Film

You Should Dance Like Gene Kelly Today

Kelli Marshall

In the glut of new "holidates", April and May offer two holidays celebrating the millions who preserve and promote the art of dance


Singin' in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
MPAA Rating: G
Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Year: 1952
US Release Date: 1952-04-11 (General)

In this era of social media, it seems everything needs to be celebrated: Margaritas! Siblings! Onion rings! Masturbation! Talking like pirates! Yes, today, virtually anything that prompts a thinkpiece, a hot take, or a viral tweet is up for grabs.

With the exception of National Margarita Day of course (yum), these are relatively silly holidays, or "holidates" as one founder calls them. What about a more established day of observance, however, like International Dance Day, which the French introduced in 1982 and "millions of dancers, professional as well as amateur" celebrate annually on 29 April? Or National Tap Dance Day, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1989 to honor the talent of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, which is celebrated today, 25 May. (Places like New York City have been known to celebrate National Tap Dance Day for an entire month.)

If we're not careful, such reminders of the importance of the arts and humanities could get lost among all the silly celebrations of lumpy rugs, lost socks, and lucky pennies. Were he alive, someone who'd unequivocally back International Dance Day and National Tap Dance Day is Gene Kelly, a teacher of ballet and tap as well as an innovator of dance onscreen. (For the record, as one of the stars of The Pirate (1948), he'd also likely support Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

One of my favorite descriptions of Kelly's memorable dance number from Singin' in the Rain (1952) comes from a column in The Boston Globe:

There are so many things to cherish in the number  -- how Kelly hums his way into the song, how he grins under that downspout, how he splashes in those puddles, how he turns his umbrella into a dance partner  --  but there may be nothing more exhilarating than the utter ease with which he leaps up onto that light pole at the very beginning. Kelly's control of his kineticism is at once lovely in itself and an italicization of his athleticism.

It's the last bit about "kineticism" and leaping onto that lamppost that especially makes me smile, as it reminds me of Kelly's own writings,  and why holidays like International Dance Day and National Tap Dance Day are still worthy of our notice.

In Kelly's archives at the Boston University Library rests a box of essays he wrote for many Hollywood fan magazines, as well as publications like Sports Illustrated and Seventeen (yep, that one). In these papers on cinematic dance (or "cine-dance"), Kelly writes eloquently and knowledgeably about his body, the dancer's body, and its relationship to the camera, frame, and narrative.

For example, in one essay for Sound Stage (1965), Kelly informs his readers that because dancing is "a three-dimensional art-like sculpture", it's actually not a good medium for motion pictures. In fact, he continues, when such movement is transferred to screen, "you lose most of the muscular or physical force (dancers call it 'kinetic' force)." Yet, we'd never know that from watching Kelly's dance numbers on film.

That’s not the only problem with filming dance, Kelly tells us: "You also lose the presence of the dancer, which might be termed his three-dimensional personality  -- not necessarily the facial expressions, the look, or the feelings, but the personality of the dancer's whole body, which coupled with line and style, form the basis of a dance performance."

First, the body is a sculpture. Second, dance is three-dimensional (while film isn't). Third, the camera can negate an entire performance. These are some of the reasons Kelly and his frequent co-director, Stanley Donen, worked so arduously to modify the way dance numbers were shot onscreen. Indeed, because the two appreciated and studied all forms of dance -- tap, ballet, jazz, and more -- they learned that both bodies and camera necessitated choreography (hence the term cine-dance).

See, for example, the simultaneous upward craning of the camera and downward bodily movement in Singin' in the Rain's "Broadway Melody" number:

Or the way the mobile camera showcases Kelly's turns and emphasizes his character's joy during the climax of Singin' in the Rain:

Or how the camera dollies backward as the three dancers move forward in "Good Morning":

Or you could tune in to ABC and witness some of the dynamic camerawork on Dancing with the Stars . It's not only a product of Kelly's and Donen's engagement with the art of onscreen dance, but also an incarnation of International Dance Day’s overriding mission "to attract the attention of the wider public to the art of dance" and National Tap Dance Day's aim "to preserve, promote, and celebrate" the form.

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