Musical theater dances have a rich history that stretches both into the fine arts of ballet and modern dance and also into the more decadent realm of the cabarets, vaudeville and burlesque halls.
From Minstrel Shows to the Father of Tap
While it is now considered a shameful and racist art form, the minstrel shows of the latter 19th century played a huge role in bringing dance to the popular American stage. Caucasian actors would blacken their faces and perform caricatures of African people, using "hardshoe" dancing, Irish jigs and "clog" dancing (using thick wooden-soled shoes) to entertain the audiences. These traveling performers developed dances that later became standards for tap and jazz such as the cakewalk and the buck-and-wing.
William Henry Lane (aka "Master Juba") was an actual African-American dancer who combined the African dances of his heritage with Irish jigs to amaze audiences (including Charles Dickens). Reviewers exclaimed at how he could "tie his legs in knots" and "make his feet twinkle" (Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001, p. 173). While no one called it "tap dance" at that time, he is widely recognized as the father of that form and its role in musical theater dances.
Ladies and Gentlemen in Musical Theater Dances
A French ballet troupe, stranded in NYC, inspired Thomas Wheatley to use their skills in a melodrama he was managing called The Black Crook in 1866. While the show itself was mediocre at best and designed more as burlesque entertainment than art, it set a trend that was to last for decades: women on the stage, usually provocatively dressed, doing large dance numbers. This tradition led to larger ensemble dances such as the Ziegfield Follies, the Tiller Girls, and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
The major figures in bringing men (and couples dancing) into the realm of musical theater dances were George M. Cohan and the couple Vernon and Irene Castle. Cohan honed his skill in vaudeville, learning the minstrel dances, but made the leap to Broadway with Little Johnny Jones, a musical he wrote, directed, and starred in 1904. While known for songs like "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," Cohan considered himself a "song and dance man" and put as much emphasis on his ability to dance in his shows as his music.
Vernon and Irene Castle at last introduced what became a standard for many musical theater dances to come, the equivalent of a ballet pas de deux - couples dancing to further the plot. Starting with The Merry Widow in which the two main characters waltzed to show their love for each other, the couple became famous in England and America, introducing other popular dances such as the foxtrot. Many of their dances were simplified versions of African-American dances, created by their musical director James Reese Europe. Europe was a pioneering African-American choreographer who helped them open dance schools across the country as well as a NY nightclub where people could try out the dances they learned onstage.
Balanchine and DeMille: Dance as a Plot Device
Up until 1936, most dances in musical theater were simply diversions, taking a break from the story line to show off fancy moves and beautiful bodies. George Balanchine, the famous ballet choreographer, changed that with the musical On Your Toes, where "Princess Zenobia Ballet" and "Slaughter on 10th Avenue Ballet" played an integral role in Richard Rodger's musical. Balanchine's influence brought a more classical aspect to the Broadway stage and opened the door for other classically-trained choreographers to become part of the Great White Way.
Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein to create the landmark musical Oklahoma! in 1943, and Agnes DeMille became the first significant female choreographer for the Broadway stage. Also trained in the ballet tradition, she turned her dances into major plot devices, including what became a standard form, the "dream ballet" (seen, for example, in the movie Singin' in the Rain). Her innovation brought dance from an incidental to a central role in musical theater.
Into the 21st Century
Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Twyla Tharpe, Jerome Robbins - these are only a few of the choreographers who would pioneer dance on Broadway (and in its counterpart, the movie musical). While there was a period which seemed to see a decline in the popularity of musicals, the success of Broadway dance extravaganzas such as the Lion King or Momma Mia! have proven that it is back with a vengeance, and with many of the classics being made and re-made into films, the future of musical theater dance is as bright and shiny as a Broadway marquee.