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Essay: The Evolution of Dance Within American Musical Theater

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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The evolution of dance in American musical theater has been extremely influential towards performance art in modern society. From the start of the Minstrel show area to current day musical theater, dance has made its way through and been shaped by a racist, sexiest and uniclusive America. It’s evolutionary path took flight around the 1840’s and transitioned into current day, maintaining its status as one of america’s favorite forms of entertainment. There is no real timeline to follow regarding the evolution of dance in musical theater as there are many different people and factors whose influences combined and evolved to make dance in American musical theater what it is today.

It was the year 1843 when dance was conceived through Minstrelsy and the typical show consisted of white men dressing up as plantation slaves. “These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms.” (Jackson) The first minstrel group was called “The Virginia Minstrels” and it was founded and directed by a man named Dan Emmett. The original cast of this group was made up of three other men: Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower. (Harris) The Virginia Minstrels became very popular and many travelling minstrel groups began to spring up all over the country. The most famous and influential minstrel was a man named Thomas “Big Daddy” Rice. In his early days, Big Daddy spent a considerable amount of time in the Southern States perfecting his travelling act which was based on the famous Jim Crow character. He used his time in the south to observe the African American way of speech and their song and dance traditions so he could use them in his act. Big Daddy was instrumental in making this Jim Crow character famous and it existed in American musical theater right up until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (African American Registry) The music and dance performances drew from the African American heritage and  included an element of clogging in which the men would wear wooden shoes. Big Daddy became famous for  his “hard shoe (a heel-to-toe tap and spin technique that later evolved into tap.)” (Kendrick) The African American influence in music and dance progressed over time and dance in theater really began to grow and we witnessed the birth of steps such as the buck and wing, soft shoe, shuffle and the cakewalk. (Kendrick)

“On September 12, 1866, a happy accident occurred that changed Broadway forever.”(Viagas)  Who would have imagined a fire as the catalyst for a defining moment for dance in American musical theater? This situation involved a Broadway theater manager, named William Wheatley who had booked a Parisian ballet troupe in one theater and melodramatic play about a man who sold his sold his soul to the devil in another. There was a fire in the theater where the ballet troupe was supposed to perform so the theater manager decided to combine the two acts in the theater where the drama was to take place. (Viagas) This provided Wheatley with a solution for two problems as this would provide a theater for the Parisian dancers and he also felt that the dancers would spice up the melodrama which he felt was quite boring. (Mroczka) Wheatley would go on to create a mediocre melodrama, utilizing the skills of the dancers and incorporating ballet technique and the shapely legs of an all woman ensemble into an American musical theater for the first time in history. The end product was a work entitled The Black Crook which was a five hour long production that became a pioneering hit. (Viagas)  Because of Wheatley’s creation of the ensemble it would continue as the norm in stage performance through and into the end of the 19th century. From the modest beginnings of women wearing tights in the late 1800’s to the exposure of the whole body in the 1930’s, Wheatley’s ensemble legacy would remain to be on of the most memorable moments of a professional burlesque performance. This performance also incorporated drama with dance and music so some actually call it the America’s first musical theater show.

In the early 1880s, minstrel shows transitioned into variety acts which soon came to be known as vaudeville shows. These shows also made significant contribution to modern day musical theater and contained acts with comedic scenes, skits and movement that began to form the skeleton for modern day American musical theater. “The most common Vaudeville act was the song and dance act.  It could be “put over” by any combination of solo, duet, or team performers.  It was especially popular with family acts, since the children could be included in simple dances, while learning other technique”(New York Public Library) Vaudeville shows didn’t have a plot but as this variety show form of entertainment became popular, Broadway shows began to incorporate elements of the Vaudeville show into their plots. This was the first time tap, ballet, stepping and musical dance had been incorporated into the musical theater scene and the first real example of this was ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1931 and was called the Ziegfeld Follies. (Morris) Vaudeville was very influential regarding current music and dance trends on Broadway as whatever dance style was trending in the travelling show would end up being seen on Broadway as well. Vaudeville  helped pave the way for allowing for artistic expression of dancers in American musical theater, as well as giving dancers the opportunity to take a more active and creative role in the show. The introduction of Vaudeville to Broadway was truly instrumental in the evolution of dance in American musical theater.

