TBT: Creating the Non-Speaking, Dancing Characters of Grease

June 8, 2023

In the June 1978 issue of Dance Magazine, associate editor Norma McLain Stoop reported from the set of the now-classic movie musical Grease, which hit movie theaters that month. She spoke with Patricia “Pat” Birch, who had staged the musical numbers and dances for the Broadway production (at the time, it had been running for seven years and counting) and was brought on to choreograph the movie.

When the production asked how many dancers she wanted for the film, Birch recalled, “I said, ‘Waddaya mean, how many dancers do I want? There should be nothing that resembles quotes dancers unquotes in this film or it’ll blow the whole thing. But, if you’ll let me find twenty dancers from both coasts that I think are interesting as characters as well as top dancers, you got to carry them through the film and make them part of that high school, and have me just as interested in them when they’re banging their lockers around as when they’re dancing. If you’ll allow this, then I want twenty dancers.’ ”

Birch got her wish, in addition to the 15 principal cast members (including, of course, leading man John Travolta, who, she said, would often tap dance with other dancers in the cast to relax during breaks) and 150 dancing extras. “They’re not only good dancers but marvelous actors,” she said of those 20, “and actually create an atmosphere that has never been seen in a film before, in the days when you just brought people on to dance a number. In Grease, you see them all through the film: in the malt shop, and all over. They may not speak a line, but we threw in bits of business for each one, and it’s not haphazard. There were names—identities—for all of them, though they may not appear in the credits….Every last one of them deeply knew what the film is all about, which is very unusual.”