Have you ever wondered how did movies look like a century ago? If not, this is because you are probably familiar with the classics of cinema. However, why was dancing a central element of movies back in the day?

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The beginning of cinema: Who invented the film?

Cinematography started with the Kinetoscope in 1891, the machine and forerunner of the motion-picture film projector invented by Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson. The kinetoscope created the illusion of movement by the recording and subsequent rapid projection of many still photographic pictures on a screen. In 1891 the prototype of the kinetoscope allowed one person to view moving pictures. After its first public demonstration in 1893, the kinetoscope was a commercial success around the world.

The Lumière Brothers saw an opportunity and were the first ones to present projected moving pictures to a paying audience in 1895 in Paris. They used a device called the cinématographe which was a camera, a projector, and a film printer all in one.

Movement before colour and sound

Film documents movement. For early forms of pre-cinema and film, dance provided proof of movement. Dancers and choreographers saw film as a solution to the ephemeral nature of movement.

As mentioned earlier, the early times of cinema were very limited. Films started being very short –sometimes only a few minutes or less. At first, they were only shown at music halls, fairgrounds or anywhere where a screen could be set up in a dark room. The images were in sepia or black and white, because there was no sound at first, the films were accompanied by music, lectures, and the audience comments and participation.

The early animated recordings of Eadweard Muybridge gathered more amusing topics, he recorded wrestlers, dancers, acrobats and scenes of everyday life. Acting was not necessarily where the focus was, but the body was already an important subject or object to storytelling. This is why dancing was so relevant since the beginning of film history: dance provided proof of movement.

While the industry grew and more money was dedicated to production and technology, adding colour and sound enriched the cinema experience.

Colour

First came colour, in 1906 through the British Kinemacolor process. The process was long and expensive and took several years, until 1932 when the three-colour process was introduced. But it is only until the 1960s that colour in film was fully used and appreciated in the arts.

Sound

This was possible until the late 1920s, but even then the first Warned Brother's Vitaphone system proved unreliable and had to be replaced. The sound technology kept improving and allowed cinema to expand the possibilities of sound that we know today.

Dancing

Acting evolved in film history because technology has allowed new features and elements that complement the acting methods and styles. In early age cinema, acting features that made a film appealing were the facial gestures and the mesmerizing choreographies.

By the early 1930s, nearly all movies had sound and colour and the 'Golden Age of Hollywood' began.

Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) was an American film director and musical choreographer. He started his career in theatre and Broadway as a dance director. His particularity as a choreographer was to create geometric patterns with the dancers on stage. When he started his film work in the 1920s in Samuel Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals, he started developing and ameliorating his kaleidoscope dance technique.

In his films, Busby used dancing as a spectacle for the audience, the choreography was meant to mesmerize the viewer with geometric patterns, and add decorations and upbeat choreography.

Berkeley was very popular, and the audience from the Depression liked his choreographed musicals. Among his most popular directed musicals, he created for Warner Bros are: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames and Fashions of 1934.

Although, Berkeley's filming and choreography style was more aimed at musical films a specific genre within films. He used dance as an object and a spectacle was one of the characteristics of early age cinema before all the technological advancements in film was fully used.

musicals
Film musicals are a specific genre within the dance and film history, but they also played a larger role in how dance was introduced to movies. Source Unsplash
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Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was an American actor, dancer, singer, television presenter and choreographer. He is considered the greatest dancer in film history.He had a monumental career on Broadway and in music films. His long years in Broadway paved a path through Hollywood with the first successful musical film, Dancing Lady. 

He is considered to have revolutionized dance on film by having a complete autonomy over its presentation. And he is even credited with two important innovations in early film musicals. His two main innovations influenced how shooting dancing scenes were made and when there should be a dancing scene in the films.

  • The first innovation aimed at showing the full dance and choreography of a scene with fewer cuts and movement. This illusion of a stationary camera allowed the audience to appreciate the whole choreography during a scene. He famously said, “Either the camera will dance, or I will”. This was reproduced in most films where dancing was part of the film or musical.
  • The other innovation from Fred Astaire was the context in which the dance happened. According to him, dancing was not only a spectacle happening during the film, but rather it was an element to move the plot along. Thus, dancing had to happen with the plot lines of the film.

With Fred Astaire, dancing was as a form of storytelling, and very different from Berkeley's geometrical choreographies. Dancing was a form of channelling emotions such as sadness, excitement, happiness, romance. Although he did not describe himself as having a specific dancing style, ballet was his main interest, which he studied under Kotchetovsky in the early 1930s. Because of his passion for ballet, he was even credited as the person who made the ballet form commercially accepted to film audiences.

Gene Kelly

Eugene Curran Kelly (1912-1996) was an American actor, dancer, singer, filmmaker, and choreographer. His dancing style was rather energetic and athletic, he was also considered a very handsome and charismatic actor.

Just as Fred Astaire, he strived to create certain moods through his character and dances. He choreographed his own dances and movement and was the pioneer in experimenting with lighting, camera techniques and special effects to achieve true integration of dance in certain films, such as live action with animation.

While Fred Astaire had changed the filming of dance in the 1930s by insisting on full-figure photography of dancers, while allowing only a modest degree of camera movement. In the other hand, Kelly freed up the camera, making greater use of space, camera movement, camera angles, and editing, creating a partnership between dance movement and camera movement without sacrificing full-figure framing.

Because he was a great athlete, he knew different kinds of dances from ballet, tap, and modern dance forms. These set of skills made him an outstanding performer and actor.

For learning more about Stanislavskis system search here on Superprof:

ballet in movies
Ballet in movies has been used to create a plot and a different story telling. Source Unsplash

Dance in films

Dance in films was playing a major role in the early stages of cinema, and while sound and colour were being invented, dancing was what kept movies so fascinating and allowed different types of genres from musicals to just incredible dance scenes in a movie.

Some films used ballet to base and show their plot, among the most popular ones there are:

  • The Red Shoes (1948)—Film classic with dance editing far ahead of its time.
  • The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
  • An American in Paris (1951)—Oscar-winning musical based on George Gershwin's compositions, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

Other movies used different dancing styles such as, Hip Hop, Jazz, Tango, Swing and more. Filming dance moves in movies allowed audiences to choose which dance was the best and rewatch it for pleasure purposes.

Actors and dancing

Dancing was and still is today an important skill for an actor to deliver different kinds of performance, thus being able to tell a story through their dancing moves. Various actors need to take dancing courses to have all the skill-set an actor needs.

What are the benefits of dancing actors?

Dancing is not only necessary to connect or communicate to your audience in a non-verbal way. It will also allow actors to be less stiff when on stage or before and audition. Dancing is a great way to convey emotions and communicate difficult emotions and moods. Good choreographies are able to bridge dance moves with emotions and entertainment.

This is why students that are pursuing an acting career will find many dancing requirements when joining an acting company or a university degree in acting. Being able to dance is part of the school content to deliver a wide range of drama performing at a professional level.

If you are looking on becoming an actor, you might consider a dancing course or dancing classes to add to your skill-set as an actor. You do not need to necessarily become a dancer, but having dancing skills will allow you to play roles that you might be interested in performing.

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Cloé

Franco-Mexican freelance writer. I love writing about philosophy, poetry and social justice. Hope you enjoy my articles!