For hundreds of years, the evolution of dance in Broadway shows has been incredibly evident and influential. From the dynamic “Hot Honey Rag” duet in the hit musical Chicago to the traditional bottle dance of Fiddler on the Roof, the use of choreography in theatre has become pinnacle to dance history. Through iconic scenes, innovative movement patterns, and more, many dance musicals have developed fundamental elements that continue to shape the performance industry today.
Let’s take a look at Broadway shows A Chorus Line, Chicago, Oklahoma, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cats through the choreographic lens. With these shows, it’s immediately evident that musicals have produced timeless dance pieces that are still popular and relevant to this day.
A Chorus Line
Starting out with “5, 6, 7, 8!,” the Opening Number from A Chorus Line is somewhat of a staple in both the dance and theatre industries. Originally choreographed by Tony Award winner Michael Bennett, the movement is not specifically known as its own style per say, but rather the choreography is inspired by the musical’s storytelling and each character’s motivation. A Chorus Line is centered around seventeen Broadway dancers, all auditioning for spots on a chorus line (something all performers can relate to). With jazz and musical theatre elements, Bennett’s energetic choreography is meant for spectacle and adding a “wow” factor, all while staying true to the choreographic intent of exhibiting technique, entertaining the audience, expressing an idea, provoking shock value, displaying a motif, and more. The story of A Chorus Line motivates the dancers to fight for their spot on the line, through the intricate Opening Number choreography we know and love.
Fosse’s style remains popular today because he turned his own bad habits and the so-called “dance technique” term on its head.
Made popular by both the Broadway show and the 2002 movie, you can’t mistake Bob Fosse’s choreography in Chicago, a satire all about the razzle-dazzle of Chi-town in the 1920s. The Hot Honey Rag dance between two rival dancers/murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly is unforgettable, encompassing their relationship through uncompromising dance style and movement patterns. Originally called “Keep it Hot,” Fosse recreated “Hot Honey Rag” with all the dance steps he learned working with other styles like jazz, vaudeville, and burlesque. With sexually suggestive movement qualities, some of his dance trademarks included turned-in knees, sideways shuffling and of course, jazz hands (all of which you can find in “Hot Honey Rag” and more). Most importantly, Fosse’s style remains popular today because he turned his own bad habits and the so-called “dance technique” term on its head, creating his own technique through elements like turned in feet, long arms with broken lines, and a leaned back torso with tail tucked.
In Rodger and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma, the dream ballet centers around Laurey and Curly’s first romantic moment together, where the dialogue completely stops, and the plot is rather conveyed through movement by a cast of dancers. Originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the sequence offers clarification, foreshadowing, and symbolism, and continuity of a Broadway show like Oklahoma, all while advancing the plot through movement and dance. Although many believe that the idea of a dream ballet originated in Oklahoma, this dance musical device has been around far longer than that. Stemming from the name, it has roots in ballet and traditional dance technique but must be executed with the same acting and storytelling devices to further the plot. Throughout the evolution of dance, using choreographic tools like accumulation, canon, unison and repetition all aid in furthering the storytelling of a piece. However, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is not for the audience to know exactly the story behind what they are doing, but rather to leave feeling something or thinking about a concept in a new light.
West Side Story
Debuting on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story wasn’t really propelled into fame until the 1961 film was released, both adaptations choreographed by Tony Award winner Jerome Robbins. Robbin’s groundbreaking choreography clearly tells a story of rivals, showcasing different stylized movements from opposing cultural groups, paralleling that of the classic Romeo and Juliet feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Although the Mambo (Dance at the Gym) is titled after a Cuban dance style, the piece consists of many different styles of movement, including Latin influence, ballet, and a change between the two. With whirling circles of feuding choreography, The Sharks, rooted in Latin influences, execute choreography with isolations of the hips which lead to full body explosions bursting with style. On the other hand, the Jets have a more athletic style, with head bobbing and swing dance influences. All the while, leads Tony and Maria meet (again, à la Romeo and Juliet) and we see their love spark ignite, through Fosse-influenced snaps, curling of the leg, and technical elements.
The Bottle Dance serves as a choreographic and influential storytelling motif: towing the line of respecting traditions throughout cultural change.
Fiddler on the Roof
Debuting on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof presents the Jewish community in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka in 1905, and centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, as he attempts to uphold his Jewish religious and cultural traditions despite changes around him. The story revolves around the idea of maintaining balance in the midst of hardships. Specifically, the Bottle Dance, a sequence in which men dance at Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding while balancing bottles on their heads, proves as a cultural testament to the Jewish tradition and family dynamics. These dancers present the bottles, place them on their heads, and take a knee, while executing movement holding hands, sliding side to side. Overall, Fiddler on the Roof is recognized for its focus on Jewish tradition, exploring Jewish identity, customs, and relationships. The Bottle Dance serves as a choreographic and influential storytelling motif: towing the line of respecting traditions throughout cultural change.
Whether you love it or hate it, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has become a trademark piece of dance history. Originally choreographed by Gillian Lynne, the agile and flexible movement parallels that of our friendly feline counterparts, along with beautifully crafted balletic elements. Specifically, “Jellicle Ball” shows off this grace and beauty through the storytelling of many cats like Victoria the White Cat, a beautiful kitten who is coming of age. Any dancer playing this character must have the elegance and grace of a ballerina, but equally strong acting chops to further the storyline. With both the Broadway show and the 2019 film, the capabilities of both versions of Cats hugely differentiate them from one another. Therefore, it’s up to us as active audience members to form our own opinions on them and decide why we enjoy one form of storytelling over another. With Cats as its own entity, Lynne’s choreography allows the storytelling to unfold through mere movement and feline characterization, which in turn grants the audience permission to interpret the story in many different ways.
Even after all these years, dance in Broadway shows has been influential throughout history and continues to hold significance in many capacities. The choreographer’s listed above live on to be inspirations for current artists. Today, some of the most influential choreographers telling stories through movement include Jerry Mitchel (Hairspray, Legally Blonde, etc.), Casey Nicholaw (The Prom, Something Rotten, The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls, etc.), Susan Stroman (The Producers, Big Fish, New York, New York, etc.) and many, many more.
By studying choreography of the past and present, we can better understand the cultural implications of dance, not only as a fun, social ritual, but as an overall theatrical experience. Simply put, dance culture isn’t reserved solely for the practitioners (the dancers themselves), but it is also for the audiences. Musicals are easy evidence that dance in the theatre is essential – it enhances storytelling in incredible ways and ties the show all together, breathing life into the music and plot through movement.