Judy Holliday and Peter Gennaro in the "Mu-Cha-Cha" number from Bells Are Ringing (1956)

 

When Jerome Robbins accepted the Tony Award for best choreography in 1957 for West Side Story, few people knew that it was not his achievement alone. He neglected to thank his co-choreographer Peter Gennaro, whose work on the show included the famous “America” and “Mambo” numbers. Gennaro had signed away the rights to his dances.

 

Today, Gennaro (1919–2000) is not as well-known as his contemporaries Robbins, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s he was one of the most popular dancer-choreographers. He and his dancers introduced audiences across America to the inherent sensuality of jazz dance through weekly television variety shows like Perry Como’s “Kraft Music Hall.”

 

“The whole world knew who Peter Gennaro was,” says Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, his former assistant at Radio City Music Hall. He was the gleeful man on TV, whether it was The Judy Garland Show or Ed Sullivan, and Gennaro’s choreography, Novellino-Mearns says, “was tight and underneath you.” His trademark was quick hips, fast footwork and a jaunty physical sense of humor. As Chita Rivera said, “He had the fastest feet I had ever seen.”

 

Last October, Gennaro’s dancers and colleagues paid tribute to the 5'6" son of Sicilian immigrants at a “Dancers Over 40” event, where musical theater notables remembered him as the most amiable of choreographers. “Nobody was ever late for rehearsal when he was choreographing,” says Broadway dance veteran Harvey Evans. “You walked in laughing and you left laughing. He was so kind.” Unlike Robbins, who read the riot act to dancers before the West Side Story premiere, Gennaro showered his dancers with loving support.

 

So how—in a business known for its high-strung personalities—did Gennaro cultivate joie de vivre? His daughter Liza says he was born with it. Raised outside of New Orleans, Gennaro’s remarkable disposition toward joy and dancing found fertile ground in the birthplace of jazz. “He always talked about his experiences as a child watching the jazz funerals on the banks of the Mississippi River,” says Liza. “He would join them and dance alongside the musicians.” This experience coincided with Gennaro winning prizes at age 5 in local Charleston competitions. Gennaro’s mother encouraged his nascent talent. His father did not. Nonetheless, Gennaro took his earnings from working at his father’s restaurant to study acrobatics and tap at a local studio.

 

When Gennaro graduated from high school circa 1936, he expressed interest in becoming a graphic artist. Although he occasionally performed in French Quarter clubs, a dance career seemed unrealistic. As America prepared to enter World War II, Gennaro voluntarily enlisted in the Army, where he serendipitously joined actor Melvyn Douglas’ entertainment troupe as a dancer. Gennaro performed for eight months through the India-China-Burma theater of war, entertaining the Allied troupes and honing his skills as a hoofer. With the Armistice, he moved to New York and used the GI bill to study with dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and her chief teacher, Syvilla Fort.

 

In 1947 Gennaro found full-time work with Chicago’s San Carlo Opera Company. There he met his future wife Jean Kinsella, a former Agnes de Mille dancer. Two years later, he made his Broadway debut in Make Mine Manhattan. Gennaro also taught while working with Hanya Holm and Michael Kidd during his chorus dancing years. Grace Kelly took his Dunham-oriented class, which featured subtle body isolations, quick footwork and polyrhythmic movement phrases.

 

In 1954 Gennaro got his big break dancing alongside Carol Haney and Buzz Miller in Bob Fosse’s “Steam Heat,” from The Pajama Game. What made “Steam Heat” churn was a skewed, subtle sexuality, and it was so popular that the director threatened to take it out because it didn’t feature any of the lead performers.

 

After “Steam Heat,” Gennaro’s choreography career flourished. He made work for 11 original Broadway productions and numerous films, including The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In 1977, 20 years after Robbins’ West Side Story Tony, Gennaro won the same award for Annie. His ambition, says his daughter, was not linked to becoming the authoritative choreographer. “It was about getting out there and dancing.” DT

 

Freelance writer Rachel Straus is working on a PhD in dance history.

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine Archive.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox