Gene Kelly’s Legacy: Well-Made Dance on Film

Today marks what would have been Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday.  I’ve been thinking about him for a few months, ever since an article came out in the New York Times titled “He Made a Splash, And Dance History,” by Gia Kourlas.  Today, I woke up to NPR running a story by Susan Stamberg celebrating Kelly’s life and legacy called “Marlon Brando Of Screen Dance, 100 Years On.”  With these two stories in front of me, on Kelly’s centennial, and a whole lot of time spent reading Wikipedia and watching YouTube, it’s time to make sense of what I think of the man and his work.

Kourlas’s central thesis is that Kelly changed the way dance was viewed by the American public by changing the way it was caught on film.  Stamberg focuses on how Kelly’s sexy bod and impish grin made American white men (poor, underrepresented American white men) feel like dancing might not be for sissies or queers all the time.

What do I think?  I have come to a strange truce with myself and my feelings about Gene Kelly.  Much of what I read of him casts him as oddly conservative and very, very sexist.  He noted many times that “dancing is a man’s game and if he does it well he does it better than a woman,” and “one of our problems is that so much dancing is taught by women. You can spot many male dancers who have this tuition by their arm movements — they are soft, limp and feminine.”  Do I even have to tell you all the things that are wrong with these statements?  He really had it out for men who moved in ways he found effeminate, going as far as to say “if a man dances effeminately he dances badly.”

But while these rigid gender views root him firmly in his time, his method of capturing dance on film does not.  In fact, it is exactly the opposite: I think dance on film has declined since Kelly was behind the lens.  His way of following the dancer with the camera and dedication to always showing the entire body made for dance films that captivated like their live counterparts.  Who among us does not know “Singing in the Rain,” or at least Usher’s cover of it?  And I discovered so many interesting dance scenes featuring squeaky floorboards, roller skates, and of course tables and chairs when I scoured YouTube recently.  And I know I’ve barely begun to understand this man’s seemingly endless artistic output: Kelly did 26 feature films, 3 documentaries, and many TV and stage appearances.

This means that Kelly did more than convince the public dancing could be a man’s sport, even if that was his driving force.  He opened film for dance and he opened the language of dance itself.  He took what Charlie Chaplin had done comically and he did it romantically.  He brought dance to theaters, utilizing every inch of his set, every possible surface, every counterbalance of his partner, every sweeping camera angle to break out of the two-dimensional space.  He changed the way directors thought about the camera: it became a fluid tool, a dancer itself.  It moved and swooped and breathed with the performers, never distorting or cutting off the action of the dancer and background.  When Gene Kelly directed the camera, he turned it into the eye of the spectator, and visually brought his audience along for the ride.

And so in the end, I choose to remember Kelly for his contributions to film and to dance, for neither genre would be nearly so strong without him.  I choose to understand that his views on women and the way each gender should or could dance were based on his experiences in his time, and that my life and my world is different now.  I choose to thank him, and to remember what I’ve learned from him as I move forward in my own artistic career.

So thanks, Gene.  Thanks for breaking ground that lets me do all kinds of interesting, fun, athletic stuff on stage and on camera.  If you’re listening, well, girls can do it too.

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