Broadway show.

Before On Your Toes, the playbill credit line for the dancers in musicals had always read, "Dances by _____." Balanchine asked the producer, Wiman, whether his billing might read, "Choreography by George Balanchine." This was an unfamiliar word in the United States in 1936. Wiman said he feared the public would not know what it meant. Balanchine replied that maybe it would intrigue the public to see a new word, and Wiman agreed to make the experiment.

The change in the credit line was the least of Balanchine's musical-comedy innovations. Balanchine was able to rid musical comedy of the the notion that a dance number was a couple of showy soloists backed by a line of high-kicking showgirls; this dreary nonsense he replaced by genuine choreography. To musical comedy, Balanchine brought, it was generally agreed, an elegance, sophistication, and range of reference--all conveyed subtly and with a light touch--such as Broadway had not previously known. (Taper, 1987, p. 180)

However, many ticket holders were not yet ready for this theatre education lesson. On Your Toes may have had more impact on the evolution of Broadway dance than it had on Broadway audiences. In addition to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the musical contained the “Princess Zenobia Ballet.”

The plot of On Your Toes deals with the backstage life in the ballet world; that was new and “foreign” material on Broadway in the 1930s. Consequently, the audience proved as unprepared as the critics for the dancing—it’s importance to the show itself and its impact on the shows that followed. When the tongue-in-cheek send-up of the ballet Scheherazade, or A Thousand and One Nights, entitled “La Princess Zenobia” was performed in the original production, the audience simply didn’t know how to react. Many missed the point altogether, and a few who didn’t were too polite to laugh outright. (Kislan, 1987, p. 73)

Mark N. Grant, author of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, credits Balanchine with bringing “advanced dance” to Broadway, but states that most of Balanchine’s choreography did little to forward storyline (2004).

A notable omission in the show is the missing credit for Herbie Harper, who assisted Balanchine. The black choreographer "melded jazz, tap, and ballet in On Your Toes" (Wilmeth, 2007 p. 202).

Balanchine introduced the expressive possibilities of ballet to the Broadway stage at a time when musicals were making a shift from mindless entertainment to vehicles of artistic ideals in theatre. Powerful themes would be sung and danced during the Golden Age of Broadway over the next two decades. The strength, grace and potential for ballet to transport the audience would provide a foundation for emotionally expressive dances that would grip the audience by the heart and pull them on a responsive, kinetic journey.

[Balanchine's] dances in On Your Toes--particularly the memorable "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"--were the first ever seen in a Broadway musical that were not just interludes but funtioned as an essential, active aspect of the plot. This paved the way for what was done by Agnes de Mille [studied in our next unit] a few years later in Oklahoma! Thus Balanchine began a trend in American musical comedy that helped make it one of the brightest of this country's theatrical forms. (Taper, 1987, p. 180)

The 1939 film version of On Your Toes featured dancers Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly. Balanchine was credited as “Dance Director.”

Video: “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”


From the 1948 movie adaptation of On Your Toes

To the show-going public Balanchine's approach was a refreshing change; to the dancers in his shows it was an absolute liberation. Those performers who were lucky enough to work with him always came away with new insights into their dancing.

"If the rules of Equity permitted," Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1940 in his New York Times review of Cabin in the Sky, "probably the dancers would be glad to pay Mr. Balanchine something for the privilege of appearing under his direction, for he has released them from the bondage of hack dancing and ugliness." (Taper, 1987, p. 181)

Ray Bolger said, “Taking dance direction from Balanchine was one of the highlights of my career. It was hard work, but the results were rewarding” (Fantle & Johnson, 2004, p. 59).

The original On Your Toes ran for 315 performances. A 1954 revival ran for only 64. But, the 1983 revival of On Your Toes, performed before an audience now well-educated to appreciate the complexities of dance choreography—and coming long after Balanchine’s choreographic genius was well-established—ran for 505 performances.

George Balanchine stretched the boundaries of both concert ballet dance and Broadway dance. He was open to change. To ballet, he brought sharp, contemporary movement, stressing visual, theatrical pictures rather than story. I think it could be said that Balanchine's time on Broadway definitely impacted his ballet choreography. To Broadway, Balanchine brought the rigorous training and discipline of the ballet world. George Balanchine used the vocabulary of ballet in innovative ways that opened the eyes of Broadway choreographers to the new possibilities of Broadway dance.

So successful and pervasive did ballet become on Broadway after Balanchine and de Mille [whom we will study in our next unit], that the phenomena just about erased jazz-tap from commercial musicals and put many of its virtuoso performers out of big-time business. Temporarily, American show dancing turned its back on what the adherents of tap called "real American dance." (Kislan, 1987, p. 74)

Rescue from Depression

Swing Music

With the morale of America plummeting alongside the economy, it is little wonder that music took an upbeat turn.

The music of the 1930s was “Swing.” Swing music was characterized by very large bands, fixed, usually written arrangements, and solos by individual musicians in turn instead of group improvisation. This move towards more user-friendly formatting enabled dancers to be more responsive to the new sound of swing music. And musicians enjoyed the renewed call-and-response of swing dancing.

In an effort to build business, nightclubs and dance halls offered specialty nights and dance contests to prospective clientele. In addition, jazz bands began to focus on visual effects to draw customers away from the radio. Band members wore uniforms, lined up in visually pleasing patterns and added movement to their performances. Band leaders whipped their orchestras into a frenzy to challenge dancers, and dancers performed their tricks and gave energy right back to the band.

Duke Ellington talked about band leader/drummer Chick Webb:

As a drummer, Chick had his own ideas about what he wanted to do. Some musicians are dancers, and Chick was. You can dance with a lot of things besides your feet...Chick Webb was a dance-drummer who painted pictures of dances with his drums. Way back, at the Cotton Club, we were always tailoring orchestrations to fit the dances...The reason why Chick Webb had such control, such command of his audiences at the Savoy ballroom, was because he was always in communication with the dancers and felt it the way they did. And that is probably the biggest reason why he could cut all the other bands that went in there. (Ellington, 1973, p. 100)

"Appreciation for particular swing performers caused racial boundaries to be crossed from both sides. White youth constituted the largest proportion of the audience for either black or white swing bands, but African-Americans were willing to cross the line for the right white band” (Stowe, 1996, p. 43)

Appropriation continued as band leaders scrambled to best their competition. Benny Goodman, for example, a child of Jewish immigrants, became known as "the King of Swing" although swing was well-established before Goodman attained his fame. The title had more to do with his commercial success--and perhaps the fact that he was white--than his musical productions. But Goodman earned the respect of white and black musicians alike when he integrated his band in 1936. Though this seems unexceptional today, in the 1930s it was not only an innovative decision, but also a politically explosive one.

It is worthy of note that the creation of a formalized jazz dance style for theatre and film came from a white dancer.

