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Dancing in the Dark with Fred, George, and Gene
Dance Chronicle  (IF),  Pub Date : 2019-01-02, DOI: 10.1080/01472526.2019.1576462
George Dorris

There has been dance on film since the earliest days when a sneeze, a kiss, or a girl kicking her skirt and turning were sufficient to draw viewers. D. W. Griffith’s young heroines often engaged in impromptu dances, and a slinky dance made a femme fatale even more dangerous. It got more complicated when Irene and Vernon Castle twirled across the screen and Denishawn dancers writhed before Belshazzar. In the 1920s, Valentino’s tango raised temperatures, as did Clara Bow’s Charleston. But the big difference came at the end of the decade as sound on film replaced the orchestra or pianist, and the movies finally offered dancers their own music, whether in studio showcases or Hollywood versions of Broadway hits. But a rush of often indifferent film musicals soon soured the market until in 1933 Warner Brothers reenergized the genre with 42 Street and the Gold Diggers series, featuring Busby Berkeley production numbers that still astonish with their visual inventiveness. Yet, while employing squads of dancers and singers, choreography as such frequently took second, or even third, place to sheer spectacle and individual dancers got lost. Although the aerial finale of Flying Down to Rio that same year used film to create effects impossible on the stage, it also brought together Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose duet in the elaborate Carioca number stole the show from its intended stars. By taking control of how his dances were filmed, Astaire changed the way dances were seen on screen. Rather than showing them from a variety of angles or, as with Berkeley, assembling individual strips of film into a dance fantasy impossible on any stage, Astaire insisted, with few exceptions, on the dancer being shown full figure and the dance’s integrity being maintained throughout, with cuts as few