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Sebastian

Novelty dancing

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As a seasonal treat we watched the rare film "King of Jazz" (Paul Whiteman and his band, 1930). This epic of Hollywood folly disappeared for many years and was never licenced to television. There was a much reduced and poor-quality version released on VHS back in the 1980s but in 2016, following a special screening of a restored print at MOMA in New York, the full glory of this multimillion dollar extravaganza became available again. There is now a dvd / BluRay release so, after seeing a clip in the first episode of Neil Brand's recent BBC series "The Sound of Movie Musicals", we got ourselves a copy. Here's some more about this curious film:

 

http://www.criterionconfessions.com/2018/03/king-of-jazz-915.html

 

My reason for posting here is a wonderful novelty dance - My Ragamuffin Romeo - which is viewable in a (very poor quality) YouTube clip. In it a ragamuffin doll is thrown about in a way which only years of the dancers performing this routine in vaudeville would make possible. A must watch, one way or another.

 

Incidentally, the internet and the dvd booklet refer repeatedly to the dancers as Don Rose and Marion Stadler, whereas the film itself credits the girl who (seemingly) risks her neck as "Marion Stattler".

 

What are people's favourite novelty (or speciality) dances or dancers?

 

 

 

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The Nicholas Brothers are definitely in my top three in this category!

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Oh well, if you're including "speciality" dancers - whatever that may actually mean ;) - my immediate reaction was that it ought to include the Nicholas Brothers.

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If by novelty is meant speciality dance acts which are shoehorned into films and are basically unconnected with the main story line then I think you have to look mainly at American films rather than British. The obvious examples are African American tap dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. I think they developed in this way because their footage could literally be cut from the movie when it was shown theatrically in segragationist states. The only example I can think of which didn't conform to this type was an American dancer whose name I can't remember who tap danced in pointe shoes (and en pointe obviously) with metal taps fixed to the shoes. She appeared in a few thirties musical films, one of which was one of the Ziegfeld Follies movies and I think she might have had a brief appearance in Broadway Melody of 1940 (the Fred Astaire/Eleanor Powell film).

I don't know enough about other countries output pre-war, but I suppose Germany and France are likely to have had some people similar to this.

In Britain, the tradition relied much more on the music hall tradition. The two examples I have actually seen are Wilson Keppel and Betty (as several have already remarked) and Max Wall. I think they both exemplify the tradition of "eccentric" dancing rather than a speciality dance act. Interestingly, Wilson and Keppel were permanent fixtures in the act but there were a multitude of Bettys. The Betty used to change every two or three years and was simply an employee of the two men. The best eccentric dancer was, in my view, Max Wall who, performing in mid-act, his Professor Wollensky dance, contorted and twisted his body across the stage accompanied only by a drummer in the orchestra pit, reduced packed audiences in the largest variety theatres to total hysteria for six or seven minutes at a time after which he would resume his (also very funny) remaining act. I believe the BBC have a tape made towards the end of his career of a reduced version of his dance (it was on "The Good Old Days" programme) but it was just a pale indication of the full-scale dance.

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The Nicholas brothers are true dancers of fabulous quality -  surely not  a novelty act of the sort  you describe above Douglas? I get the feeling they would have been enormous stars if they had not been black in that time and place.

 

I know their work was cut out in segregationist cinemas- but, is that a separate ( terrible) issue?

 

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7 hours ago, Douglas Allen said:

The obvious examples are African American tap dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. I think they developed in this way because their footage could literally be cut from the movie when it was shown theatrically in segragationist states.

 

Didn't I see something to the effect that the Nicholas Brothers were the first African Americans to appear actually onscreen (in the same shot) with someone white?

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Apologies if I have muddled things at all by using both the terms novelty and speciality dancing. One way to look at this is as a continuum running from acrobatics and comedy at one end - even circus routines - all the way through tap to dancing of a kind one might even see on the stage of the ROH (dances intended to get a laugh or astonish with acrobatic skill alone or crossover with popular entertainment). The edges are rather blurry and the skills of the performers often overlapped with others, such as juggling, contortionism or even classical ballet dancing. And both white and black performers are featured. Sorry if I unintentionally implied anything narrower.

 

However I rather take issue with the notion that there is (or rather was, we are not talking about present-day performers) a national divide. As I know from watching many recordings for research purposes some years ago, some now happily available on YouTube (often newsreel reports feeding off both British music hall and US vaudeville acts), such highly skilled entertainers existed on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the English channel. A notable example of the so-called Apache Dance - impossibly unPC now - appeared successfully in night clubs etc in various European cities and also in Hollywood (for example in a film with The Three Stooges). Indeed one online writer suggests the husband and wife team who perfected this particular act were German Jews, travelling to stay one country ahead of the Nazis. 

 

What makes these routines so special - and so interesting to those of us whose eyes have grown accustomed to the modern way of rehearsing and performing - is the sheer brilliance which comes from touring the same short act around for years, the best performers getting more and more skilled - faster, stronger, funnier, more flexible, sharper timing, whatever - as they honed what they did over literally thousands of performances.

 

Edited by Sebastian

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