Jack Cole

Although Jack Cole was not seen as a major player in terms of Broadway choreography, his impact on dance and Broadway dance in particular, is undeniable. Agnes De Mille [whom we will study next] and Jerome Robbins [next unit] were both fans (Grant, 2004). Cole is widely credited with developing the technique that would later be called “jazz” dance.

Cole danced with modern dance luminaries Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and the Humphrey-Weidman dancers (Kislan, 1987). Dissatisfied with St. Denis’ inauthentic representation of Indian dances, Cole studied oriental history, and later “expanded his studies to include the American Indian, the black American, and the Caribbean and South American ethnic heritages” (Kislan, 1987, p. 86).

Cole demonstrated a fervent commitment to research. He traveled and studied dance in many genres in an effort to pay homage to authentic cultural styles: either by emulating them, satirizing them or incorporating them into his own style. Cole may well be the first well known choreographer to utilize what I call a “Personal Fusion” genre of dance. Rather than using a specific genre, Cole took what he liked best about many genres—vernacular [native and homegrown] jazz, Indian dance and modern dance—and fused them into his own Jack Cole jazz.

Video: Jack Cole


"Jack Cole developed an entirely personal mode of jazz-ethnic-ballet that prevails as the dominant look of and technique for dancing in today’s musicals, films, nightclub revues, television commercials, and videos…Jack Cole’s style stamped all his work with an unmistakable look that followers claim endures in the choreography of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Peter Gennaro, and Gower Champion, among others” (Kislan, 1987, p. 84).

Cole jazz dancing is recognizable by its syncopated movement, use of plié [bending the knees to lower body towards the ground] and contrast between smooth, controlled movements, sensual movements and sharp, quick and isolated movements.

Video: “What is Jazz?”

(2007) Chita Rivera and Jack Cole dance in “Beale Street Blues.”

“Sing, Sing, Sing” was one of the biggest swing hits of the 30s, and it was also the most well-known of Jack Cole’s dances. All five of our jazz dance characteristics are represented in the dance.

Video: "Sing, Sing, Sing"

(2008) "Sing, Sing, Sing" - danced by Ron Field, Jim Hutchenson, Tom Osteen and Jack Cole

Cole was another in a long line of authoritarian choreographers. Dancers sublimated themselves for their art, putting up with abusive and demeaning treatment from Cole, and forgiving all for the opportunity to work with a genius. Many dancers and choreographers believed that the Jack Cole process—including the abuse—was necessary to achieve the Jack Cole result of absolute control of the body.

In a 1968 Dance Magazine interview Jack Cole talked about dancers: “Sometimes you have to slap them. Sometimes you have to kiss them. It isn’t like painting or writing or something that can be done in solitude. The trouble with choreography is you have to get the person out of the way before you can bring out the dancer” (cited in Kislan, 1987, p. 86). One of Cole's most famous prodigies was Gwen Verdon.

Gwen Verdon

Gwen Verdon, one of the most well-known Broadway dancers in history, was Jack Cole’s lead dancer and assistant for many years.

Video: DO40 Tribute to Gwen Verdon

(2008) Verdon’s dancing is discussed and shown.

Verdon would soon find another genius/tyrant choreographer with whom she would spend many years: Bob Fosse. We will continue our look at Verdon’s intertwined personal life and career when we discuss Fosse in Unit 7.

The Federal Theatre Project

Harsh realities continued to visit Americans. Broadway musicals became bolder in their political commentary. Interestingly, it was the American government that sponsored one of the most controversial musicals of the decade.

As part of his election campaign platform, Theodore Roosevelt promised Americans a “New Deal” that would address some of the key issues of the Depression, including banking regulations and aid and the creation of new employment opportunities. The Federal Theatre Project was “a nationwide producing organization that employed thousands within a network of smaller theater units that would put on all manner of plays and musicals for the public at popular prices. It was an unprecedented effort, eventually sponsoring almost twelve hundred productions for an audience of more than 30 million—one quarter of the United States population” (Maslon, 2004, p. 172).

The Document below is a wonderful “State of American Theatre” spotlight. This document is much too hard to read in its entirety, so I won’t make you strain your eyes. But take a look, it’s amazing to see how people were so passionate about the arts years ago.

Hallie Flanagan - Director of Federal Theatre - "Is This the Time and Place?" - Delivered October 8, 1935, Washington, D. C. - First Meeting of Regional Directors-Federal Theatre Project

Links to an external site.

In our study of the Federal Theatre Project, it is important to understand the heated dynamic that unions and attempts to unionize brought to the American workplace. Tactics for establishing or breaking unions were far from civilized. Disputes often resulted in violence and retaliatory “accidents” in the workplace. Workers striving to unionize were seen as communist and un-American (Knapp, 2005).

The Cradle Will Rock (1938)

Into the storm of this emotion entered The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union musical produced by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Although there is no mention of dancing in this musical, the show must be mentioned for its contribution to the American musical.

Plot: Steelworkers who have built the country must sell out to do whatever it takes to earn a buck from those in power, making them all prostitutes. A labor organizer leads them against their oppressive employers to form a union.

The Cradle Will Rock is most well-known for the fact that it was closed down by its own producer, the FTP. The doors of the Windsor Theatre were locked on opening night. The FTP cancelled the show

An injunction was put on its actors. Director Orson Welles booked the small Venice Theatre Off Broadway and marched the opening night audience to it, where the musical was performed without scenery or costumes with the cast performing from their seats in the audience and Blitzein [who authored both the book and songs] playing on the piano. (Hischak, 2008, p. 173)

The performance of the show from theater seats displayed a clever and courageous way of getting around the injunction, which forbade the actors from appearing on stage.

The Cradle Will Rock brought musicals into a real and gritty world that did not allow the audience to escape the grim realities of the story and their connection to current issues. Both the content of The Cradle Will Rock and the publicity derived from the controversial opening--and subsequent bare stage performances--paved the way for more political messages and protests on the Great White Way.

More FTP Productions: Swing Mikado and Pins and Needles

The FTP produced mainly plays. The few musicals funded by the FTP included a one evening special featuring Charles Weidman’s choreography and Swing Mikado (1938), a modernized, black version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

The Federal Theatre Project had established a Negro Unit. A celebrated black actress, Rose McClendon, was asked to offer her opinions as to how the leadership should be set up. She replied that the Negro Unit should have a white leader from the world of theatre. Her feeling was that a white leader would have more experience than a black one. Her sentiments marked one side of a debate among black performers and creative staff. Some felt that it was important that a black leader be appointed. These people argued that blacks had been active in all aspects of theatre for decades, and a black leader would best represent black interests. Others felt that if a white leader was not appointed, the Negro Unit would be largely ignored (Woll, 1989). In the end, both sides had their way: McClendon was named co-director along with a friend, John Houseman, whom she recommended for the post (Sklaroff, 2009).

