Dance Me a Song: Astaire, Balanchine, Kelly and the American Film Musical

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Fred Astaire, George Balanchine and Gene Kelly collaborated with song writers and film makers to develop a new modern American film dance style, iconography and recurring story-telling dance genres for the American musical during the first three decades of sound cinema. Like their young nation Astaire, Balanchine and Kelly’s style for the Broadway and film musical arose from the mingling of the diverse dance and music cultures brought by European immigrants and African-Americans of the Great Migration to New York and Hollywood during the largest wave of immigrants in America’s short history. Previously marginalized within dance history and, in the case of Astaire and Kelly, too often loosely categorized as “tap dance”, this stage and screen dance style played a central role in the history of twentieth century dance as well as film. This book situates their works within the history of dance as well as film and examines how their works reflected American culture of their jazz and swing eras generations.  Their dances should, I argue, should be given a major place as another form of “modern” dance in the history of dance as well as film – equivalent in power and influence to other key twentieth century dance forms: modern dance , modern ballet (and  the equally modern) rhythm and flash tap.

Astaire, Balanchine and Kelly were choreographers and directors as well as dancers. They had unprecedented control of camera work as well the choreography – they controlled not only the framing of the dancer but the angle from which the audience viewed him/her and, using moving camera and rhythmic editing, integrated another layer of movement with their dances. In the tradition of earlier ballet masters, they worked closely with  composers like Kern, Berlin Gershwin, Duke, Porter,)  and orchestrators to shape the music to their dances and to tailor their choreography to the dancers distinctive technical strengths, body type and temperament.  Thus their dances could survive intact, exactly as they were meant to be seen by its creators — and continue to be seen by the largest audiences in audiences in the history of dance.

Like the new nation, itself, it was pluralist and populist — a dance style that reflected, in part, the concept of the American “melting pot”, introduced and made popular at the beginning  of the century by the immigrant playwright Israel Zangwill in his play of the same name and enthusiastically endorsed  by Theodore Roosevelt.  The metaphor seized the imagination of  the jazz-age generation. Astaire and Kelly, who grew up in America, were from first or second generation immigrant families and Balanchine was a new immigrant. Starting with Astaire, and followed by Balanchine and Kelly each, in turn, brought their differing cultural backgrounds, training and experiences to bear on their stylistic development – and each in turn was influenced by the other. Each in his own way, disregarded the boundaries of established styles and artistic hierarchies, drawing inspiration from old world and new world, “high” and “low”, theatrical and social dance forms. At a time when self-stylized “serious” dance forms (modern dance and ballet) rejected African-American dance and dancers as lowbrow along with the popular song tradition of tin pan alley. Astaire, Balanchine, Kelly, (and their collaborator composers) embraced their music and dance as the richest kind of artistic nourishment. To these influences, they added  acrobatics, juggling, sports moves, eccentric dance, slapstick and more. A key and definitive influence was the everyday movement, posture and gesture of the new American generation that matured between World War 1 and fought in World War 11 which Astaire and his partners made poetic in dance. It fit with the slang-filled American-English of their jazz age generation and informal manner of speaking reflected in the vocabulary of American song lyrics and more natural vocal style that they, themselves, employed.

Eventually, concepts derived from the synergy of dance, music and camerawork were applied to entire films by Kelly working with Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen and both Minnelli and Donen (individually) working with Fred Astaire

Review “What this book does is vitally important work in illuminating that uniquely American genre, the movie musical. It shows that the outlaw style of dance at the heart of it was created by freeform borrowings from both so-called highbrow end of the art and so-called lowbrow. In fact, Genné brings together not only styles but artists who don’t usually meet in the same book — like Balanchine and Astaire. With lucid and exuberant prose, she throws new light not only on the great dance-makers like Balanchine, Astaire, Kelly, but on their usually unsung but vital collaborators — composers, arrangers, assistants, cameramen and a host of others who brought live dance to the big screen.” — Elizabeth Kendall, author of Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer, dance historian  and critic (New School for Social Research)


The Making of a Choreographer: Ninette de Valois and Bar aux Folies-Bergère (Studies in Dance History)

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Centering on Dame Ninette de Valois’s formative years as a choreographer, dance theorist and a  key founder of British ballet, this book closely examines her 1934 ballet Bar aux Folies-Bergère, which was inspired by the famous Edouard Manet painting and created for Marie Rambert’s company, then known as the Ballet Club. ( A complete choreographic score for this ballet in Dame Ninette’s own handwriting is used as illustration). A dance theorist as well as choreographer, this book examines, for the first time, de Valois theories of dance as part of British theater, her wide ranging influences from W.B. Yeats and the Abbey Theater to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes in whose company she danced.

Review: Beth Genné’s detailed, eminently well-documented study of the making of Bar is, in effect, an account of how Dame Ninette made her first works, what influences she knew—technical, aesthetic, commercial—and how she absorbed them in her choreography. I read this monograph … with great pleasure, for it is comprehensively researched, considered in its judgments. Its significance lies not only in detailing how Dame Ninette made the ballet—a fascinating story in itself—but how she grew into her role as a choreographer…. The works I have mentioned … are handsomely crafted, vivid in drama, exactly scaled to their task. How Dame Ninette acquired this skill, how she used it in Bar, is Beth Genné’s theme, and it is one she develops with great sympathy for her subject…. Beth Genné talked to members of the first cast, and has culled every possible reference for insights into the performances that were given during Bar’s stage life. The result, in a work of scholarship, is rare: the ballet under discussion lives. There is no greater pleasure for the reader.

