Busby Berkeley and his dancing girls

Dozens of beautiful chorus girls strumming neon-lighted violins and twirling in double-tiered translucent Chinese silk hoop skirts slink around an enormous curving staircase. An overhead camera captures the constantly moving silver-wigged chorines in concentric circles before they glide in and out towards the giant circle’s center—the image, a pulsating sunflower.

This is the famous “The Shadow Waltz” scene from Gold Diggers of 1933, and the genius of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley (1895–1976), the man who delivered new and intriguing ways of experiencing song and dance productions. Turning hundreds of dancing bodies (oftentimes with whimsical props) into complex human kaleidoscopes, Berkeley made cinematic history during the Great Depression, creating indelible numbers for almost every musical Warner Bros. produced from 1933 to 1937.

His work has been called everything from brilliant, miraculous and extraordinary to vulgar, sexist and camp, but Berkeley was essentially a purveyor of dreams and moods. Less concerned with his showgirls’ actual dance technique than their ability to maneuver into geometric figurines, Berkeley used only one movable camera on custom-built booms, monorails, cranes and holes drilled into the studio’s roof to capture his whirlwind visions; it was, in fact, the camera that did the dancing.

“Some of Berkeley’s ideas came from Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who liked to have lots of chorus girls in lines,” says Richard Schickel, film documentarian, author and Time magazine movie critic. “But Berkeley’s work really requires the camera to realize that. He didn’t just burst the fourth wall of the theater—he burst all the walls.”

Born in Los Angeles the son of theater director Wilson Enos and actress Gertrude Enos, William Berkeley Enos began performing with his family at age 5. He later christened himself Busby Berkeley by combining the surname of actress Amy Busby with his mother’s maiden name, Berkeley. At 12 he attended military school, eventually enlisting in the army during World War I. While stationed in France and Germany, Berkeley directed military exhibitions and parades. He also served as an aerial observer with the Air Corps.

These unique jobs, coupled with his theatrical upbringing, undoubtedly shaped the untrained choreographer’s future cinematic vision and earned him the position of dance director for nearly two dozen musicals, including the 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. It wasn’t until 1930, when Broadway star Eddie Cantor suggested Berkeley create the dance routines for the film Whoopee!, that Berkeley found his calling behind the camera.

In addition to Gold Diggers of 1933, four classic musicals made for Warner Bros. sealed Berkeley’s immortality: 1933’s 42nd Street, starring tapper Ruby Keeler in the famed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” routine, set the tone for future backstage musicals; Footlight Parade (1933), is known for its extravagant “By a Waterfall” dream sequence, where scantily clad showgirls form a cascading human waterfall (the glass-lined pool was the largest soundstage ever built); in Fashions of 1934, 20 to 30 dancers fashioned as harp columns join 200 girls dancing with white ostrich plumes to create prismatic floral designs; and in Gold Diggers of 1935, 56 white grand pianos come to life performing with 56 girls in “The Words Are in My Heart,” and Berkeley’s masterpiece, “Lullaby of Broadway,” involves a mass dance sequence of 150 tappers.

Moving to MGM after the decline of outlandish musicals in the late 1930s, Berkeley worked on four films with the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Disagreements with Garland caused Berkeley’s removal from Girl Crazy, but his number “I Got Rhythm” remained. During this time, he also created Eleanor Powell’s epic “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale in Lady Be Good.

Berkeley’s surreal style resurfaced in 1943 when Carmen Miranda wore a towering fruit headdress and showgirls danced with giant bananas in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from The Gang’s All Here. In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals, choreographing seven films in the 1950s, including Esther Williams’ exotic water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid, before his final credit on the 1962 film Billy Rose’s Jumbo, starring Doris Day.

By the end of the decade, Berkeley had been virtually forgotten, until a ’60s camp craze renewed interest in his work. He toured the college lecture circuit, returning to the Great White Way in 1971 as production supervisor in a successful revival of No, No, Nanette. Five years later, Berkeley passed away of natural causes at his home in Palm Springs, CA, at age 80. His influence is still felt today, from the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to “Miss Piggy’s Fantasy” swim number in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.

“Berkeley’s moment was the 1930s. But the numbers are timeless,” says Schickel. “With 100 people getting together as a gigantic team and doing a routine in which everybody is perfectly unified—that’s what people were trying to say about the United States. We had to pull together. It wasn’t about individualism. These are perfect statements of collectivity—100 people working together to create a gorgeous effect.” DT

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and freelance dance critic for The Los Angeles Times. She teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox