At her excellent website Ferdy on Films, etc. Marilyn Ferdinand has called for film bloggers to list their 15 favorite dancers. I decided not to mention Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly since they are the no-brainer usual suspects. One can never run out of superlatives when writing about these three. So, barring them, here are my Top 15 Dancers. The list order says nothing about hierarchy or preference as much as it denotes those I’ve been aching to glorify.
OK, here’s my list!
- First I have to name choreographer Jack Cole. Great dancers in the hands of uninspired choreographers can make schitzy, lacklustre movie-watching. And Jack Cole IS the great choreographer of the movies: he’s the guy who thought out Rita Hayworth’s Put the Blame on Mame for GILDA; he made Marilyn Monroe’s signature number Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend (in the biography on Cole, Unsung Genius, friends of Marilyn say Cole molded her, teaching her the walk and mannerisms that became her trademark); he even choreographed the African tribal dances for M-G-M’s action film KING SOLOMON’S MINES with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. (A friend who lived in Kenya says that East African dances are actually more about shuffling trance-like in lines than the leaps and head tosses shown in that movie.)
Cole got his training from the best: he was one of the early crop of boys at Jacob’s Pillow (in Hollywood, he would occasionally use Ted Shawn’s technique of having the male dancers rehearse naked). At one time Ruth St. Denis lived in his studio during a reversal of her economic fortunes.
Jack Cole made a splash in late 1930s Manhattan creating a nightclub revue that performed sacred Hindu dances to Benny Goodman-type swing music. In addition to Denishawn and Hindu dances, he was also influenced by the bump-and-grind of strippers and incorporated their moves into the dances he built for women. Here’s a clip from 1951′s MEET ME AFTER THE SHOW that shows his ease in using Ted Shawn-type male physicality (remember also that he choreographed the number for Jane Russell and her ‘Olympic Athletes’ for GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) while also giving credence to the claim that he molded Marilyn Monroe: Betty Grable’s first onscreen moments are very Monroe-esque, and this movie was made when Marilyn was a nobody doing a walk-on in ALL ABOUT EVE. Also one of Betty Grable’s backup dancers in this number is Jack Cole’s discovery and protogÃ©e Gwen Verdon.
Not only did Cole create great moments of Dance on film, but he also thought like a filmmaker. He was aesthetically opposed to stand-and-deliver, razzamatazz musical numbers, such as those by Hermes Pan. In the 1952 Lana Turner version of THE MERRY WIDOW, it was he who suggested that most of the dancing be done in shadows and silhouette instead of a brightly-lit ballroom. (He fought to have the visuals go further in abstraction but was vetoed by the top decision-makers.) Cole choreographed for the camera, unlike others who built dances for the soundstage and forced the camera to pull back and simply photograph the dance.
Here’s a prime example of Cole’s film sense (and how he incorporated the moves of strippers into dance). This dance number is divided in two parts by the movie’s opening credits, so to synch up the playback audio for the second part — which begins immediately as the final credit fades — he has Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe clap their hands like a film-slate, then the dance plus playback soar again. An immortal moment in film history: the hands that fondled the genitals of Howard Hughes and President Kennedy in the service of film technology. Some love the mash-ups of Tarentino, but to me this moment of historically-significant, sexually-privileged hands floating in an ocean of screaming ruby red and periwinkle blue leaves QT in the dust.
I love GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES but can never take seriously anything written on it that doesn’t mention the contributions of Jack Cole. It’s like reading a think-piece on CITIZEN KANE that doesn’t mention the cinematography of Gregg Toland.
- Lucille Bremer
Here’s Lucille dancing with Astaire in the movie that was to make her a star: Vincente Minnelli’s YOLANDA AND THE THIEF. The movie was a delirious Minnelli confection, yet was too edgy for 1946 audiences. The movie sank and so did Bremer’s career. She later made a low-budget film noir for Budd Boetticher co-starring Richard Carlson then married the president of México and gave him a passel of children.
This is a great dance that shows the edgy artiness of the movie. The choreography is by Eugene Loring, who created the legendary ballet for Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid.
Can you believe she did that dance wearing those high heels???
- Eleanor Powell
I heard about Eleanor Powell long before I ever saw one of her movies. My mom was a dead-ringer for Ellie — Mom was constantly being mistaken for her when I was a kid. [Don't worry. I examined my motives for putting Powell on the list and I'm not getting Freudian here.]
Ellie was the undisputed Queen of Taps. Here she is marking time with Tommy Dorsey’s speed-crazed drummer, Buddy Rich. Powell kicks into gear about 1:30 into the clip.
Her dancing had punch, but in her one movie with Astaire, her tap-dancing had a graceful fluidity the rest of her dancework lacked. Here they are, dancing to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine.
- Donald O’Connor, the world’s most balanced dancer.
I had a dance/movement teacher who said the world’s most balanced dancer was Fred Astaire. I have to disagree. Watch these clips and you’ll understand why.
Choreography by Eugene Loring: from SOMETHING IN THE WIND opposite Deanna Durbin.
Choreography by Robert Alton: from CALL ME MADAM.
There you have it: the world’s most balanced dancer!
- Marika Rökk was Eleanor Powell and Lucille Ball combined!!!
It’s true!!! Born in Egypt to a Hungarian family, Marika Rökk studied dance in Paris and performed at the Moulin Rouge before being offered a movie contract by Germany’s UFA Studios.
