When going to see a broadway show, audience’s eyes are caught on the extravagant musical dance numbers. For as long as theater has been around, dance has been there along within it. When plays first originated from the ancient Greeks, they incorporated movements in many of their performances. Throughout the evolution of musicals, dance has become to be an expected element in most performances today.
However, as much as viewers enjoy seeing glamorus dance numbers in a production, critics start to wonder if they have an actual purpose to the storyline. Others may even agree that dance sections in a show are only put in for the sake of entertainment. But if dances and all form of movements were eradicated from shows, could the story still be told entirely? However, no one can change the common theater expression “ song and dance man” to just “song man”, that does not work.
For instance, “dancing interprets the overall story and the specific lyrics of the song in just the right way, it elevates the production and makes it easy for the audience to become immersed in fantastical tale” (Ostlere, Dance Magazine, vol. 72). Musical theater dancing reminds everyone of the purpose of dance is storytelling. Within a play, characters require physical movement. But, “the movements become to potent to be contained into tradition movements, making a character must break into dance to express their emotions”( Gold, Sylviane. Dance Magazine). This exemplifies the need for collaboration between writers and choreographers in order to portray a character fully. Dance movements are an essential element in musicals in order to advance the plot of the story.
To dive into the history of dance, in the 18th century, ballet created the foundation of making dance have a purpose. In 1756, Jean Georges Noverre created a philosophy that would eliminate the creation of divertiements. A divertiesment- are dances that are created without a purpose and are only for the sake of entertainment. Noveree believed that dance had the power to do more than just entertain with using his four key philosophies.
The philosophies included that dancers should not only dance with correct technique but, with emotion. Also all dance performances should advance the plot, have a common theme, and include the use of pantomiming. The dance world has always revolved around ballet being the central core of all dance styles. So it was only rational for dance genres, like musical theater, to eventually catch on to the ballet philosophies that abolish all divertissements in performances. The statement, “Dance has been used to tell a story for many centuries.” (Gold, Sylviane. Dance Magazine), would not have been possible without the development of Noverre’s philosphoies.
Eventually, choreographers that were familiar of the philosophies ballet dancing wanted to bring dance as an expression to the broadway stage. George Balanchine was an early voice in broadway musical choreography. He is well known of his broadway work of the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, which was a ballet that was staged for 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes.
The early broadway choreographers started using “ methods that negotiates the balance between advancing a musicals narrative and creating an innovative movement landscape within the structure and conditions of the written or sung text ”(Gilroy, Maggie). The men creators of musical art dance styles as we know of, are called gypsies. The greatest gypsy of all was Bob Fosse. He was the greatest gypsy of the early broadway choreography period. His style was full of sexually suggestive dance roles and vaudeville movements for characters.
These gypsy men were able to accomplish their goal of using their choreography to express a character’s traits, like being (happy sad, or worried). But like always, “Broadway dance history is continually written as up and coming choreographers follow in their footsteps of past greats, creating and discovering new styles” (Kalman, Bobbie). However, it was not until Agnes De Mille, the first significant female choreographer for broadway, who figured out how to use dance numbers in an even powerful way.
In 1943, Agnes De Mille discovered how to make her choreography as a major plot device when she choreographed the musical Oklahoma! Her innovation “brought dance from an incidental to a central role in musical theater.” (Gold, Sylviane. Dance Magazine). The “Dream Ballet” scene in the musical Oklahoma! was the first appearance of a story-integrated dance. This dance reflects Laureys conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud in her dream sequence.
Viewers can identify the love triangle that is happening in the plot and who Laurey choses to be with in the end. If this dance number was taken out, their would be a major misunderstanding in the plot sequence of the show. After Agnes De Mille choreographed this ballet to advance the plot of the show, it had proven how much dance can affect storyline of a show. Her ideas have evolved to dance in musicals having primary functions, “as an exploration of character in psychology terms, a narrative tool, an unspoken aspect of libretto, a transitional device, to develop character, a metaphor, and as danced abstraction with in the narrative. (Gilroy, Maggie)” Agnes De Mille took the first step in giving musical dance numbers many purposes.
To elaborate, shows like West Side Story, Gypsy, Chorus Line and many more that were created need certain choreography in it or the show will simply not work. To specify, West Side Story is known for having dancers that can tell stories through their movements, instead of words. This is necessary because the scene “Dance in the Gym” when they do the mambo dance was choreographed to clearly show the separation between the Puerto Ricans and the Whites. Also throughout the show, the nasty movements represent the life of racism that existed in the NYC slum. Then the ballet movements display the true love between the main characters Tony and Maria.
In addition, the musical Gypsy, which has a fairly sold plot but still relies on a dance number to tell the portion of the story. Another example of a story integrated dance is the musical A Chorus Line. Dance is needed in this production in order for the audience to comprehend how the characters are going through an audition for a musical. Overall, dance movements and numbers in a show are mostly there to advance the plot in more depth.