The Swing Mikado made many updates to the Gilbert and Sullivan original. The musical’s setting was changed to the South Sea Islands, and some of the music was updated to utilize the latest American swing rhythms (Woll, 1989). The show was such a hit when it played in Chicago, it broke all of FTP’s sales records. Independent producers tried various means of obtaining the show to bring it to New York—from “buying” it from the government, to bribing the cast with high salaries.

Eventually, two versions of the show opened. The FTP-sponsored show, The Swing Mikado opened on March 1, 1939, and its competition, The Hot Mikado, opened three weeks later. The Hot Mikado starred Bill Robinson and made greater use of swing music and dance. The New York version of Swing Mikado only occasionally interjected swing music and dance into the Gilbert and Sullivan score (Woll, 1989). The FTP version was also limited in its casting. Rules for federal aid stated that the cast had to be made up of a majority of unemployed actors. “Critics reviewed both Mikado’s and gave the nod to the ‘hot’ version” (Woll, 1989, p. 180).

When legislators found out that the FTP had refused public offers to buy the show, “Congress mandated that the government Mikado be turned over to private investors as soon as a bona fide offer was made” (Woll, 1989, p. 183). Two investors who had originally battled to obtain rights for the show bought the FTP version at a low price and moved it across the street from Hot Mikado. Both shows closed shortly after. Swing Mikado is notable in musical theatre history for starting a new trend in black musical theatre, taking a classic and “swinging” it into a modern, black show. The adaptation of white shows to black would be used more in the future.

In addition to promoting black theatre by creating The Negro Unit, the FTP…

…supported a new integration in theatrical life. The creative process, which in the 1920s had slowly been removed from black control, now brought whites and blacks together in all aspects of the actual planning, from costume and scenic design to lighting and electrical work. The advances were apparent onstage as well, for black performers were no longer limited to roles as menials or to roles specifically designed for black characters. Interracial casting became commonplace as the FTP program flowered, and black actors performed in dramas, comedies, and musicals. (Woll, 1989, p. 212)

Although official policy encouraged integration in all divisions of the FTP, the actual process was not always a smooth one. Some individuals occasionally defied directives. The Daily Worker featured a stream of articles during 1937 that revealed that black actors and backstage technicians were still facing prejudice within the FTP. Black members noted the use of racial epithets, and some found that they were discriminated against in casting decisions. The source of the stories might be questioned, but it is noteworthy that director [of the FTP, Hallie] Flanagan saved these articles in her scrapbooks…Follow-up articles often revealed that offenders were either fired or forced to resign. Although prejudice continued to exist in the ranks of the FTP, the organization generally acted upon the complaint of black participants within a short period of time. In this fashion, Flanagan forcefully indicated that prejudice would not be tolerated within the Federal Theatre Project. As a result, one of the FTP’s major legacies, according to Langston Hughes and other critics, was the eventual breakdown of segregation onstage and behind the scenes as well:

With few previous exceptions, it was Federal Theater that had dared to cast Negro actors in non-Negro roles, not only on Broadway, but in its units elsewhere as well. The Federal Theater broke down not only the old taboos against colored Americans as backstage technicians, but the bars against colored actors playing other than racial roles. (Woll, 1989, p. 213)

Pins and Needles (1937 - 1108 performances!)

David Dubinsky, the powerful head of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union [ILGWU] in the 1930s, was devoted to the betterment of its members, whose numbers had tripled since the New Deal was instituted…One of his ideas was a Cultural Division, which made “good union members aware of the truth that man does not live by bread alone” (Maslon, 2004, p. 169). The largely immigrant membership was soon being offered lessons in tap dancing, mandolin playing, and elocution. In the mid-1930s, the Division had the idea of creating a musical revue by and for the members of the ILGWU. They hired a former architect turned songwriter, Harold Rome, to write it. Rehearsals for most Broadway musicals in 1937 usually involved four weeks in town, plus two on the road, but there was nothing usual about Pins and Needles.

Rome rehearsed his cast—assembled from the ranks of stitchers, seamstresses, and cutters—after their work shift three hours a night, three nights a week, over the course of an entire year. The show opened two days after Thanksgiving in 1937, and it took some time before New York theatergoers heard about it—it played only on weekends, as the cast needed to get to bed early to rest up for their day jobs. (Maslon, 2004, p. 169)

Rome’s score set the tone for the whole show, which was not really a condemnation of the world’s evil, but rather a lighthearted look at young people in a changing society in the middle of America’s most politically engaged city. The opening number let the audience know where the hearts of these young workers lay. Here is Rose Marie Jun, from the 1962 revival cast of Pins and Needles singing the opening song:

Rose Marie Jun: "Sing Me a Song With Social Significance"


David Dubinsky spoke about his workers’ performances:

With zest and disarming frankness, their songs and skits punctured economic platitudes, ridiculed political insincerity, satirized the seamier side of American life, and poked fun at overseas dictators. At the same time, with wonderful freshness, they sang of pay envelopes and picket lines, of romance in the shop and Sundays in the park. All of this they did with the enthusiasm and attractive amateurishness that drew the high and mighty to sit in their small theater among ILGWU members and to cheer performance after performance. (Cited in Maslon, 2004, p. 170)

Michael Denning, Professor of American Studies at Yale University, and the Director of the Initiative on Labor and Culture, states: “The success of Pins and Needles lay in its union of class, ethnic, and feminist energies, in the way it sang for young Jewish and Italian working-class women of the garment trades” (1998, p. 306). Denning goes on to say that Pins and Needles was never meant to be anti-Communist or feminist, but the fact that the majority of the cast was women and the content pro-union gave the show an edge of both.

The feminism of Pins and Needles was in part a result of the fact that…it was not a play, scripted in advance and then performed. The songs and sketches of the revue were interchangeable, and they were written and rewritten, added and dropped, throughout the year and a half of rehearsals and the three years of performances…As the satires of international politics came and went, the labor feminism of the working women’s songs became the backbone of the show. (Denning, 1998, p. 306)

However, success allowed for modifications in the show that did not necessarily unify the cast. Political and ethnic prejudice played out behind the scenes.

The show’s impresario, Louis Schaffer, was bitterly anti-Communist…Several cast members later claimed that if Schaffer learned someone was a Communist, he would fire them; both the first director, Charles Friedman, and one of the stars, Millie Weitz, were pushed out for their Communist politics…Moreover, Louis Schaffer was as wary of the casts’ accents as of their radical politics: "eventually Schaffer weeded out those pople with thick Jewish accents," cast member Al Levy recalled. Human Goldstein was asked to change his name by the show’s public relations man, and he became Hy Gardner; and Schaffer tried to persuade both Rubinstein and Harary [two of the show’s stars] to get nose jobs…Finally, Pins and Needles never escaped the labor relations of the culture industry itself. "I was a shop-worker and getting into Pins and Needles was like being freed from slavery," Joe Alfasa recalled. But the world of Broadway was itself a workplace, and there were conflicts between the Labor Stage and Actors’ Equity over the status of these "amateur" peformers…The first company were all amateurs; subsequent companies included more and more semiprofessionals. (Denning, 1998, pp. 307-8)

Among these “semiprofessionals” were Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe.