Clement Crisp,  critic and dance historian, co-author, The History of Dance


“Dancing in the Street from Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson” in Re-thinking Dance History, ed. Geraldine Morris (London and New York: Routledge), an expanded and revised version of the 2003 collection Re-Thinking Dance History. 2017

“Caught in a Whirlwind: Diaghilev’s Dancers in the Post-War Ballets Russes”, in “Experiment: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes” Journal of Russian Culture, ed. John Bowlt, Winter, 2012, University of Southern California.pp.185–203

“Evolution not Revolution: Dame Ninette de Valois’s Theories of Dance” in Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist, ed. R. Cave and L. Worth, London: Dance Books, 2012, pp.19–29

“Dance in Film”, in The Living Dance: An Anthology of Essays on Movement and Culture, ed. J. Chazin-Benahum (Iowa: Kendall–Hunt), 2012 (revised and updated from earlier editions )

Vincente Minnelli and the Film Ballet”, in J. McElhaney, ed., Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment (Wayne State University Press, 2009). pp. 229–251.

“‘They Have Done Everything’: Balanchine and Folk Dance” (with Lisa Arkin and Marian Smith), Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars Conference, 2008,

“Dance in Film”, in The Living Dance: An Anthology of Essays on Dance, Movement and Culture ed. ed. J.Chazin-Benhum (Iowa: Kendall Hunt) updated and revised 2007

“Dancing’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly’s Musical Films” in Envisioning Dance on Film and Video, ed. J. Mitoma (New York and London)

“Teaching Dance on Film and Film Dance”, in Teaching Dance Studies (ed. J. Chazin-Benahum)  London and New York, Routledge, 2005

“‘Dancin’ in the Street’: Dancing on film and video from Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson”. In “Re-thinking Dance History”, ed. Alexandra Carter (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 132–142.

“Dance in Film” in The Living Dance: An Anthology of Essays on Movement and Culture, ed. Genevieve Benahum (Iowa: Kendall-Hunt), 2003

“Dancing’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly’s Musical Films” in Envisioning Dance on Film and Video, ed. J. Mitoma (New York and London: Routledge), 2002, pp.71–77

“My Dearest Friend, My Greatest Collaborator: Ashton, Fedorovitch and Symphonic Variations”, in Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau, eds. Following Sir Fred’s Steps: Ashton’s Legacy (London: Dance Books), 1996

“Two Self-Portraits by Berthe Morisot”, in Psychoanalytic Perspectives On Art, vol. II, ed. Mary Mathews Gedo, (New Jersey: Analytic Press, 1987), pp. 133–170

“Berthe and Edma Morisot: A Talent Fulfilled and a Talent Denied”, in Sisters: A Complex Destiny, ed. Eleanor Rubin and Joanne Leonard (published by the National Women’s Caucus for Art, Boston, 1987)


“‘They Have Done Everything’: Balanchine and Folk Dance” (with Lisa Arkin and Marian Smith), Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars Conference, 2008,

“Swine Lake: American Satire on Russian Ballet and What it Tells Us”, in Proceedings of Grounding Moves Conference, Society of Dance History Scholars, June, 2006

“Collaborating in the Melting Pot: Balanchine, Duke and Gershwin” (co-author   Christian Matjias), in Proceedings, Sound Moves Conference, co-sponsored by Princeton University and University of Surrey, published on-line, 2006

“Glorifying the American Woman: George Balanchine and Josephine Baker” in Discourses in Dance, vol 3:1, 2005, 31–57.

“Balanchine and the Black Dancing Body”, an essay in the form of a dialogue between myself and Constance Valis-Hill, Discourses in Dance, vol 3:1, 2005, 21–28

“A Century of Swan Lake: Then and Now”, in Speaking of Dance (Ann Arbor: University Musical Society), 2002, pp.53–59

“Freedom Incarnate: Jerome Robbins, Gene Kelly and The Dancing Sailor as an Icon of American Values World War II”, Dance Chronicle 24, (1), 2001, pp. 83–103

“Creating a Canon, Creating the Classics in Twentieth Century British Ballet”, Dance Research, London, winter, 2000, pp. 132–162.

The International Encyclopedia of Dance, ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen (London and New York: Oxford University Press), 1998. The following articles:

“Bedells, Phyllis”, 1: 400–401

“De Valois, Ninette”, 2: 395–404

“Great Britain: Theatrical Dance Since 1850”, 3: 261–271

“Richardson, Philip”, 5: 351

“My Dearest Friend, My Greatest Collaborator: Ashton, Fedorovitch and Symphonic Variations”, in Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau, eds. Following Sir Fred’s Steps: Ashton’s Legacy (London: Dance Books), 1996

“Openly English: Phyllis Bedells and the Birth of British Ballet”, Dance Chronicle 18 (5), 1995, pp. 437–451


Review of Christopher Wheeldon’s Chicago Tchaikovsky Nutcracker, Joffrey Ballet, December 2016. The Dancing Times 107:1219, March 2017, pp. 79–81. Joffrey Nutcracker_DT_March 2017

“The World Around Giselle”, review of Pacific Northwest Ballet Historical Reconstruction of Giselle, in The Dancing Times, (London), August, 2011

“Balanchine’s Baiser de la Fée”, in Encore (Pacific Northwest Ballet Program), November, 2011, pp.16–17.

“Gong: A New Mark Morris Work at the Royal Ballet”, Dancing Times (London) October 2002, pp. 47–48.

“A New Home for Mark Morris”, The Dancing Times (London), October, 2001

“I See America Dancing: Aaron Copland and Dance”, The Dancing Times (London), December, 2000

“Diabelli: Tharp Takes on Beethoven”, The Dancing Times (London), August, 1999, pp. 988–989

“Gene Kelly: Dancing with the Camera, Dancing in the Street”, The Dancing Times (London), April 1996, pp. 643–649



American Masters (TV Series documentary) –
Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (2002) … Herself (as Beth Genné)


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