It’s snowy, and I’ve been goofing off, indulging my love of dance history. Some terrific sites and commentary have reminded me of how rewarding it must be to record these particular memories.
Dance lives so vividly onstage, and in the minds of dancers and audiences. But when the memories are gone …. pfft. So it’s great to see how social networks, online videos and personal websites are paving the way for an increasingly rich online library of dance history. And if you’ve got a showbiz type in your tree, lucky you! What’s in their scrapbook?
There are so many wonderful autobiographies and biographies of famous dancers and choreographers. Two of my favorites are by beloved former principals of the New York City Ballet: Allegra Kent’s Once a Dancer, and Edward Villella’s Prodigal Son. Another great one is the impressionistic Winter Season by Toni Bentley, about her experiences in the NYCB corps de ballet — still one of the best accounts of what it’s like for the dancers who don’t get top billing.
Beyond books, the multimedia approach adds an exciting new dimension. Here, for instance, is a lovely example of a personal memoir site that gives a real sense of how hard — and exhilarating — it is to pursue a dance dream. In 1930s Boston, Selma Hoffman worked her tail off taking ballet classes and dancing in Yiddish theater productions. She went to New York every chance she could — including one freezing ride wrapped in five blankets in a rumble seat! Eventually she did move to New York, danced in a number of shows and got a steady gig in the ballet corps at Radio City Music Hall. Yes, the ballet corps — Radio City had one of those, in addition to the high-kicking Rockettes. Selma’s site truly recreates a vanished show business world.
There is more and more interest in compiling and sharing oral histories, and it’s great to see legendary dancers included. The online compendium at the National Visionary Leadership Project on African-American History features some terrific dance-related interviews, including Arthur Mitchell, pioneering New York City Ballet principal and founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Carmen de Lavallade, who danced on Broadway, in ballets at the Metropolitan Opera and toured Europe with her lifelong friend, Alvin Ailey.
YouTube is a blast to browse in search of vintage dance clips and vintage dance memories. If you’re interested in Broadway dance, and Bob Fosse’s sexy choreography in particular, don’t miss this video from a panel of Fosse veterans in which they answer the question: What was it like to be a “Fosse Woman”? Bonus: Hear how original Chicago lead Jerry Orbach (back before he became a Law & Order gumshoe) figured out how to steal the spotlight back from the sinuous moves of the chorus dancers.
Speaking of oral histories, here is a thought-provoking discussion thread on what makes a strong oral-history dance interview. I love this quote, which is worth remembering even if you don’t have a dancing cousin:
“You may have your agenda as to the data you want to collect, but your respondent has his/her data that wants sharing. You can’t be in such total control of the interview that you end up quashing that information as irrelevant. It isn’t.”
Amen — and a big thank you to the interviewers who keep performing-arts history alive.