Katherine Dunham

Like the other modern dance choreographers that we discussed earlier, Katherine Dunham’s career included both concert dance and Broadway musical choreography and performance. According to author Susan Manning, Dunham successfully used her Broadway dance jobs to finance her less lucrative evenings of concert dance (2005).

Dunham’s choreography reflected the richness and diversity of her extraordinary background. In the video, Dunham is discussed in terms of her contributions to modern dance, however, all of the clips of her choreography are Broadway stage and film performances. Dunham blended her innovative dance vocabulary with a strong awareness of theatricality. The worlds of concert dance and theatre dance were intertwined in Dunham's revolutionary choreography.

A producer for the Labor Stage saw a company performance in Chicago and hired Dunham as the dance director for the 1940 edition of Pins and Needles. Dunham brought most of her company with her, and they performed company repertory (Manning, 2005).

Interestingly, Dunham is not credited for Pins and Needles in any chronicle of American musical theatre that I could find, including some of the most comprehensive inventories available:

· Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia by Ken Bloom

· Broadway Musicals, Show by Show by Stanley Green & Kay Green

· The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre by Don B. Wilmeth

· American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle by Gerald Martin Bordman

· the internet datatbase for Broadway shows

It is only in cultural studies of black Americans and in Dunham’s own memoirs that she is given credit for her contributions to the show.

While choreographing for and performing in Pins and Needles, Dunham’s company performed Sunday concert revues at the same theatre (Windsor Theatre). One revue was called Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem.

"With L'Ag'Ya and Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem, Dunham revealed her magical mix of dance and theater -- the essence of 'the Dunham touch' --a savvy combination of authentic Caribbean dance and rhythms with the heady spice of American showbiz. Genuine folk material was presented with lavish costumes, plush settings, and the orchestral arrangements based on Caribbean rhythms and folk music. Dancers moved through fantastical tropical paradises or artistically designed juke-joints, while a loose storyline held together a succession of diverse dances (Sommer, n.d., “Katherine Dunham”).

The “revue” ran for several weeks and received a mix of reactions. In her essay, “Watching Dunham’s Dances,” Susan Manning discusses the challenges of the black choreographer: If a black choreographer choreographs with an “Africanist” style, her dance is considered a reproduction of folk dance, not as the choreography of an artist. If she choreographs in a “white” style she is seen as inauthentic and “derivative” and is accused of using movement that is “alien” to black dancers (2005).

If Dunham’s repertory was diverse, it was also coherent. "Tropics and le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem" incorporated dances from the West Indies as well as from Cuba and Mexico in its “Tropics” section, while the "Le Jazz Hot" section featured early black American social dances, such as the Juba, Cake Walk, Ballin' the Jack, and Strut. The sequencing of dances, the theatrical journey from the tropics to urban black America implied--in the most entertaining terms--the realities of cultural connections through time. (Sommer, n.d., “Katherine Dunham”)

In 1940, Dunham and her company appeared in the black Broadway musical, Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine. Dunham played the sultry siren, Georgia Brown--a character related to Dunham's other seductress, "Woman with a Cigar," from her solo "Shore Excursion" in Tropics.

Katherine Dunham used her celebrity to advocate for civil rights for African Americans. While touring with her company, she protested segregated theatre seating.

Sometimes there were outrageous confrontations, such as the story company members tell about how Dunham, in a segregated theater in the South, turned around and showed her rear end to the audience, saying, ‘Until people like me can sit with people like you,’ the company could not and would not perform. (DeFrantz, 2002, p. 342)

Dunham’s reputation as a luminous modern/African dance revolutionary far exceeds her notoriety on Broadway. However, she did contribute to the diverse offering of dance genres on Broadway, and her journey further illustrates black/white issues on the Great White Way.

“Fighting segregation in hotels, restaurants and theaters, she filed lawsuits and made public condemnations. In Hollywood, she refused to sign a lucrative studio contract when the producer said she would have to replace some of her darker-skinned company members” (Sommer, n.d., “Katherine Dunham”).


With concert dance choreographers such as Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Katherine Dunham and George Balanchine came an influx of professionally trained ballet and modern dancers to the Broadway stage (Wilmeth, 2007). Then, Jack Cole added numbers of elite, newly-trained jazz dancers to the mix. After that, with the possible exception of the Rockettes, tap dancing and tap dancers plummeted in popularity, and interest in them would not return until the 1970s (Wilmeth, 2007).


Social Dances Appear on Stage

Broadway Dances Appear in Living Rooms

Copyright ©2010

With more time to listen to music and more time to dance, Americans were excited to experience innovations in both. The 1920s was all about the “latest greatest.” Everyone was clamoring for the next new thing. Broadway audiences were ready for fun and they wanted to be shown the next great song and dance. Harlem was chic, and audiences who had previously considered black dance to be “vulgar” were beginning to appreciate the explosive energy and emotional passion that black dance brought to the stage.

Dance Halls

Dance halls brought jazz dance to the masses in much the same way that radio brought jazz music to millions of Americans. Dances performed in Harlem clubs became the new jazz dances featured in Broadway musicals. Dances from the Broadway stage made appearances in New York City dance halls.

Dance on Broadway

As mentioned earlier, white dance stars were largely responsible for appropriating black jazz dance and delivering it to the American public. This appropriation was not new to Broadway dance. Ziegfeld paid to feature the jazz dances from The Darktown Follies in his revue, and Vernon and Irene Castle, a star ballroom dance couple in the 1910s also “borrowed” from black dances.

The Castles represented the mainstream white societal view on black jazz music and dance. While the energy and innovation of jazz music and dance were held in high regard, both art forms were considered wild, primitive and overly sexual. The Castles whitewashed the freedom of movement in the body and the call-and-response element of dance to music. They made their own romanticized, restrained version of the dances and performed them in a ballroom hold, maintaining a “dignified” posture. The result was fresh, lively--and sexually unthreatening--to conservative American audiences.

Remember the “Black Social Dances” video from the last section? Take a look at the video below and compare the two. Do you recognize the black influences? You will have to be a very good detective!!!

Video: Black Social Dance

Jazz Dances

Though several jazz dances gained national recognition in the 1920s, it is difficult to pinpoint the year of their origin. Many of them took decades to travel from Africa to the American South to Harlem to the stages of Broadway; steps and dances evolved during their long journey. Dance historians concede that it is very difficult to offer an exact chronicle of a dance’s evolution. Dances can be “created” or adjusted endlessly. In the time it takes to respond to a few beats of music, two feet—seemingly on their own—can create something new. In the blink of an eye, a dancer sees that step, admires it, copies it or uses it as inspiration for another innovative step. Yet another dancer might take all of these steps, put them together and give the “new” dance a name. Very often, the naming of the dance gives a dancer bragging rights to the creation of it. Dance history is an inexact science. Reliable jazz dance resources are full of “They say Mr. X created that dance in 1919, but I saw that same dance at a jook joint in the South in 1908!”

The printed material (e.g. newspaper reviews or articles) during a particular time period offers some evidence of time and place. However, it is important to remember that these reviews and articles were written by an individual writer for a specific cross-section of people. In other words, it is unlikely that black contributions were acknowledged or that white appropriation of black contributions was noted. For the most part, we must rely on the combined chronicle which printed material and word of mouth provide, and we must understand that dances do not necessarily follow a linear progression. It is more accurate to say that each dance had a web of contributors and that the events mentioned by witnesses of the dance happened at certain intersections on that web.

Popular Dances of the 1920s

The Shimmy

The 1922 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies was notable for two events, both performed by lead performer, Gilda Gray. In the show, the fair skinned, Polish-born Gray first popularized the “Shimmy.” It is said that when she sang, she was unable to keep her body still. When questioned about her new “dance,” Gray replied, “I’m shaking my shimmy, that’s what I’m doing” (cited in Giordano, 2008, p. 119). Whether or not the move had been done before, “The Shimmy” was named by Gray in that show. Gray also sang, “It’s Getting Dark On Old Broadway,” a song that commented on the popularity of black musicals in the early 1920s and tipped its hat to the Harlem Renaissance:

It’s getting dark on Old Broadway,

You see the change in ev’ry cabaret;

Just like an eclipse on the moon,

Ev’ry café now has the dancing coon.

Pretty choc’late babies

Shake and shimmie ev’rywhere

Real dark-town entertainers hold the stage,

You must black up to be the latest rage.

(Woll, 1989, p. 76)

The Charleston

The Charleston is generally characterized by a few different movements. The two most well know are the “Charleston step” [a step forward, followed by a kick forward; the kicking foot steps back to place, followed by a touch behind with the beginning foot] and “Rubber Legs” [bent forward at the waist, with knees bent and hands on knees, the performer bring the knees in and out, switching the hands so that they alternately open with the knees, then cross to the opposite knees.] Here is a timeline of gathered ideas about the Charleston's origin:

· African origin: Ashanti ancestor dance

· 1903: The dance—later to be named the Charleston—is seen in Charleston, South Carolina.

· 1905: Noble Sissle learns the dance in Savannah, Georgia.

· 1909: The Charleston is spotted in Europe.

· 1911: The Whitman sisters’ dance act includes the Charleston.

· 1917: The Charleston is spotted in California.

· 1919: Dance lessons available for general public to learn the Charleston.

· 1922: Charleston act in the black musical Liza.

· 1923: Charleston appears on stage in How Come, Chappelle and Stinnette and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923.

· 1923: Runnin’ Wild features the Charleston danced to James Price Johnson’s iconic song.

· 1923-1926: The Charleston craze sweeps the nation.

The Charleston dance journeyed slowly from the South, making appearances in dance halls and at dance contests, in dance studios in California, and on stage in Europe and in New York. As it traveled, the exuberant steps, kicks and knee movements were often modified and restrained. The Charleston dance steps were also adjusted to fit a ballroom dance “hold,” so that couples could dance the Charleston together.

However, it wasn’t until the all-black musical Runnin’ Wild (1923), that the signature song “The Charleston,” written by black composer James Price Johnson, became the iconic song of the Charleston dance. With the winning combination of the dance moves and the song, the preceding embers of popularity were fanned by a tornado, and the Charleston burst into flame and spread like wildfire across the nation. [We’ll take a closer look at Runnin’ Wild a bit later.]

In her years as a performer in the 1920s, Florence Mills rarely performed “The Charleston.” When asked why, she replied that the dance was too absurdly easy, especially the “watered-down” version done by most people. Mills said:

I smile to myself when I see you do so sedately, with such good taste, the Charleston in your ballrooms. It is the dance of my people, of our piccaninnies, the happiest dance in all the world. They were Charlestoning in Kentucky before the Civil War. Do you know how the Charleston came to New York? It came on the feet of the coloured piccaninnies. (In Egan, 2004, p. 270)

The Black Bottom

· African origin: Unknown, although one tale of the origin states that the pulling up of the knees in the dance came from slaves lifting their feet out of the mud in the swamps of Savannah, Georgia.

· 1907: Perry Bradford composes “Jacksonville Rounders’ Dance,” music for a dance he believes was the original Black Bottom.

· 1919: Perry Bradford rewrites the lyrics for “Jacksonville Rounders’ Dance” and renames it “The Original Black Bottom Dance,” the first time the name is used.

· 1924: The Black Bottom is introduced in the Harlem show, Dinah. White Producer George White hires songwriters to write a new song to go with the dance.

· 1926: Anna Pennington popularizes The Black Bottom in George White’s Scandals of 1926 and starts a new national craze, replacing the Charleston.

The Black Bottom consisted of hops forward and backward, stamping feet, and gyrations of the torso, pelvis and hips. It was based on the Charleston, and the music was closely related to the Charleston. However, the Black Bottom was mainly danced on the syncopated off-beat (a prototype for our modern tap dance). Originally, the Black Bottom was a solo challenge dance. Then, like the Charleston, it was eventually adapted into a couple’s dance. Perry Bradford’s lyrics for his song “The Original Black Bottom Dance” give instructions for the dance, and they reference the influences of The Charleston:

Hop down front and then you Doodle back,

Mooch to your left and then you Mooch to the right

Hands on your hips and do the Mess Around,

Break a Leg until you’re near the ground

Now that’s the Old Black Bottom Dance.

Now listen folks, open your ears,

This rhythm you will hear-

Charleston was on the afterbeat-

Old Black Bottom’ll make you shake your feet,

Believe me it’s a wow.

Now learn this dance somehow

Started in Georgia and it went to France

It’s got everybody in a trance

It’s a wing, that Old Black Bottom Dance.

(Stearns & Stearns, 1994, p. 111)

Video: The Black Bottom

George White's new song became the song associated with the dance. Rumored to have learned the dance from her black dance teacher, Ann Pennington, popularized the Black Bottom, and her name was associated with it. However, she never claimed to have invented the dance. The version Pennington danced in Scandals—the version that swept the nation—was far removed from the original.

