Centerwork: Not the "Old" Razzle-Dazzle

Training in Fosse-style jazz can help deepen performances.

A still of Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” from the 1969 film Sweet Charity. DM Archives. 


Like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, Bob Fosse is one of the rare choreographers who not only created a large body of spectacular work, but also engendered an entire stylistic cannon. His slinky, sinewy movement is sensual and quirky, and his pieces are always grounded by emotional depth, whether it be Velma and Roxie’s burst of bittersweet celebration in Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag” or  “Big Spender,” the ode of the tired dancehall hostesses in Sweet Charity.


Though he died 26 years ago, Fosse’s contributions spanning the stage and silver screen haven’t lost relevance. “His work is copied repeatedly by recording artists, choreographers, and performance artists in homage to him,” says Lloyd Culbreath, who performed in original Fosse productions including Dancin’ and Big Deal. “People continue to clamor to it because it’s so singular and beautiful.” The revival of Chicago, choreographed by Fosse devotee Ann Reinking, is still running on Broadway; Pippin (with Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker) is back on the scene; and many choreographers leading the field today cut their teeth in Fosse or Fosse-style productions: Graciela Daniele, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Sergio Trujillo, to name a few.


Fosse didn’t codify a technique to train future dancers, yet his style can serve as an essential underpinning for students of all disciplines. And, in a contemporary dance-scape that often focuses on athleticism and wow-factor steps, Fosse’s smooth style and attention to detail are invaluable.


Telling a Story

Fosse is known to have called his dancers “actors,” emphasizing that their primary job is to communicate a story—whether through dialogue, song, or dance. “Everything he did had an emotional, mental, physical, political, and ethical turn to it,” says Diane Laurenson, a Fosse master teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Nowadays, tricks are a dime a dozen. But a dancer who can make you sit forward in your seat is precious. Bob taught us to be complete entertainers.”


Taking a Fosse class can help dancers work on their acting chops, says Broadway veteran Valarie Pettiford, who earned a Tony nomination for her work in the revue Fosse. “Each step has an intent behind it and you have to bring out every aspect of your character to convey it.”


For Dana Moore, who teaches both at Steps and Marymount Manhattan College, students are in dire need of Fosse work—instead of screen time. “Young dancers are used to sitting with a computer,” she says. “There’s often a disconnect as far as being expressive. Fosse style encourages dancers to engage emotionally.” Moore, who performed in Dancin’ and Sweet Charity on Broadway, says it also helps develop ensemble skills. “In Fosse group numbers, each dancer is a real character and individual, while still contributing to the ensemble picture,” she says. “It helps students learn the joy of working together to create a piece.”


Valarie Pettiford and Lloyd Culbreath at American Dance Machine for the 21st Century's reconstruction rehearsal of "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," from Big Deal.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Verdon Fosse Estate.

Attention to Detail

Due to the intricate nature of Fosse’s choreography (a single finger wag in “All That Jazz” or a sideways glance in “Who’s Got the Pain”), patience, subtlety, and a respect for the process are honed.


“The style requires an incredible work ethic,” says Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and director of the Verdon Fosse Estate. “I have seen dancers work on the same four counts for three hours.” Because much of the work is based on intricate isolations, dancers develop a heightened body awareness and laser focus.


Kathryn Doby, Bob Fosse’s trusted assistant for Pippin, Chicago, and Dancin’, says the Manson Trio from Pippin is a perfect example of the patience required for this precision.  “When you first watch it, it looks easy,” she says. “But really there are a million nuances, like the first step that looks like a figure eight with your toes: The movement actually starts from the hips! You have to work endlessly. You can’t look for instant gratification.”


While this process is intense, both Culbreath and Pettiford, who teach professional-level Fosse workshops for the Estate, say there are two huge payoffs in auditions and onstage. “You must be able to watch and replicate in a detailed and multilayered way,” says Culbreath. “That hyper focus in auditions can separate you from the others.” Pettiford adds that a diligent rehearsal process ensures a steady confidence in performance. “If you worked on something in Bob’s way, there was not one tiny second that was alien when you hit the stage,” she says. “You were so prepared. You could just relax and perform.”


Integrity Matters

In an often hyper-sexualized commercial dance world, Fosse’s work challenges students to be sexy without being vulgar. “Bob’s work was always sensual and subtle, not in-your-face sex,” explains Doby. “That was never his intention.”


For Nicole Fosse, the tendency to misconstrue the work’s sensuality is due to the lack of attention to acting intention. “Often, dancers are trying to reconstruct from what a finished product looks like,” she says. “But the process he used has been forgotten, changed, or skewed.” For example, the performers in “Big Spender” appear extremely sexy—but they were never told to be alluring. “They were directed to be bored, tired, and uninvolved.”


To avoid the “telephone game” that can unravel choreography as the years pass, Fosse advises dancers to stay as close as possible to the source. (As director of the Verdon Fosse Estate, she oversees the licensing of all of her father’s work, and vets master classes and workshops.) Books and videos—like the original movies Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees—are a helpful secondary resource,  but a direct link to the Fosse legacy will offer the most benefit. “Have the veterans come to your studios or take master classes when you can,” she says. “Go back to the original seed and you’ll see: Fosse is timeless.”


Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC.

The Conversation
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less
Style & Beauty

Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.

But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Stock Snap

I injured my foot in class after 10 relaxing days on the beach. I thought vacations were the way to deal with burnout. What am I missing?

—Confused, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Not an outsider? No worries. Train yourself to see and think like one. Let go of preconceived notions and old habits of mind. Let dance take you by surprise! Photo by Getty Images

When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.

As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox