Dancing in The Musical Film

The 2016 Winter term started off with a treat for students in Dr. Katherine Spring’s brand new course FS 258: Musical Film. Not only did they get to learn about the classic 1930s musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they also had a chance to see some of the energetic dance styles of the era performed live in class by one of Laurier’s Film Studies professors, Dr. Sandra Annett!

FS258

Dr. Annett and her dance partner David Barth, both regulars at the Hepcat Swing dance studio in uptown Waterloo, made a  special guest appearance in class on January 19, 2016. Together, they demonstrated some popular dances from the 1930s and explained how those dances were adapted in the movies.

Dr. Annett put the dances in context by noting that “When you watch a musical with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, like Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936), what really stands out is how they make dancing look so easy and natural. Their dance seems to evolve spontaneously from the situation and perfectly express the character’s emotions. But in fact, that natural quality was far from spontaneous; it was highly choreographed. Astaire and his choreographer Hermes Pan would plan all the moves and the timing in advance. Astaire and Rogers would rehearse the numbers together, and finally they would film the dance, sometimes doing dozens of takes to get it right.

When audiences watched that performance on the screen, they might think ‘Oh, that looks so easy. I want to go out dancing!’ And many of them did, since it was a normal part of an evening’s entertainment in the ’30s to see a movie and then go out to a nearby dance hall. At the dance hall, though, nobody choreographed their moves in advance. They did what is called social dancing, where both partners, the lead and the follow, know some basic steps beforehand, and then they improvise the dance together based on the swing jazz music that was popular at the time. The dances they did to swing jazz were collectively called swing dancing. It was like the club dancing of the 1930s!”

To bring this old-time dance world to life, Dr. Annett and Mr. Barth demonstrated three kinds of dancing. The first dance was an example of improvised social dancing in the swing style, including moves from the Lindy Hop and the Charleston, set to a lively Big Band tune called “Make Love To Me.” The second dance was an example of a choreography called the “Shim Sham Shimmy,” which uses a set of predetermined moves from solo jazz and tap dance. Finally, the couple demonstrated the more elegant and upright style of ballroom dance used in the Astaire and Rogers’ paired dance scenes, waltzing to Doris Day’s classic “Que Sera, Sera.”

Nothing like those fine dance steps to liven up the winter!

By: Sandra Annett

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