The Lindy Hop

· 1927: The Break-a-Way and the Charleston started to mix and formed the Lindy Hop

· 1st form of Swing Dance

The Break-a-Way was originally a syncopated two-step dance in which partners would break from a couple's hold, while maintaining contact with one hand, or they would breakaway completely from each other. They would perform a solo then come back together. The Lindy Hop featured acrobatic movements with many lifts. The “king” of the Break-a-Way was Shorty George Snowden during the mid-1920’s. He is shown in the following video as a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a group formed by the bouncer of the Savoy Ballroom. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers worked all over the United States, on stage and in movies. The following video is from the movie Hellzapoppin’ (1941):

Video: Lindy Hop

The Varsity Drag

Dance director Bobby Connolly purposefully conceived the "Varsity Drag"—featured in the college-themed musical Good News (1927)—to become a dance fad. Incorporating Charleston-steps, Black Bottom elements and simple tap dancing, the Varsity Drag may well have been the first dance deliberately developed for a launch from stage to dance hall and living room. Connolly stated:

In the musical comedies upon which I am now at work, I am attempting to launch several dances which I feel will claim a goodly share of the public imagination, excess energy and time. The musical comedy stage aims to teach as well as please…This is an age of enthusiasm, speed and strenuous undertakings, and the popular dances merely reflect, or rather express, the predominating moods of life as it is lived today. . .The people of today are ever on the lookout for something new, and that gives dance creators their opportunity. (cited in Kislan, pp. 54, 173)

New shows opened in a continuous flow of fun and high entertainment. Expendable income was very much evidenced by the fact that shows considered “flops” with audiences and/or critics often ran for a year or more. Some examples of these flops are Hold Everything! (1928 – 408 performances) and Follow Thru (1929 – 401 performances).

Broadway: Revues and Runaway Hits

Copyright ©2010

The “Other” Revues

In addition to the musicals which opened in abundance, revues were hugely popular, and several producers--like Ziegfeld--ran revue series that offered a new edition each year.

George White

George White danced for Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., then broke off in 1919 to start his own revue. Like Ziegfeld, he had an eye for stellar talent. He lured Ann Pennington from Ziegfeld and also debuted Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger--who later play the Scarecrow in the film, The Wizard of Oz. White was one of the first producers to shift focus from the inclusion of a ballet chorus to dancers that did straight “show dancing” (Grant, 2004), and he was the first producer to use one composer for an entire edition of his revue (Maslon, 2004). According to Maslon, George White’s Scandals was the only revue series that rivaled Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Runnin’ Wild (1923)

White, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, hired the show's book writers, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, to write a new edition to be titled Shuffle Along of 1923.

The company team would receive $2000 weekly, a hefty increase over their Shuffle Along salary. The sudden defection of Miller and Lyles shocked and dismayed Sissle and Blake, who had been planning a new road edition of Shuffle Along. The Shuffle Along company sued White and successfully blocked his use of the show’s title. Miller and Lyles, however, were legally free to join White’s production. The suit fractured the unity of the Shuffle Along crew. (Woll, 1989, p. 85)

Several performers from Shuffle Along joined George White’s cast. The new musical was called Runnin’ Wild. Like Shuffle Along, Runnin’ Wild was an all-black show.

White was a hoofer, who was always searching for innovative dance numbers (Maslon, 2004). He saw the Charleston in the Harlem play, Dinah, and had a team of songwriters write a new song for the show. The show had its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., on August 23, 1923. Featured performer, Elizabeth Welch, danced the Charleston with a male chorus.

The show opened at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D. C., on August 23, 1923, for its tryout run. Although the critics lavished praise on Miller and Lyles and Adelaide Hall, ticket sales languished. After a losing first week,...

White threatened to close the show unless the eighty-two member cast agreed to work without salary. The company, in an unusual show of solidarity, refused and called White’s bluff. Miller and Lyles negotiated a compromise and sacrificed their weekly $2000 in order to pay the ensemble partial salaries. This seeming violation of “the show must go on” was a realistic reaction. Black performers were learning that producers continually claimed poverty during the tryout period and early run of a show, and, consequently, demanded salary cuts. The truth of the matter was often in dispute. (Woll, 1989, p. 86)

Despite the advances made by Actors’ Equity, producer treatment of actors continued to be poor. In her autobiography, His Eye Is on The Sparrow, star performer Ethel Waters, talked about the tricks producers used to cheat cast members out of money. She recounted her experiences while performing in a musical called Oh Joy! in Boston:

In shows like that one, operating on short, sometimes non-existent, bankrolls, the producers often had to resort to legal but devious devices when payday rolled around.

You'd be called in by the management. “We have your money, Ethel,” they'd say, and they would very kindly show you your money. “But if we pay you off in full, sugar, we can't pay the others. And if we can't pay them, we’ll have to close the show. And you wouldn't want to throw all those other poor, hard-working actors out of work, would you?”

So it would end up with you taking what you could get, fifty dollars or so to pay your room rent and other expenses. Now this routine always amused me. I can’t say it made me hysterical with laughter, but I’d leave smiling.

The other actors, waiting outside to talk to the producers, would see me with that smile on my face. And if the management told them I had insisted on being paid in full and consequently they would have to take a cut, they’d believe them. And they’d blame me for being selfish. At first I wouldn’t know why my fellow performers jumped salty on me, but later on they told me.

Or when the show had a rocky financial going the bosses would assemble everyone backstage and give them (instead of eating money) that old refrain, “If you can only hang on a little longer, we’ll pass the danger point and have a hit.”

When a producer decided to cop that plea he talked on and on. I’d never stay to listen, knowing that the only important point he was going to make was that we weren’t going to get our money in full and toto [sic]. Such apologies and explanations bored me.

If we’d been playing to crowded houses the producer would swear on his children’s bones that the house was almost all paper [complimentary tickets given out for publicity purposes or to fill seats]. If he wanted us to work our heads off he’d pass the word around that the Shuberts [wealthy, well-known producers] were going to take over the show, making us all rich and famous. And “Mr. Schubert” was catching the show that very evening!

He would pull in any frowzy-looking, ragged old white bum he found on the corner. He would dress the bum up, sit him in a box [seat, located high on the side walls of the theater], and that would be “Mr. Lee Schubert” for that performance. The actors would then go out and kill themselves [performing]. (Waters & Samuels, 1992, p. 152)

Like Shuffle Along, Runnin’ Wild had integrated audiences. Considered a “black show,” the audience was often three quarters white. Also, like Shuffle Along, Runnin’ Wild ran midnight shows to entice black audience members, who worked during regular show hours (Woll, 1989).

Continued Racial Divisions

Many black shows opened in the 1920s, a reflection of the impact of the Harlem Renaissance. But even while advancements in black opportunities and integration were evident, and boundaries were expanded, walls between the white and black worlds still held strong. So did viewer expectations of black shows. Criticism from both black and white reviewers of Sissle and Blake’s new musical comedy, The Chocolate Dandies (1923), illustrates this point:

The absence of spirited stepping, except by a lively group of eight chorus girls, looks as though it were deliberate in a plan to make the whole piece “high toned.” It is that, but the results are achieved at the expense of a genuine negro spirit…In short it is a negro piece for the most part uninspired by the native spirit… The whole business is “white folks” material of which there is plenty and then some in the show world, and not good darky entertainment, of which there is little enough of the best. ( Variety, cited in Woll, 1989, pp. 91-92).

