Dance History

Gene Kelly

Along with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly (1912–1996) was the original song-and-dance man in American cinema. For redefining the boundaries of dance, Kelly received a special Oscar in 1951, recognizing his masterful work in An American In Paris, which featured a 17-minute ballet sequence, widely considered one of the finest ever filmed. Citing his “versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography,” the trophy celebrated Kelly’s effort to invest dance with an everyman quality.

Kelly was born in Pittsburgh to an actress and a theatrical manager. Yet, this world-class performer initially did not want to dance. He dreamed about being a baseball player, joking much later, in a 1985 American Film Institute special saluting his career, that he yearned to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His family prodded him into taking dance lessons: Along with his siblings Jay, Jim, Louise and Fred, Kelly performed on the amateur vaudeville circuit as part of “The Five Kellys.”

In 1932, he founded the Gene Kelly School of Dance in his hometown, and staffed it with members of his family. There, Kelly developed and honed his skills as a teacher, while earning an economics degree at the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating, he entered law school. But his love for dance conflicted with his studies and he soon dropped out, moving to New York City in 1938.

He quickly made his Broadway debut, as a dancer in Leave It to Me. Later, Kelly would score one of his biggest triumphs on the Great White Way, playing the titular role in the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart/John O’Hara musical Pal Joey. His sensational performance led Gone With the Wind’s legendary film producer David O. Selznick to sign Kelly to a seven-year contract with Selznick International.

But Selznick had no interest in musicals and lent Kelly to MGM to co-star with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942). It became a mega-hit and MGM bought out Kelly’s contract with Selznick. In 1944, Kelly added choreographer to his resumé with his work in Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth. To differentiate his choreography from Astaire’s, Kelly substituted swaggering physicality for his screen rival’s ballroom dancing. A slew of successful MGM musicals followed, including Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse of “Tom and Jerry”; and The Pirate (1948), which highlighted his immortal footwork in “Be A Clown” and “Nina,” set to Cole Porter’s ebullient score.

Kelly’s most important collaborator was Stanley Donen. Together they co-directed the film version of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Broadway smash, On the Town (1949), in which Kelly co-starred with Frank Sinatra. Later they teamed up for Busby Berkeley’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-directing the “Strictly USA” number, with Kelly nabbing an overall story credit. But their work in Singin’ in the Rain would enshrine Kelly as an icon in the Tinsel Town pantheon. The film included some of the screen’s most memorable choreography, most notably Kelly’s indelible water-drenched romp to the title song.

In the 1950s, the movie musical declined, as illustrated by the tepid public and critical reception accorded to Kelly’s last MGM productions, among them the disappointing Brigadoon (1954) and the underrated It’s Always Fair Weather (1956), a dance film that Kelly directed, choreographed and starred in. The latter boasted a “Sinbad the Sailor” segment that critics often laud for its skillful fusion of live action and cartoon.

Kelly went on to explore other options. He directed the Broadway mounting of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song and choreographed an original ballet for the Paris Opéra Ballet. In the late 1950s, Kelly was asked by the television show “Omnibus” to produce a documentary about dance and athletics. He complied with the inventive Dancing: A Man’s Game.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Kelly appeared on both the big and small screen, whether appearing in cameos on television or acting as a narrator for compilation films such as That’s Entertainment! His last major film role was in the poorly received Xanadu (1980).

With his virile grace and singular athleticism, Kelly left a vivid legacy as a film dancer and choreographer. The image of Kelly frolicking about with an umbrella has left enough “glorious feelings” for generations to come. DT

Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

Many parents discourage their teenagers from majoring in dance because of fear that their child will become a struggling artist in an unforgiving city, only to end their career in injury. But a dance degree can lead to other corners of the profession, such as marketing, physical therapy and arts administration. "Parents always say their children need something to fall back on," says Daniel Lewis, former dean of the dance division at New World School of the Arts. "They only see the stage time, applause and flowers. But there's choreographing, teaching, PR—the careers are endless."