As much as dance numbers can provide to the audience, it is not always necessary to have in every show, “Dance is absolutely vital to excellent musical theater. For example, Crazy For You, the Gershwin music alone makes it wonderful but, dance enhances the whole story immeasurably and ties it all together. Good musical theater without dance is there, too. But really, dance is a major drawing card.”(Playbill Inc,Poll Results). Dance numbers are not a “required” element of a musical theater piece. To refer back, musicals did not start having a purpose until George Balanchine started to bring the idea of having a purpose for movement in theater.
So before 1936, “most dances in musical theater were simply diversions, taking a break from the storyline of the show to show off fancy moves and beautiful bodies.” (Gilroy, Maggie). All musicals do not have to have extremely hard dance numbers, but rather do require certain movements in them at least. For example, there are many musicals that are written as a more vocal strong production but, lyrical movements are still needed. The musical Miss.Saigon has no full length dance numbers but, having the soldiers strut to the staccato music is needed.
Same with the production of Phantom of the Opera, but the floating gondola waltz has to be their in order for the audience to get the full effect of the tale. To look at the overview of the subject, “One must consider the musical that is being viewed.”(Playbill Inc, Poll Results). To consider other shows, Les Miserables is a depressing and magnificent piece of work, with the strong powerful strides the characters takes is just enough for the piece. If a choreographed dance sequence was placed in, it would take away from the production. Even though each show does not call for an elaborate dance section, each musical requires certain physical movements or types of body language given from the characters.
Body language alone has the ability to express someone’s emotions. Proven by a number of theorist, most likely the postures of people’s body language can have feedback effects on his/her emotional inner experiences. Physical posture can have a regulatory role of affecting a character’s motivation or emotions. The use of physicality is needed from all theater performance. It is one part to have the voice that fits a character, but if your body language does not match the character will not read fully.
Imagine watching the musical Sister Act and all the nuns are doing squat jumps! Audience members would be very confused because it is not the typical polite posture you would expect from a nun. Another example how a characters physicality can make a great impact is “The truest and most powerful moments in the show RENT, are when the characters are simply standing together along the edge of the stage… Again, an expression of physicality, but not dance. “(Mantell, Suzanne). The more humanist traits performers cary out in their characters, the more believable they are for the audience.
Even in today’s society, people go to dance clubs to hear music and dance to it. So it would only be absurd to have theater with the ability to move along the plot with the song, and not include the much needed dance that accompanies it. Even though dance is not needed in every show, but “musical theater would not be where it is today without dance”(Gold, Sylviane). To discover others, Playbill Inc provided a poll of for the public whether musicals need dance or not. A man named Andrew believes that choreography can be an important of every musical. Also he thinks movements in dancing can tell an entire story without speaking a word, if it is done right.
To counter the opinion, a woman Shana Sisk who is a musical theater major that agrees that dance is an important factor of theater, but not essential. She points out that currently on Broadway, there are not to many new dance shows. And that the trend now seems to be more dramatic and vocally challenged shows. So she feels that all actors do not need to the ability to do a double pirouette, but should have a sense of movement to develop a character. Then a 21 year old professional dancer Michelle thinks, “dance is vital to any musical. The body movements enhance the story and excite the audience. Dance is a beautiful language, and without it the show is missing a vital element.”(Playbill Inc, Poll Results). Whether musical dance numbers are necessary or not, it depends on the type of show and someone’s personal opinion.
Physical movements are an essential factor in musical theater. Of course, there are those shows that make dancing look as it is to be forcibly inserted between scenes. Also back in the early the early ages, musical theater still existed without dance numbers. Then in 1866 the first type of dancing in musical theater had arrived in 1866 in the Black Crook musical. The production was choreographed by David Costa, who gave curious audiences the first discovery of the fusion of battle with dramatic acting. But, as entertaining as dances were to watch, their only purpose was for entertainment.
However, it was not until 1943 when Agnes De Mille had discovered that the whole production would be even more entertaining if the dances had a purpose to the story line. Even though musicals had survived before with no movements or random dances thrown in it, excellent musical theater can only exist when the dances had a meaning. However, to look at broadway today, there are excellent new musicals created that have limited dancing to them, like Dear Evan Hansen or Waitress. But they have continued to make their shows successful because they input the physical motions that are needed for the production to make an impact on others. Through time theater has grown immensely from entertaining with just exciting dance tricks, to telling a story to audiences that brings out human emotions.
In order to, continue advancing to entertain people in stories that feel relatable to them, theater must always keep a sense of physicality to the show. Audiences tend to connect more to musicals that are a realistic story. In order to keep a musical realistic and believable, the body language or movements must portray the characters correctly. To conclude, there is not a yes or no answer to whether dance numbers in musical theater are needed. It depends on each individual show itself to decide if the dancing in it has a purpose. But overall, having the right physicality and body movements in any musical is vital to advance the plot in the story.