Eric Walrond, a black reviewer, wrote this in Opportunity:

Setting out (it is obvious) to cater to the jaded desires of white comedy lovers [Sissel and Blake created something] that didn’t seem like a colored show at all… The life of the Negro as it is sketchily presented in a show like this is false. All those elements of vital spiritual and emotional content that distinguish it from that of other racial groups are taken out. A feeble half-white misanthrope is substituted. Anyone who is familiar with the vaudeville shows given at the Lafayette or the Lincoln in Harlem, knows that there is a reservoir of talent and of material up there lying waste that, if properly commandeered and utilized in a production like The Chocolate Dandies, would create a distinct sensation.” (Cited in Woll, 1989, p. 92).

The popularity of nightclub entertainment during the 1920s related directly to the popularity of black musical revues on Broadway. Revues (having little or no plot) were at least as popular as musical comedies with a book [storyline]. Harlem nightclubs also proved to be rivals to black revues and musicals that were found lacking in the expected black entertainment elements. A Herald Tribune review of the musical Bottomland stated: “There is nothing in the show, except, perhaps, some meritorious tap dancing…, that you cannot see in more engaging performance at several of the Harlem night clubs” (cited in Woll, 1989, p. 118). The popularity of black entertainment in Harlem nightclubs, mentioned earlier, continued to build black and white audiences for black revues on Broadway. Many black dancing and singing artists made their reputations during this period.

Black Musical Revues

White expectations of the sensuality and “primitiveness” of black dancing enabled black performers to express themselves through dance in a manner that would have been shocking in white dancers. Bolstered by the attendance of white audiences at Harlem nightclub revues, producers felt confident in the reception of these audiences for the same sensual, jazzy entertainment on Broadway.

Hot Chocolates (originally Tan Town Topics), was created and fine-tuned at Connie’s Inn--another Harlem nightclub--before it opened at the Hudson Theatre (1929 - 219 performances). As its title suggests, Hot Chocolates was notable for its eroticism and double entendre as well as its straightforward, sensual songs. Jazz music and dance were the featured stars of the show.

Here is a telling review by Bide Dudley:

In the stepping division, one Jazzlips Richardson stopped the proceedings with his unique gyrations, and the very scantily clad young woman named Louise Cook shook and twisted until I was reminded of a certain sideshow on the Midway…at the Chicago World’s Fair. Little Egypt [an exotic dancer] had nothing on Louise Cook, who as indicated, had very little on herself.” (Bide Dudley, cited in Woll, 1989, p. 132)

Lew Leslie

The following reading examines one producer, Lew Leslie, and the way in which he capitalized on the craze for black entertainment. Pay particular attention to the threads of prejudice that weave through the quotes and through Leslie's choice of creative teams, format and content of his revues.

Also important in this chapter are Florence Mills and Josephine Baker.

Blackbirds of 1926

The 1926 edition of the Blackbirds revue featured Florence Mills and made her an international star. The show opened in Harlem, then toured Europe.

Lew Leslie knew how to sell tickets. Content for Blackbirds of 1926 was adjusted for each venue/tour:

After a sellout run in Harlem, Leslie moved the company to London, where it received considerable acclaim. Several changes were introduced for British audiences. “The average Englishman,” noted Leslie, “looks on the Negro singer as the real exponent of native American music. [He] thinks of a Negro show in terms of art and wants to hear spirituals sung… When I put on a review in England I have plenty of the ‘Old Black Joe’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ type of spirituals. Even the dancing is of the less lowdown type.”

After the tour of the continent was completed (and after the death of Mills), Leslie put on Blackbirds in his nightclub, Les Ambassadeurs, on West Fifty-seventh Street. Revisions were again necessary: “Americans think of Negro revues in terms of fast dancing and swing songs. They seem to prefer the traditional Negro comedian with burnt cork make-up, big shoes and a razor, who plays craps and steals chickens.” Leslie emphasized these characteristics in his advertisements for Blackbirds. (Woll, 1989, pp. 124-5)

Although Leslie’s revues offered employment to many blacks, Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds presented blacks in non-threatening stereotypical ways that provided “the same comforting effect for white audiences in the ‘20s and ‘30s as they had in the days of minstrelsy, allaying fears of a vigorous black community just uptown” (Jones, 2003, p. 73).

Blackbirds of 1928 and the Loss of an International Sensation

Blackbirds of 1928 was originally meant to feature Florence Mills, but in a tragic loss to the musical theatre stage, Mills died of tubercolosis-related illness in 1927. A doctor had warned Mills that she needed a rest, but professional and personal commitments postponed her checking into the hospital. By the time she did, even surgery couldn't prevent her death on November 1, 1927. On her deathbed, Mills' final words were: "I don't want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always." Her funeral in Harlem was the largest that community had ever seen. It is said that flock of blackbirds flew over the funeral procession.

The show went on. Blackbirds of 1928 opened on May 9, 1928, and “became the longest running black musical show of the 1920s” (Woll, 1989, p. 125).

Lew Leslie often scouted talent from high profile Harlem clubs and vaudeville theaters. He had no qualms about appropriating performers from other shows. For Blackbirds of 1928, he recruited/lured/stole Aida Ward from Connie’s Inn and Adelaide Hall from her Broadway show, My Magnolia. But it was Bill Robinson who stole the show with his closing act and helped the show to a 518-performance run.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Bill Robinson is one of the most famous tap dance entertainers in American history. He brought recognition to the Negro performer through his many appearances in movies and on stage. Robinson danced with clear and percussive rhythms, and he changed the future of tap by changing the placement of tap steps from full foot to the ball of the foot.

Robinson was born in May, 1878, in Virginia. When his parents died, young Bill and his younger brother went to live with their grandmother, Bedelia. She did not want them. She went to court to argue against taking custody of the children. The brothers ended up living with the judge who heard the case. This living situation may have been for the best. Bedelia was a former slave and a religious Baptist, who believed dancing was evil. She would not allow Bill to dance in her house or even say the word “dance” (Haskins and Mitgang, 1988).

Robinson began his dance career by trying out steps on street corners to get pennies. He ran away from his home at the age of 12, stowing away on a train to Washington, D.C.

Bill’s first break came when the impresarios Whallen and Martel hired him for their show The South Before the War around 1892. Eddie Leonard had used his influence to get Bill a job as a pickaninny [in this context, a young black child performer whose job it was to be “cute”] with the show, which was advertised this way:

Don’t fail to see Whallen and Martel’s The South Before the War, the greatest production of the century, not excepting Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In ante bellum times—before the war—the colored people assembled from the various plantations for the annual festivities, and “Cake Walks,” “Wing and Buck Dancing” and other characteristic sports were introduced.

These are all faithfully reproduced in the great picturesque spectacular "The South Before the War."

A colored camp meeting, surely a great treat to attend. Those who have never witnessed it can see its real life depicted—the shouting, the singing, the exhorting of dominoes, the drawing of razors, the firing of pistols, the dancing of quadrilles to the accompaniment of a tin horn band, are all introduced in this show.

What can be more enjoyable than listening to the singing, by genuine colored people, of the good old fashioned melodies which were sung on the plantation years ago. Such tunes as Nancy Teel, Hard Times, Yellow Rose, Rose Lee, and many others, accompanied by the old-fashioned sheepskin banjo and the home made fiddle.

Hear whoops of terpsichorean ecstacs [sic], shrill whistles, catcalls, the rhythmic clapping of hands, and see the colored folk shuffle their enormous feet on sanded floors, do live gigs, sing, and do comical antics of niggerdom.

Within his lifetime, he [Bill] would be stabbed, slashed and shot, but he never missed a performance on account of the wound. He had a quick temper and admitted that he fought freely when it was necessary. Bill was almost always armed with a gun, but he is not known to have inflicted any critical injuries. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 43-5)

Robinson used dance and vaudeville skits to change the tide of racism. Sometimes the methods he chose to forward his goal were quite astonishing:

Around 1902, Robinson teamed up with George W. Cooper, a well-known black vaudevillian. Cooper and Robinson performed on the Keith circuit, the biggest and most well-known vaudeville touring company.

Their skits were heavy on ethnic humor—Negro, Jewish, Irish…They once dressed up like “Hebes” (Hebrews) and did a heavy dialect. They were not alone in relying on the lowest ethnic humor to get laughs. Comedy routines burlesquing “micks” and “kikes" and “wops” were almost as common as “coon” routines in the early years of the century… Such practices were so offensive to ethnic communities in Boston and New York that both municipalities passed ordinances banning racial epithets on stage. According to Tom Fletcher, Cooper and Robinson’s act “Yoi Yoi Yoi Yoi Mary Ann” was introduced not long before these ordinances were passed: “Many people give Cooper and Robinson credit for speeding up the passage of the ordinance through their introduction of this particular number. Bill's own shrewdness in meeting and overcoming the problems of racial and religious prejudice subsequently helped to strengthen the suspicion that the number was introduced for that purpose. Bill has never said.” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 59-60)

Robinson also had another method for progressing racial tolerance—he never wore burnt cork.

Robinson made very good money on vaudeville tours. While on tour, he received a telegram from Lewis Schurr, who was casting a new musical, Showboat, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Schurr was confident in Bill’s talent and in casting him for a role in the new show, writing, “kindly advise immediately how soon you will be available and what is your salary” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 181). Robinson turned down the show and stayed on the vaudeville circuit.

Robinson's dancing and dazzling smile won him the admiration of audiences wherever he traveled. In this reading, Constance Valis Hall describes the innovative Bill Robinson-style of dance:

When the next offer from Broadway came, Robinson’s agent jumped at it. Broadway fame came with the all-black revue, Blackbirds of 1928, in which he sang and danced "Doin' the New Low Down." Success was instantaneous. He was hailed as the greatest of all dancers by at least seven New York newspapers.

Robinson also recorded “Doin’ the New Low Down” for the radio. As mentioned earlier, Broadway hits were often appropriated by established recording stars for release on the radio. This fact—when coupled with Robinson’s race—made his recording of the hit a rather historical event.

Blackbirds of 1928 also featured what was by then a signature Robinson dance: the Stair Dance. This dance, and others like it, became a staple of the Broadway stage. [Remember the video from Will Rogers' Follies?]

Video: Bill Robinson Stair Dance (filmed in 1932)


Blackbirds of 1928 established Robinson as a Broadway star and gave him the publicity he needed to ensure an international career. He dealt diplomatically with racial biases in the industry. He publicly thanked “Mr. Leslie” for giving him a shot (although Leslie had pursued Robinson) and gave minor credit to white influences for his tap dancing. But Robinson was also known to have a short temper.

When Lew Leslie asked Robinson to go on tour with Blackbirds, Robinson demurred. He was able to make much more money touring on his own. Lew Leslie hired Eddie Rector to fill Robinson’s place in the show.

Leslie wanted [Rector] to do a stair dance. Bill sent Rector a telegram: DO MY STAIR DANCE AND YOU DIE. Leslie insisted that the stair dance be used, and it was. Bill was furious with Leslie, and most sources say that this was the incident that started a long feud between them. Marty Forkins Robinson's agent] arranged to book Bill against Blackbirds in each town it played, and everywhere, Bill outdrew the show. Years later, Bill also got back at Eddie Rector, who was famous for dancing on drums. In the film Stormy Weather, he imitated Rector by dancing up and down a staircase of huge drums. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, pp.191-2)

When it came to inhumane treatment, Robinson had a short fuse. U. S. Thompson, widower of the legendary Florence Mills, remembered one night during a performance of Blackbirds, members of the audience…

…were making fun of the girls—“I’ll take this one and that one’s got pretty—and that one’s got skinny—and I don’t like that one and—” they were making a lot of noise and interrupting the performance. So when Bill came on—he was way down in the last part of the show—he told the orchestra to stop. And he told those fellows, “Now, you wouldn’t do that at Ziegfeld’s and you ain’t gonna do it here no more! If you do, then I’m putting you out.” They started making noise again, and Bill jumped down off the stage and carried them out. When he got back, he told the orchestra to begin again, and they did. (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 189)

Robinson was a member of many clubs and civic organizations, and he was a staunch and public advocate for equal rights. He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. His participation in benefits is legendary, and it is estimated that he gave away well over $1 million dollars to charities. During his long career he never refused to play a benefit, regardless of the race, creed, or color of those who were to profit by his performance.

Claiming to have taught tap dance to Eleanor Powell, Florence Mills, Fayard and Harold Nicholas and Fred Astaire, Robinson also profoundly influenced the younger tap dancers at the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where he gambled and shot pool. Robinson’s gambling problems were as well-known as his dancing. However, Robinson was an honorary member of police departments in cities across the United States. When kidnappers were arrested for the kidnapping of Harlem’s chief black racketeer, Bill Robinson’s name was found to be second on the list of “future prospects.” “Not long afterward, the men of the 132nd precinct in Harlem presented Bill with a pearl-handled, gold-plated revolver and a magazine filled with gold bullets. It was, in Bill’s opinion, the greatest honor he had ever received” (Haskins & Mitgang, 1988, p. 190).

Robinson was such an inspirational figure in New York, that he was named the “Mayor of Harlem” in 1933. "To his own people,” Marshall Stearns wrote in Jazz Dance, “Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps."

When Robinson died in 1949, newspapers claimed that almost one hundred thousand people witnessed the passing of the funeral procession. The founding of the Copasetics, a fraternity of male tap dancers formed the year Robinson died, ensured that his excellence would not be forgotten. (Gates & Higginbotham, 2009, 430)

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