By Marilyn Ferdinand
To most people, dancing mainly involves dancers making pleasing or dramatic shapes oftentimes while telling a story. Big moves, the flowy-showy costumes, and tricks are amply rewarded by audiences with appreciation and applause.
But crucially, dance is an expression of movement through space. In the case of clapping or tap dancing, sound may come into the picture, but the critical action is movement. How a dancer relates to the space through which he or she moves can communicate as much as a dramatic, emotional speech. In film, this space can be as large as all outdoors, depending on camera range and angle, or as small as a closet. I’m going to examine three films in which dancing happens in tight or crowded spaces and discuss why I think these scenes were choreographed the way they were, how they help move the themes of the film forward, and communicate more than the emotional experience of watching pleasing shapes.
Royal Wedding (1951)
Director: Stanley Donen
Choreographers: Nick Castle/Fred Astaire
Set in 1947, Royal Wedding has a brother and sister team (Astaire and Jane Powell) crossing the Atlantic to open their recently closed Broadway show in London the year of the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II to Philip. Naturally, both siblings find their true loves in the process. In one of the most famous scenes in all the movies, Fred finds himself thinking about Anne (Sarah Churchill), a dancer he met during auditions for the London show. He goes into her father’s tavern, seemingly casually looking for her, but finding only her dad to talk to. He goes back to his hotel, finds Anne’s picture in an advertising sandwich board, slips the picture out of its holder, and takes it up to his room. Regarding the picture, he sings “You’re Everything to Me” and then literally dances around the room to the orchestral arrangement of the song. Below is a clip of the “dancing on the ceiling” number:
Now, people have been wondering for ages, “How did he do that?” Just to clear the mystery up so we can go on to other things, the room rotated and the various parts of the film were cut to make a seamless dance. But why did Castle and Astaire choose to create a dance in a rotating box? I can’t say for sure, but certainly these two former vaudevillians were interested in wowing the audiences with their ingenuity, and the use of such props as the ceiling light—an Astaire trademark—would be easy to incorporate. But I think there’s more to it than that. Astaire’s character is in love but is stuck unless and until Anne throws over her boyfriend. He’s literally boxed in with his feelings. At the same time, the song lets us know that Anne is Astaire’s whole world. At that moment, the room is his whole world, and he shows through his movements that he will do his best to defy its boundaries, defy gravity itself (lovers are often said to be “walking on air”) to give free rein to his feelings. The giddy, exuberant dance comes pretty close to accomplishing those goals and serves the story as well as Astaire’s showmanship.
Director: Nick Castle
Choreographers: Henry de Tang/Gregory Hines
Here we have another Nick Castle film choreographed by another great vaudevillian, Henry de Tang, for a boatful of vaudeville stars, including Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, and Sammy Davis, Jr. This film is also noted for introducing one of the major dance lights of today, Savion Glover, then just a boy. In between is the great Gregory Hines, and the tap number I’m going to discuss is his credited “improvography.” Hines plays a dancer who, tired of the financial hardships of his profession, turns to crime. The film opens in the prison block where Hines’ character is incarcerated. We move to his cell. The lighting is dark and the cell narrow. He pulls a thick board out and places it at the bars of his cell on the side opposite his bed. He starts to tap; his cellblock mates start to yell at the noise he’s making:
Watch him smash his cell wall loudly and repeatedly with his foot. “Let me out of here. Let me out of here!” If you saw Robert De Niro smash his fists into a wall in Raging Bull, you’ll recognize the frustration. But then, Hines starts to warm to his dancing itself. He seems to get into a frenzy of creativity, with small, precise, rapid taps showing his excitement. He has freed himself for a short while with his art, oblivious to the shouts around him. When we see his passion, we know that he will be drawn back into dancing—something he fights against when he is released—by the picture’s end. This scene shorthands the themes of this movie perfectly.
Dance With Me (1998)
Director: Randa Haines
Choreographer: Liz Curtis
A film that mixes the director of Children of a Lesser God, a dance instructor with no previous film credits as choreographer, a semi-dancer in Vanessa Williams, and a singing idol in Chayanne sounds like a risky proposition. Can the singer act? Can the semi-dancer really pull off championship ballroom sequences? Can a dramatic director shoot dance? Somehow it all comes together in this story of a jaded competitive ballroom dancer who finds new inspiration and love with a Cuban immigrant.
In the scene I’m going to discuss, Williams has accepted Chayanne’s invitation to go out dancing. She meets him in front of a salsa club and they go in. Lights and dancers are swirling in front of them in a hot red glow. When they first hit the dance floor, the couple is jostled by the closely packed crowd. However, as all the dancers warm up, a communal dance takes place.
In several shots, we can see that the dance floor is actually quite spacious. But it holds a lot of couples who would rather dance together than separately, making a virtue of close quarters. As a competitive dancer, Williams has always looked at other dancers as “the enemy.” We see her face in medium-close shots as we watch the reserve we’ve seen in previous scenes dissolve in joy. The dancers pass partners off to each other, cooperate in forming lines and circles, gain energy from each other’s efforts, and work together with the salsa band to create an atmosphere that reflects Cuban life and culture. Williams is welcomed in as though she were a native, as though she belongs in a place where the celebration of life comes first. The camera seems to swirl with the dancers, though Haines really uses judicious angles and edits with precise pacing to make us feel as though we’re dancing with this wonderful crowd as well. I don’t think I’ve seen any other film that so completely conveys the pleasure, accessibility, and beauty of picking up one’s feet and dancing. This film, to my mind, is the best of the ballroom genre, and is all the more special for placing minority dancers in what has traditionally been a white dance style in movies.
I hope I’ve shown how the creative use of space is a formidable aid in the dancer/choreographer’s toolbox. Large spaces can be closed, and close spaces can be expanded. Every dancer is taught to be aware of their surroundings. In movies, that awareness can also tell a story.