Why Some Dancers Are Upset That Billie Eilish Channeled Fred Astaire on "SNL"

There are two types of people who watched Billie Eilish's anti-gravitational rendition of "Bad Guy" on last weekend's season premiere of "Saturday Night Live": Those who were stunned and those who knew where it was going the moment she propped a leg up on the wall.

Let's back up.

By the 1950s, Fred Astaire was a bonafide Hollywood star complete with a dozen or so smash-success films, an already-legendary partnership with dancer and actress Ginger Rogers, and an honorary Academy Award "for unique artistry and contributions to the technique of musical pictures." But it was his dancing that catapulted him to fame more than anything. He was to dance what Elvis was to music. Or what Dior was to fashion.

So when in the 1951 MGM musical "Royal Wedding" he became so overwhelmed with love for his romantic interest that he defied gravity to dance on the ceiling, the entire entertainment industry took note.

The ceiling dance itself was a production trick. The scene was set in a custom-built room that rolled on its axis while being filmed by a static camera. If you need a visual to picture how that works, look to this behind-the-scenes video published by SNL where Billie Eilish explains the effect used while shooting her 2019 iteration—and credits Astaire for the concept.

And that's the thing that's so great about being a 17-year-old. Thinking you should recreate one of the most iconic dance scenes of film history when you're not a professional dancer.

Can you blame her? If you were Billie Eilish, you'd have the approval of millions of fans, you'd have more money than god and you'd be a musical guest on SNL at the same time most of your peers would be getting anxiety over a presentation for homeroom.

Did her dancing match Fred Astaire's in terms of technical dexterity? I don't think there's any question that the answer is no. But she kept up with her minimal choreography despite a clunky boot (ankle injury), she was unphased by an untied shoelace, and she was a general good sport.

So why does it still rub dance fanatics the wrong way?

There's the unpleasant fact that commercially-successful celebrities profit from ripping off artists at a rate so swift it's hard to fit into a single sentence. (But I can try! Beyoncé vs. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Kelsea Ballerini vs. Ohad Naharin, Fortnite vs. 2 Milly, etc.)

And for most that leads to the ickier, trickier idea to wrap one's head around, which is the line between creative inspiration and imitation. It's almost too easy to watch the "Bad Guy" performance and say, "Look at this kid's creative team cribbing Fred Astaire and slapping an 'inspired by' label on it." It's not a bad take, but it doesn't factor in one of the oldest questions in the book. When does inspiration turn into plagiarism?

Let's jump back into the archives one last time to see what the "Royal Wedding" ceiling dance has spawned. After Astaire, the aptly named "Dancing on the Ceiling" was decently danced and even more decently sung by the typically-excellent Lionel Ritchie. A brilliantly performed variation of the theme was executed in this scene of "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo." Netherlands Dance Theater gave dance snobs a beautiful, heartrending version in Sehnsucht. Sugar Ray gave "Fly" the Astaire treatment. As did NSYNC in "Bye Bye Bye." Metallica? Yup, they have a version (We'll let you guess how much dancing that involved.). And an honorable mention should go out to Jamiroquai for the moving floor in "Virtual Insanity."

You get the point. Of course, it's not just Billie Eilish. And of course, we can't determine what amount of "borrowing" from inspirational sources is appropriate. Like with any art form, the past informs the future, and artists will likely dance or sort of dance on the ceilings for the foreseeable future. We all have our preferences, but look at it this way: If one version doesn't suit your fancy there are plenty of other options.

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

The 10 Biggest Dance Stories of 2019

What were the dance moments that defined 2019? The stories that kept us talking, week after week? According to our top-clicked articles of the year, they ranged from explorations of dance medicine and dance history, takedowns of Lara Spencer and companies who still charge dancers to audition, and, of course, our list of expert tips on how to succeed in dance today.

We compiled our 10 biggest hits of the year, and broke down why we think they struck a chord:

Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Nichols

I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi's practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi's costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.


Here's the First Trailer for the "In the Heights" Movie

Lights up on Washington Heights—because the trailer for the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical In the Heights has arrived. It's our first look into Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest venture into film—because LMM isn't stopping at three Tony awards, a Grammy award, and an Emmy.

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