The vaudeville entertainer, George M. Cohan played an instrumental role in shaping current dance in American musical theater. Cohan was the spirit of Vaudeville as he was everything it embodied and more. Along with his accomplishments as a dancer and being able to perform such styles as the waltz clog, the buck and the wing, he was also an outstanding songwriter who is responsible for many songs still loved by Americans to this day. He influenced dance in a very unique way as he is not renowned for an evolutionary style he created, but for his outstanding performance quality and his unique energetic, electric, movement dance style and showmanship. He truly took dance in American musical theater to the next level and he was able to incorporate comedy, technique, and movement based acting into his performances. Up until this day, I can recognize a piece of his style embedded in the choreography and dance background of modern day broadway choreographers. Some consider him to be the founder of dance on Broadway and because of the incredible dance in some of his famous works such as “Give My Regards To Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. American musical theater dance was forever altered in the best possible way.

Burlesque has also been influential in the evolution of American musical theater and although it’s most popular days have past, we still see it’s influence in American music theater. When burlesque was born it was viewed as very risqué and sexualized. “The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the “place” of woman in American society”(Allen)  Today in American musical theater we witness dancing in very little clothing and it is not considered burlesque, yet it follows in the burlesque tradition of pushing the envelope regarding women’s sexuality and the question regarding the “place” of women in society.

The evolution of dance in American musical theater has helped shape the evolution of musical theater itself. From the Minstrel show era straight through to modern day, there have been various people, events and factors that have helped shape the evolution of dance in American musical theater. American musical theater is what it is today because the birth of dance in Minstrelsy, it’s evolution Vaudeville, the fateful fire which was the catalyst for the combination of the parisienne ballet dancers and the melodrama, influential people such as Big Daddy and George M. Cohan, Burlesque, the growth of dance to it’s final destination in modern day America all pressured, pushed and influenced one another to result in our wonderful modern day American musical theater.

Work Cited

  • Brooks, Katherine. “A Brief But Stunning Visual History Of Burlesque In The 1950s.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Nov. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/14/burlesque-photos_n_6142560.html.
  • Harris, Diana Dart. “Beginning Musical Theatre Dance: Origins of Musical Theatre Dance.”Human-Kinetics, Human Kinetics, www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/origins-of-musical-theatre-dance.
  • Jakson, n/a. “The Minstrel Show.” Chnm.gmu.edu, chnm.gmu.edu/courses/jackson/minstrel/minstrel.html.
  • James, St. “George M. Cohan.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/george-m-cohan/.
  • Kendrick, John. “Dance In Stage Musicals.” Dance in Stage Musicals, Musicals101.Com, 2003,  www.musicals101.com/dancestage.htm#Minstrelsy.
  • Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. Broadway: the American Musical. Applause Theatre &  Cinema Books, 2010.
  • Morris, Simon. “What Influence Did Vaudeville Have on Musical Theatre?” Simon Morris – Musicals  Blog, 13 Mar. 2014, simonmorrisuk.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/what-influence-did-vaudeville-have-on-musical-theatre/.
  • Mroczka, Paul. “Broadway Theatre History: The Black Crook, the Play That Was Not the First Musical.” Broadway Scene, broadwayscene.com/broadway-theatre-history-the-black-crook-the-play-that-was-not-the-first-musical/.
  • Multiple. “Dance Techniques .” NYPL, Vaudeville Nation, New York Public Library For The Performing Arts, web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/vaudeville/dance.html.
  • Viagas, Robert. “The Black Crook, The.” Playbill, PLAYBILL INC., 12 Sept. 2016,  www.playbill.com/article/the-black-crook-the-first-broadway-musical-will-return-to-new-york.

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