Changed the face of dance on film

 

Kelly and Leslie Caron (whom he discovered) in An American in Paris
Gene Kelly was one of the original song-and-dance men from the movie-musical golden age, credited with introducing ballet to mainstream film audiences and encouraging masculinity in dance. Kelly had considerable influence behind the camera, where he sought to change the way dance was presented and framed in film.

Eugene Curran Kelly (1912–1996) was born in Pittsburgh, where his mother enrolled him in dance classes at the age of 8. He and his four siblings grew up performing as The Five Kellys, though his brothers soon quit dancing once the neighborhood boys teased them. As a teenager, Kelly managed to juggle sports and dance and eventually ran a dance studio in his hometown—where his future second wife, Jeanne Coyne, became a student—even as he pursued a college degree in economics. He attended law school briefly before dropping out to focus on dance.

He got his comparatively late start on Broadway (he was 26) as a specialty dancer in the Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me! He soon snagged the lead in Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s new musical Pal Joey, where he managed to charm audiences even as he played a sleazy anti-hero. His performance attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film scouts, and he soon made his way to Hollywood. But his big break didn’t happen until a few years later, with 1945’s Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly displayed his ingenuity as a choreographer during his duet with the animated mouse Jerry, of “Tom and Jerry” fame.

The next couple of years saw a string of small hits until Kelly made the three films that would cement his career as a film choreographer willing to think outside of the box: On the Town (1949), for which he insisted on traveling to New York City to shoot certain scenes on location; An American in Paris (1951), which ended with a then-unheard-of 17-minute ballet; and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, featuring Kelly’s eponymous tap dance scene.

But the rest of his career was downhill. His left-wing politics got him in trouble during the McCarthy era, and several of his later films, including Brigadoon, Hello Dolly! and Xanadu, were flops, though the last has attained a cult following. DT

The ever creative Kelly with a mop as his partner in Thousands Cheer

The Style

Much of Kelly’s appeal was in his masculine, everyman persona. He was able to mesh several different forms of dance—tap, ballet, modern—into a hybrid form ripe with athleticism and vigor. Kelly once told interviewers, “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand.”

The Legacy Lives On 

Kelly’s insistence that his 17-minute ballet be included at the end of An American in Paris gave many moviegoers their first real glimpse of ballet. He also experimented with split screens (It’s Always Fair Weather), double images (Cover Girl, in which he danced with his own reflection) and mixing live action with animation (Anchors Aweigh), forever changing the way dance was presented on film.

 

Fun Fact:

Kelly broke his ankle during one of the legendarily competitive volleyball games held at the home that he and his first wife, Betsy Blair, shared—making him unavailable to work on his next picture, Easter Parade. To collect unemployment, Kelly told MGM head honcho L.B. Mayer that he’d hurt his ankle during rehearsal for the upcoming film; he also managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement to take his place.

The Work

Gene Kelly had a hand in more than 40 films over the course of his career, whether as a star, choreographer or director—and sometimes all three at once.

Anchors Aweigh (1945) Given the freedom to create his own dance numbers for the first time, Kelly proved himself an innovative choreographer with his “The King Who Couldn’t Dance (The Worry Song)” number, which paired him with the cartoon mouse Jerry.

On the Town (1949) Kelly co-directed this remake of the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical of the same name with Stanley Donen. In a push for authenticity, Kelly insisted on location shots of New York City—an expense previously not awarded to movie musicals.

An American in Paris (1951) Kelly’s unofficial role as director was so assured that the titular director, Vincente Minnelli, would often leave the set. The film’s 17-minute closing ballet helped earn it several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Kelly’s gleeful tap dance on a puddle-filled street has made this one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time. His unrelenting work ethic and quest for perfection was not lost on co-star Debbie Reynolds, who later said that childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain were the two hardest things she ever did in her life.

Resources: 

Print:

“Gene Kelly: How an American Icon Carved Out His Niche by Incorporating Athleticism into His Adopted Artform,” by Iris Dorbian, Dance Teacher, February 2005

The Films of Gene Kelly: Song and Dance Man, by Tony Thomas, The Citadel Press, 1974

Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, by Alvin Yudkoff, Back Stage Books, 1999

WEB:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org

 

Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Kerollis

I remember it like yesterday. Those days, when I could step to the front of my classroom and guide students through enchaînement—demonstrate the combination, offer tidbits of advice, cue my accompanist and walk around offering detailed corrections.

If you told me a month ago I would be forcibly holed up in my apartment as I led my first classes as a master teacher with Youth America Grand Prix, I might have looked at you like you had several heads. But when New York City began shutting down at breakneck speed, I knew I had to do something to protect my income. I dug deep into my toolbox and began developing online classes.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Photo courtesy of Academy for the Performing Arts

Between forced business closures and general fear of contracting the virus, some consumers have begun to ask for refunds of services that cannot be rendered or goods that cannot be delivered. In some cases, some of your customers may be submitting chargebacks on payments already made as a way to obtain their money back without having to contact you directly.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
This Bitter Earth. Photo by Sam Wootton, courtesy of NYCB

Create a Watch Party! Here are four free offerings from New York City's most celebrated arts organizations to share with your students and their families.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

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

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.