Others are more concerned with disappointment. "Your daughter doesn't have to be a major ballerina with ABT to be successful," says Lewis. "If she wants to be a dancer, she'll find the work. There's a certain amount of training you have to achieve before you even get accepted into a good college, so if you have the talent, and the drive, you can make it."

As mentors, teachers can be monumentally influential on students' college decision processes. Read on to hear from three dance majors who feel grateful they chose this path—and share their words with your students!

Keep reading... Show less
To show her support for local studios, Kelly Berick requires all her students to be enrolled in an after-school program. Photo by Stephanie Csejtey, courtesy of Akron School of the Arts

When Kelly Berick began teaching high school students at Ohio's Firestone Community Learning Center within Akron Public Schools 21 years ago, she was newly engaged, newly licensed to teach K–12 dance and thrilled to land what she considered the perfect job. Her enthusiasm quickly soured, however, when after two weeks of teaching she called a local studio to introduce herself. "The owner told me her students didn't like me, didn't like what I was doing and were going to quit my program," she says. Her class of seven became a class of three.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jacqulyn Buglisi has a flair for drama. To encourage the students in her intermediate and advanced Graham classes at The Ailey School to open their sternums in a high release, she tells them to stretch “like a flower came out of your heart." When attempting to convey the weight of a hand gesture, she explains that they must “pull the hem of heaven from the sky." During the extensive warm-up sequence, she reminds them that this is no time for complacency: “We don't do positions. We dance the series." Despite her penchant for the Graham dramatics, Buglisi is equally quick to curb any excess of melodrama in her students. “No Swan Lake with the arms," she admonishes one whose wrists are limply crossed.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Robert Roldan and partner Taylor Sieve (courtesy of FOX)

Robert Roldan may have stolen our hearts on Season 7 of "So You Think You Can Dance"—but it seems his heart was stolen long before that by none other than Emmy Award winning choreographer, Mandy Moore.

As his first jazz teacher at Bobby's School of Performing Arts in Thousand Oaks California, Roldan says Moore taught him everything he knows about dancing. Now, as an All-Star on this season of "So You Think You Can Dance," he's applying those invaluable lessons with partner Taylor Sieve.

"What Mandy has always taught me, is that you need to feel the emotion and intention of the pieces you perform as a human before you can apply it to your dancing. Because of this, the week that Taylor and I performed Mandy's piece, I used the entire two hours of private rehearsal time we had to talk about what the piece was about and how we could connect to it as humans. I believe that doing this was ultimately more valuable than any time we could have spent cleaning details and making the piece perfect. Mandy taught me this at a young age, and I try to apply it to Taylor as much as I possibly can when I teach her. People won't connect to how high your leg is or what crazy tricks you can do. They want to feel something. And when you feel it, they feel it."

Watch Roldan on "So You Think You Can Dance" tonight on FOX.

Teachers & Role Models
Camille Rommett, left, with her mother Zena, who founded the floor-barre method. Photo courtesy of Rommett.

In 1965, Zena Rommett was asked to teach her unique Floor-Barre method at the American Ballet Center by ballet legend Robert Joffrey. Her gentle-yet-effective technique inspired countless professional dancers over the years, who became faithful followers as a supplement to their dance training. From choreographer Lar Lubovitch to Tommy Tune, Patrick Swayze and Judith Jamison, many swear by the benefits of the technique. Rommett taught it until she was 90.

The summer after Rommett's death, her daughter Camille made her debut on the faculty of our Dance Teacher Summit. She describes teaching to a packed convention room as "a very humbling experience." Despite students often telling her she sounds similar to her mother, she's learned it's not about filling her mother's shoes, but keeping her mother's legacy—and the integrity of the technique—alive.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

I have heard you say that tight hamstrings prevent full extension of the knees and that you prefer hamstring stretches in a standing position, rather than on the floor. Can you explain why?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

In February 2016, we featured the women of Ragamala Dance, the Minneapolis-based bharatanatyam company founded by mother-and-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. (Daughter Ashwini is a dancer in the company and the troupe's publicist.) Since they appeared on our cover, they've had a busy year and a half, full of performances and exciting news. This weekend, they're featuring their mentor, Alarmél Valli, in a special performance at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts in Minneapolis.

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!