Gwen Verdon

Gwen Verdon (Lola) and Tab Hunter (Joe Hardy) in the 1958 film version of Damn Yankees!

As I walked into a class during my final week of the 2000 Broadway Theatre Project, I realized they had saved the best for last. To my left, a TV was playing the quirky “Who’s Got the Pain” scene from Damn Yankees!—featuring my dance idol Gwen Verdon (1925–2000). And to my right, Verdon herself was executing the steps in time with the vintage version. Her fire-red hair was swept atop her head in a disheveled bun and she wore all black on her divinely proportioned body.

I took a spot in the front row of the master class and focused fiercely as Verdon broke down the piece in great detail—from the physicality of Bob Fosse’s steps to the narrative motivation behind them. She noted the dipping motion of the hips and the scooting feet that create a mambo groove. In a series of small leaps, she moved with the grace of a prancing antelope. At 75, Verdon was certainly the most buoyant dancer in the room. She still embodied the sexy humor that was her invaluable trademark: She was a lady who was one of the boys, but also an object of desire for all men. But what really stood out in that class was that while Verdon was Fosse’s muse, she was also a creative force in her own right.

“Gwen was finely tuned. There wasn’t any type of dancing she couldn’t do, but she never gave it all away,” says Chita Rivera, the living dance legend who starred alongside Verdon in Fosse’s original Chicago. “She had such class. If it was East Indian dance, it was authentic. If it was a wild French girl, it was wild but controlled, never sloppy. She was brilliant.”

Born on January 13, 1925, in Culver City, California, Verdon developed rickets as a youngster and was put into dance class to improve her shaky legs. With her father Joseph employed as an electrician at MGM Studios and her mother Gertrude a Denishawn veteran and dance school owner, Gwen Verdon seemed destined for showbiz. She began performing in stage acts at age 4 and ballroom gigs in her late teens. Although a brief first marriage to tabloid reporter James Henaghan (which produced her son, Jimmie) pulled feisty Verdon from dance, she returned six years later after seeing the Jack Cole Dancers at a Los Angeles club. Struck by Cole’s exotic and sensual choreography, she became an obedient disciple, serving as both a dancer and model on which he set work.

Through her dedication to Cole, especially at MGM (where he was on contract), Verdon nabbed her first Broadway gig in his short-lived Alive and Kicking. They soon returned to Hollywood (now at 20th Century Fox), working on films, coaching stars and performing. At one performance, Verdon caught the eye of New York City producer Cy Feuer, who convinced her to come back to the East Coast to dance in Can Can—a supporting role that became a critical favorite and won her a Tony Award. A young chorus girl named Conchita Del Rivero (Chita Rivera) was in that show. She recalls: “Gwen told me I’d be her understudy. But then she also told me to look for something that was all mine. That’s a heck of a thing for a star to tell a young girl. She cut my destiny.”

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in “Who’s Got the Pain” from Damn Yankees!

Verdon’s meeting with Fosse was not far off. Producer Harold Prince wanted her to play the role of seductress Lola in his new musical, Damn Yankees! But first she had to meet the young burgeoning choreographer himself. Leery of each other, the dancer and choreographer courted at a studio near Lincoln Center, with Fosse showing Verdon steps and Verdon quickly mastering them. It was a natural fit and the session was indicative of their work and personal relationship to come: Fosse the creator, Verdon the perfect vehicle. The sassy, iconic role of Lola became her signature, and it earned her another Tony.

From this point on, Fosse and Verdon became inseparable. She starred in four more of his original hits, including Chicago and Sweet Charity, and won Tony Awards for her roles in his New Girl in Town and Redhead. They married, had a daughter and then separated, but to the confusion of many, Fosse and Verdon never divorced. Instead they continued as collaborative partners with a unique, creative simpatico.

Unfortunately, Verdon’s artistic contributions to Fosse’s canon are often forgotten. And one might question if his creations would have been so intensely manifested without her, the incomparable performer, bringing them to life. For while Fosse’s style and technique have found many wonderful embodiments on other dancers, it was Verdon who set the standard. DT

Lauren Kay is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Additional Resources

BOOKS:

Bob Fosse’s Broadway, by Margery Beddow, Heinemann, 1996

All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, by Martin Gottfried, Bantam Books, 1990

Unsung Genius: The Passion of Dancer-Choreographer Jack Cole, by Glenn Loney, Franklin Watts, 1984

DVDs:

Damn Yankees! (1958), Warner Home Video, 2004

The Cotton Club (1984), MGM Home Entertainment, 2001

Gwen Verdon as
Summer Stages Dance in Concord, MA
Charity in Fosse’s Sweet Charity

Ready for the Quiz?

1. Name the famous scene from Damn Yankees! (1958) in which Gwen Verdon danced with Bob Fosse.

2. What was her invaluable trademark?

3. True or False: Verdon developed rickets as a youngster and was put into dance class to improve her shaky legs.

4. With whom did she become an obedient disciple of, serving as both a dancer and model on which he set work, after seeing his company perform in a Los Angeles nightclub?

5. Verdon caught the eye of New York City producer Cy Feuer, who convinced her to return to the East Coast to dance in what show? (Hint: Her supporting role in this show became a critical favorite and won her a Tony Award.)

6. What famous dancer claims that Verdon “cut my destiny”?

7. Fosse and Verdon’s first meeting was indicative of their work and personal relationship to come: Fosse the _________________, Verdon the _________________ ____________________.

8. The sassy, iconic role of _____________________ became Verdon’s signature, and earned her another Tony Award.

9. Name three original Fosse hits that she starred in.

10. True or False: Fosse and Verdon divorced shortly after having a daughter.

Answer Key

1. “Who’s Got the Pain” 2. Her sexy humor: She was a lady who was one of the boys, but also an object of desire for all men. 3. True 4. Jack Cole 5. Can Can 6. Chita Rivera 7. Creator; perfect vehicle 8. Lola, Damn Yankees! 9. Damn Yankees!, Chicago, Sweet Charity, New Girl in Town and/or Redhead 10. False: Fosse and Verdon never divorced. Instead they continued as collaborative partners with a unique, creative simpatico.

Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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