Before WW2, HALLO JANINE! was the first major musical built around her, where she showed off her Powell-like tap dancing:
After WW2, she really blossomed as her physical and screwball comedy talents were showcased in a series of lusty madcap comedies such as 1957′s NACHTS IM GRÜNEN KAKADU (Nights at the Green Cockatoo). Rökk plays a schoolteacher who inherits a sexy upscale nightclub, The Green Cockatoo. In this scene she is visiting the club for the first time (incognito, because of her job as a teacher), when she’s dragged onto the dance floor by a frisky drunk. The results are great comedy and great dancing.
In true Lucy Ricardo style, Rökk’s character gets to dress up and impersonate a wild-and-crazy rock ‘n’ roll gal in this clip from DIE NACHT VOR DER PREMIERE (1959).
[All Marika Rökk films I've seen had no English subtitles, so I had to depend on my extremely basic German for understanding storylines. I apologize if it turns out I misrepresented the finer points of these narratives.]
- I’m Old-Fashioned with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, from YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER .
What else can one say about Astaire? I’m speechless. But with Rita, there’s plenty more to praise. Born to a dancing family, she learned to dance at an age when others were learning how to spell their names. Rita was dancing professionally in Mexican nightclubs by the age of 13. Her years of professional work showed in even her earliest efforts: the energy she displayed when dancing had a rare quality of suppleness and assuredness. And she was sexy without having to work at it. In this clip she never goes for the carnal yet she exudes female allure and sexual availability.
That’s Nan Wynn dubbing Rita’s singing voice.
Astaire almost decided to pair with Hayworth for a series of films (they did two together), but — so fresh from his years with Ginger — he decided not to be identified as part of a dancing team again.
- Cyd Charisse
TRIVIA QUESTION: Which of Fred Astaire’s dancing partners never performed a tap dance?
ANSWER: Cyd Charisse! Being classically trained in ballet, she told the New York Times the idea of slamming her ankle into the floor was lunacy.
Charisse was HOT! Her legs — as instruments of dance, as aesthetic objects, as sexual captivators — were without parallel. This musical number, surrounding her with prizefighters, heightened her charms by placing Charisse in a rough male environment.
And once again, how can anyone dance in those high heels??
- Gene Nelson
Astaire has charm. Gene Kelly has a humpy masculinity. But Gene Nelson’s masculine qualities are unlike either. He’s the Varsity Athlete who also makes the Honor Roll. His fresh-faced, never-met-a-stranger charm mixed with a physical energy that’s as smooth as a well-tuned Harley makes him the embodiment of Wichita-meets-New York.
- Ralph Bellamy in THE AWFUL TRUTH
There have been plenty of great dances in film, but how many non-dancing actors have been required to execute a complicated dance IN CHARACTER ? That’s why actor Ralph Bellamy as the Oklahoma oil man cuttin’ a rug on a ritzy nightclub dance floor in the screwball classic THE AWFUL TRUTH makes my list. When Astaire or Kelly danced, they were always Astaire or Kelly, but Bellamy is hayseed Dan Leeson and his dancing portrays Leeson’s horsey enthusiasm towards Life. His moving and shaking begins around 4:45 into the clip.
More proof of Bellamy’s gifts as an actor are on view in a single closeup during an embarrassing moment when he, Irene Dunne, and Cary Grant are watching a nightclub performer sing a torch song called Gone with the Wind. Every time she sings ‘wind’ a breeze blows up her skirt and exposes her panties. The three spectators are uneasy witnessing this routine; however, there’s a cut-away to Bellamy (about 3 minutes in) where his eyes and the corners of his mouth register some naughty reactions to the titillation while still keeping a facade of being embarrassed.
- Bob Fosse and Carol Haney in KISS ME KATE
Bob Fosse!! During a TCM interview KISS ME KATE star Ann Miller said she saw Fosse rehearsing this number in a practice room and thought it was so remarkable she talked to KATE‘s director about it. She said it was like “the Cole Technique” (yes, the techniques developed by Jack Cole) and suggested it be put in the movie. This is Fosse’s first dance on film. It speaks for itself.
Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice in Baz Luhrmann’s STRICTLY BALLROOM
Sweet (…and I don’t mean the Coca-Cola).
Choreographed by Jack Cole, from the George Cukor / Cole Porter musical LES GIRLS.
[The only YouTube clip from this film has the original soundtrack stripped and a Harry Connick track layed on instead...but you'll get the idea.]
Brigitte Bardot in AND GOD CREATED WOMAN
Roger Vadim isn’t the greatest director in the world: his camera is frequently in the wrong place and he often fails to isolate and emphasize the key aspects of a shot. But he made Brigitte Bardot an international star with AND GOD CREATED WOMAN. The first time you watch this dance at the end of the film, you know you’re seeing a great movie moment being created. Vadim focuses on her face too long in one shot that almost kills the mood of the piece, but Bardot’s charisma saves the scene.
THE EAST IS RED (People’s Republic of China, 1965)
ALL DANCING!! ALL SINGING!! ALL PROSELYTIZING!!
Chairman Mao’s answer to Arthur Freed. The title song says it all:
The East is red,
The sun is rising.
China has brought forth
In this clip — after a two and a half minute sequence of people crossing Tiananmen Square and entering the Great Hall — Chinese dancers, singers, musicians and acrobats start performing as if (perhaps literally) their lives depended on it. Madame Mao produced several revolutionary musicals such as this one (and attendance frequently was mandatory), but in the privacy of her palace she preferred to watch bootlegged Hollywood releases. You can definitely see Hollywood’s influence in THE EAST IS RED.
Pablo Veron & Sally Potter in THE TANGO LESSON
Not only is Sally Potter a good film director, she can dance too!! In her film depicting the tug-of-war between two creatives in a romantic relationship, by the finale the heartbreaks and arguments are in the past and she dances with her lover and dance teachers to the music of Astor Piazzolla.
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