Show and Stage Dancing

Show and Stage Dancing

By most metrics available there are some 15 +/- million people who attend dance or ballet performances in a year.  There are also an estimated 25 +/- million active participants in choreographed exercise, step, and or, dance.  With over 50,000 dance studios and schools, the number of active students and alumni is likely in the millions.  Counting students, studio alumni and all those that learned one or more dances from a family member plus those learning on-line, it is a sizeable audience available to watch dancing in one form or another.  In fact, touts dancing as the 21st most popular hobby, and with reading #1, it includes all types of sedentary hobbies as well.  Viewership for the major TV Dance shows is not at its peak as it was when first aired 2005, for a number of reasons, but still numbers in the millions for each episode.

Not unlike amateur golfers who know they will never putt like Tiger or drive like Bubba Watson, they still enjoy watching their sport on TV or even attending a live event.  Especially, when one is in the area with a chance to see their favorite athlete.  The chance to see others engage in your favored activity at another level is always fun.  This is true if they are experts.  It is also likely true if you see the great misses, falls, and disasters as play out on social media and TV snippet shows like AFV.  We are sad, but we still laugh.  We will share it, be glad it is not us, and hope it never happens to us.  For many it will.  We only hope a camera is not running.

Performance dancing can broadly be divided into categories.  Show dancing, the broadest category involves using music and choreography for the purpose of being seen.  This is applied dancing for popular entertainment.  This could be in a nightclub, or cabaret, and include back-up dancers, or even dancers as background for a melody or story. Commercial dance adds the element of generating money as its purpose.  This includes for use in advertisements to sell anything from cruises to perfume.  Or even the old ‘Dime a Dance’ Dance-Hall events and everything in between.  Stage dance is generally defined as limited to the stage with an audience out front.  These, in the old days, included Vaudeville, but within that was comedic, acrobatic, tap and even odd or eccentric along with more unrefined toe dancing and of course ballet.

More recently, a look at Broadway’s history would show the central prominence of dance on the stage.  It may have been necessary to be a song and dance man to become a star.  It was the dance troupe that filled the stage with movement and over the years with much more than the original synchronized dancers.  Geometric patterns would be replaced with planned choreography as appeared on the dance scenes from Saturday Night Fever or even West Side Story.  All to help tell the story and not just for background.

Ballroom dancing in the sense of what we remember from Fred and Ginger, or Cyd and Gene were certainly show dances, even when done on stage as some of Fred’s were.  The story line was mostly done to justify the dance numbers, and though similar to stage dancing there were some differences.  Mainly, in the fact that from a viewer’s point of view, once seen it is forever the same.  Live stage productions, no matter how well rehearsed, will never appear exactly the same way twice.  It may be the change of personnel in the pit.  It may be the replacement of one or more of the performers for whatever reason.  Due to illness or injury, or maybe contract disputes, the replacement’s changes in height, personality, voice, and the rest make it a new one-time experience each time.

Additionally, film has the advantage of editing, reshooting a scene until it is right.  Now using photo shop adds to help create the ideal picture.  Famously, Fred Astaire was said to have worked and practiced, to have his scenes filmed in one shoot, and with the full bodies shown instead of cuts to just the feet or torso.  Though his Royal Wedding scene, in 1951, supposedly took 6 + weeks of practice and still, by some accounts, required editing.  This is one scene that won’t be repeated live on stage.  On TV maybe, with green screen technology, but not without editing.  Many stage performances stress the artistic performance of dance as opposed to the athletic.  They use the choreographer’s concept, and then dancers, as his/her means to portray the director and writer’s vision.

So You Think You Can Dance works hard to portray a stage as its set.  Wide, expansive and even deep by regular standards, but with the hint of old directors and producers watching auditions.  Yes, with just the bare set, the audience, too, gets to play the part of Robert Alton or Damien Chazelle to decide who should move forward to the next round and ultimately be in the final performance.  A ballroom, rather than being a stage, has always been more of an arena.  The field of play used for competition, or maybe used just for fun, as in intramural practice, or games.  Ballrooms have been designed for the participants more than the spectators, which has forever been a problem for an audience.  Sitting behind others at the same level or even above where geometric dancing might be fun to watch, the audience must work to see all sides and spaced couples.  The NDCA has standards of minimum size and even surface, so as to adequately allow enough space for all competitors to maneuver and participate.  Dancing With the Stars offers a ballroom as its venue.  And while this floor links hobby and social dancers to the venue, the tiered seating and relatively small size encompass more stage traits than arena traits.  The audience for the show is part of the production, with shots of family and friends to confirm their celebrity, and not a reference for viewing.  That is also further shown with the focus of the dancing across the floor and back, and to the judges as opposed to moving around the ballroom floor.

For dance purists, this may be a problem, but making the shows stage events allows the audience to experience the events as real time events.  Including all the potential pitfalls and adlibs as are experienced watching other sports or live events.  Certainly harder for the producers, but this is, for both shows, a clever use of stage production that results in providing we, the audience, a focused view to judge, enjoy, critique or even complain about the results.  In either case you are included as part of the show.

Michael Reichenbach

Published in Dance Week

February 10, 2023

Vol. XXXXVI, No 11

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