‘Dancing, a Man’s Game’ and ‘50s-era Masculinity

[13 January 2014]

By Dorothy Burk

At 46 years old, dancer and director Gene Kelly was still at the top of his game. More than being a master of his form, he was also an advocate for its place in society. In the 1958 Omnibus TV special Dancing, A Man’s Game, he argued against the idea that dance was essentially a woman’s art, persuading the ‘50s-era viewer that the lines of continuity between dance and sport were many. Though it is tinged with the sometimes-misogynistic gender ideals of its era, Kelly’s televised special is an irresistibly fun foray into dance, sport and beauty. 

Newly released on DVD, Dancing, A Man’s Game features Kelly and some of the most popular male athletes of his time talking about and performing dances. Quarterback Johnny Unitas, pitcher Micky Mantle, basketballer Bob Cousy, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and Olympic skater Dick Button all demonstrate dance moves closely related to their own sports. The highlight here is Sugar Ray Robinson, whose flawless tap dance is the perfect demonstration that aggression and grace aren’t polar opposites.

To begin his exegesis on dancing as a man’s sport, Kelly asks the sportsmen to show the moves that made them famous and then shows the movements’ counterparts in dance. Demonstrating the relationship between the grace of dance and popular sports seems effortless for Kelly, whose persuasive skills are on full throttle for Dancing, A Man’s Game. Throughout the special, he stops to provide information about different forms of dance and spends time talking about how the stances of ballet and related dance forms developed. While this information is interesting in and of itself, what makes it stand out here is the way in which Kelly contextualizes it.

During one of his soliloquies, he says that “many men make the mistake of confusing beauty of movement with the feminancy of movement. I believe that’s the prime reason for making the American man afraid of the words grace and beauty, and that’s nonsense.” Of course, framing dance as a man’s sport requires Kelly to argue why it isn’t the province of women alone. In so doing he points to the necessity of the female partner following the male lead in most dance styles, saying that she’ll simply fail if she doesn’t.

The sentiment might make some contemporary viewers uncomfortable, but what Dancing: A Man’s Game reveals about the ideal of masculinity in the late ‘50s is really quite peculiar. Where it seems at first that Kelly is here to defend men in dance, it becomes clear that there’s little tension between athleticism and art. As Kelly translates Johnny Unitas’ legendary throw into a sweeping modern dance move, the viewer is invited to watch and appreciate the human form much as we might have watched ancient Olympians show off their athletic prowess and physical beauty. We’re also invited to consider dance as a display of male dominance, as an inversion of how masculinity and dance is generally perceived.

In this context, Kelly’s commentary about men’s leadership role in dance – and indeed the whole Omnibus special – reads less as offensive and misogynistic and more as an attempt to rescue and defend the art of dancing for men. Whether or not Kelly succeeded in doing so is debatable. While it certainly seems that gender ideals have been relaxed since 1958, the absence of films with and about dancing men speaks otherwise. With the release of Dancing, A Man’s Game, we’re invited to at least step back into these bygone days and enjoy the athleticism, grace and beauty of dance in the way that only Gene Kelly could do it.

The DVD release of Dancing, A Man’s Game does not include any special features.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178036-dancing-a-mans-game/