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Bob Fosse: Choreography, Musicals & Films

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

You've seen skits where performers spread gloved fingers wide and gesture with jazz hands. But who creates such moves? In this lesson, you'll learn about the choreography of Bob Fosse, who pioneered a new style of dance in musicals and films.

A Focus on Dance

Bob Fosse (1927-1987) was born in Chicago to parents with an interest in music and performing. Although a sickly child, young Bob performed every chance he could get. Hoping to build up his strength, his parents enrolled him in the Chicago Academy of Theater Arts, and Bob quickly took to his dance classes. As a teenager, he attended high school during the day but spent nights dancing in burlesque clubs and striptease shows. It was an eye-opening education into the unvarnished, seedy underside of show business life, and it later fueled his ideas about dance.

In 1946, following time in the Navy, Fosse settled in New York City. He danced briefly on Broadway and then acted unsuccessfully in several Hollywood movies before growing frustrated and refocusing his career toward choreography, the planning of gestures, movement and other elements that comprise a dance.

Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987, but his legacy of innovation in dance continues to impact show business today.

Fosse's Broadway Musicals

In 1953, Fosse created and danced a brief but eye-catching segment in the movie version of the musical Kiss Me Kate. It caught the eye of director Jerome Robbins and producer George Abbot, two heavyweights of the Broadway stage. In 1954, Abbot hired Fosse to choreograph a show he was directing, The Pajama Game (Jerome Robbins was co-director). It was the break Fosse needed. In dance numbers, such as 'Steam Heat', Fosse began creating his own dance vocabulary. The show was a huge hit, and Fosse won his first Tony for Best Choreography.

Fosse's next musical, Damn Yankees, in 1955 was also a hit. An update of the classic tale of Faust and a deal with the devil, the show includes the musical number 'Whatever Lola Wants,' where the devil's sultry assistant and seductress Lola tries to sway a young ballplayer. Its imagery that combines sex and humor, two contrasting elements that became standard in Fosse's work. He won another Tony for choreography for the show.

In 1956, Jerome Robbins asked Fosse to work with him in choreographing the musical Bells Are Ringing. It became yet another hit. And with each show, a distinctive style of choreography emerged that became Fosse's hallmark.

Bob Fosse acting in Pal Joey, 1963. Notice his hat and the position of his hands.
Bob Fosse 1963

Fosse's Choreography Style

What was the Fosse style? It featured suggestive, sometimes overtly sexual moves that recalled his early experience in the burlesque theaters. Some sources come right out and call it the sleaze factor. Fosse also incorporated gestures reflecting vaudeville performing and humor combined with elements of jazz dance and ballet. The mix had not been seen before on the stage.

When we see choreography today, certain elements speak to Fosse's style: snapping fingers and extensive handwork (often using gloves), hats cocked rakishly to one side, hip thrusts and swivels, turned-in feet and knees, and hunched shoulders. It's dance with controlled intensity and contrast, and Fosse gave his moves unusual names, like 'the amoeba' and 'the Clump.' His choreography has dancers in tight proximity, taut and precise with pulled-in gestures that suddenly open up and explode into contrasting movement.

Such dancing was provocative, precise and garnered the workaholic Fosse's growing success. But as he grew more confident and more overt in his choreography, producers and directors increasingly tried to rein him in. After too many experiences of people demanding that he tone his work down, Fosse took on the role of director and choreographer -- to give him freedom to realize his visions without interference.

In 1960, Fosse directed his first show Redhead. He followed it in 1966 with Sweet Charity. Both shows starred his then-wife and Broadway star Gwen Verdon. The musical Sweet Charity became noted for dance numbers like 'Hey Big Spender,' where a line-up of nightclub girls brazenly dance and proposition the audience. Fosse followed with successes on the Broadway stage in Pippin (1972), which won five Tony Awards, including Best Director and Choreography, Chicago (1975), and the musical revue Dancin' (1978).

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