Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Art of Stage Dancing (or, How To Be A Follies Dancer By Following These Easy Steps)

Most people know that Project Gutenberg is one of the oldest and best things the internet hath wrought. Anticipating the digital book revolution, they have proved themselves ahead of the curve in every way, and their files are full of wonders indeed. All those new releases on Amazon never tempt me to fork over my hard earned cash for a Kindle, but what I am about to share with you just might.

The man who calls himself Trav S.D. alerted me of the existence of Ned Wayburn: dancer, dance school major domo and Ziegfeld Follies choreographer also penned an instructional book, The Art of Stage Dancing, first published in 1925. I haven't yet read most of it, but was so thrilled with what it does contain, I felt the need to immediately report.

It begins with the following disclaimer: "As a writer of books, I confess myself to be a good stage craftsman." But from what I've seen, it is a book full of charm and anecdotes. And pictures. Pictures from editions of the Follies he has choreographed, pictures of his classes in session, and pictures of former students (including the bother/sister dance team at left.) Apparently, she was the real talent of the two, but no film of her dancing exists. The mind reels. This is what he has to say about them:
"Two of my most famous pupils in Musical Comedy dancing are Fred and Adele Astaire, brother and sister. They came to me to study from Omaha, Nebraska, as little tots of about six and seven years of age. Adele was always fond of coming to her classes; but Fred says that he just "followed on" through brotherly association rather than from any preconceived ambition to become a professional dancer. Then, through reverses of family fortunes, the time came when they felt that they should be supporting themselves. They continued to study under me, and I was very happy to be able to place them in vaudeville in a singing and dancing act, which I had prepared for them. This started them on their career, which has led them to Europe and back again."
The caption describes them as being featured in "Lady, Be Good!". There's a short description of their routine from that show in my favorite novel, Wise Children by Angela Carter, as it's the very first show the Chance sisters are taken to see (at which they aso first see their elusive father, a matinee idol on his way to becoming a Great Shakespearean).
"Up went the curtain; there were Fred and Adèle, evicted, out on the street with all their bits and pieces. She set out the chairs, she straightened the sofa, she hung a sign on the lamppost: "Bless This House". We thought that we would die of pleasure. We clung to one another's hands like grim death, we thought we might wake up and find out we had been dreaming. Nora liked Adèle best; she liked it when she dressed up like a Mexican widow and did her Spanish dance, but it was old Fred for me, then and forever, with his funny little nutcracker face and the Eton crop that looked painted on it shone so, and not a hair ever moved...But 'Lady Be Good' showed us the way. It was the Damascus road for us. We spent hours at home afterwards, in the ground floor front, rolling back the rug, getting the numbers off pat. That finale, she in her Tyrolean costume, him like a little sailor doll. We took it in turns to be the lady."
It's so funny, because when one reads novels you have no way of knowing what is real. Another character in Wise Children is Dan Leno, who I didn't know was real until I read my inamorato's book. I'm no intellectual. I've been utterly enchanted by show business and dancing and the stage since I was three. The aching post adolescent pretension came later. The work is hard and needs to be trusted. Theater is a good thing, don't you know, it doesn't need to be destroyed to be made interesting, but more on that at a later date.

Back to Mr. Wayburn's opus.

He explains in great detail the basics all sorts of dancing: Musical Comedy, Acrobatic, Tap, Specialty, Character and what he calls Ned Wayburn's Modern Americanized Ballet Technique. He has chapters on Stage Make-up and diet. I discovered that to lose weight (though I am 20 pounds underweight by 1925 standards, apparently) one must under no circumstances drink any liquid with meals! There is an equally extensive section on gaining weight. He gives sample menus. One of the weight loss lunches includes macaroni and cheese. I love Ned Wayburn. In fact here is Thursday's reducing menu in its entirety:


1 apple; 1 egg omelet; 1 bran muffin; small pat butter; coffee with hot skimmed milk.


Macaroni and cheese; lettuce with French dressing; fruit gelatine pudding (clear).


Beef or lamb stew with vegetables; 2 thin slices whole wheat bread; small pat butter; tapioca cream pudding; black coffee.

I chose the photo of the dancer at left because her last name is "Bacon". I know, I know.

Mr. Wayburn also goes on to explain how show business works. What does a Stage Manager do? Interestingly, he sounds much more like what we would call a "director". Who is the prop man? What is he responsible for? The Chief Electrician, the Company Manager, The Press Rep? And all as it stood in 1925. This book is freaking invaluable.

In true Show Biz fashion, the book is essentially an elaborate advertisement for Wayburn's school and private coaching services. There's a lot of "These people were completely at sea until they came to me and then they shot to stardom after taking my advice". But the thing is 300+ pages long. It's full of anecdotes, advice, lovely photographs of Follies luminaries and black and white illustrations. He has advice about how to overcome stage fright, how to communicate your personality through dance, how to exercise, how to ensure a creative and magical atmosphere, what shoes to wear and on and on.

If you want to be one of Mr. Ziegfeld's specialty dancers (c.1925), this is an excellent place to start.

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