In defense of dance breaks


Screw pricing conversations. DANCE BREAK.

Seriously, though, theater needs more dance breaks. I believe this very strongly. I’m willing to fight about it (in a stylized, West Side Story dance-fight sort of way). And I’ll tell you why.

I started thinking about this because I recently re-read Jason Grote’s 1001 – which I liked very much in performance, and even sent Mr. Grote a gushy fangirl facebook message after I saw it. One thing I wondered about when I read the script, though, was why Mr. Grote specifies so explicitly that even though he references Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” very obviously at one point, you are NOT ALLOWED to do the Thriller dance full-out. Oh, it’ll be tempting, Mr. Grote acknowledges. The actors will want to – why wouldn’t they? But, he warns, this will distract from the play in an ultimately destructive way.

With tremendous respect for Mr. Grote and his craft, I have to say: Poppycock.

Analogy: I see a production of Julius Caesar in London about five years ago. Despite its copious use of TV screens and modern dress, it’s mostly unremarkable. But there is one truly amazing moment: after the crowd attacks and hangs Cinna the poet, he hangs from the ceiling, bloody and dead, for a few scenes; then at a certain point, he descends, is given a microphone, and starts SINGING. And he has BACKUP DANCERS. Who are girls in SEXY, POLITICALLY INCORRECT ARMY FATIGUES. And he’s singing a song about war that bears no resemblance to anything Shakespeare wrote ever – it sounds more like “Glory” from Pippin than anything. And it’s wrong and it doesn’t belong in Julius Caesar and it is TOTALLY AMAZING.

Plenty of people were upset about Cinna the Singing Poet, of course. With good reason. But the worst part of the whole thing, in my opinion, was that that scene was by far the best part of the show.

No disrespect to Shakespeare. With a stronger production, perhaps this would not have been the case (though I must admit Julius Caesar has never been one of my favorites). But the problem – in my opinion – was not that the dance destroyed the show; the problem was that the dance highlighted how weak the rest of the show was.

This, it seems, would not be the case if we went all “Thriller” on Jason Grote’s ass. Not merely because I find it easier to engage with 1001 than with Julius Caesar, but also because 1001 is the kind of show where it seems ANYTHING can happen, and this would seem – to me – to include “Thriller.”

But, let’s say Jason Grote is right, and it will distract from the play. Well, then, what of it? What’s so important that we can’t forget about it for a second and enjoy “Thriller”? What’s more important than “Thriller”?

This may sound facetious, but I’m dead serious (pardon the pun). Having your cast do the “Thriller” dance will delight your audience. Remember how awesome 1001 is already? Now imagine 1001 plus “Thriller.” What’s wrong with this picture? Not a damn thing, if you ask me.

I strongly believe in using dance breaks in straight plays, and I doubt you can convince me otherwise. So you can use dance breaks to distract from a crappy play? Sure. Of course. So write a less crappy play, and then the dance break will be an enhancement rather than a distraction. Or if you’re already doing the crappy play, why WOULDN’T you want to distract from its crappiness?

So you’re “supposed to” be able to pull off a great play without “gimmicks” like dance breaks? Screw “supposed to” – you’re not “supposed to” eat the cookie dough when you’re making cookies either, and everyone knows that’s the best part. Who’s to say the dance break can’t be just as integral a part of a great play as a monologue, a kiss, a gunshot? (Side note: I use the term “dance break” to refer to any dance number, not just those that are breaks from the action and, by definition, non-integral.)

So dance breaks don’t belong in every play? Sure. Betrayal doesn’t need a dance break. Circle Mirror Transformation doesn’t need a dance break (though some of the acting exercises sort of are dance breaks, I suppose). And I certainly favor dance breaks that have been inserted by the playwright rather than the director. But if it’s a play where dance breaks are possible, why not?

Honestly, I can’t think of a time I saw a play where a dance break did anything other than make me extremely happy. There were dance breaks in this production of Ivanov on Lake Lucille, one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. Were they related to the plot? Not that I could tell. Did I care? No. There was an enormous dance number to “On Broadway” in NTUSA’s Chautauqua, also mostly unrelated (though that piece was delightfully disjointed as a rule) – pure joy. There was at least one dance number in the Rude Mechanicals’ The Method Gun, including two of the most unusually placed balloons I’ve ever seen (hint: naked men were involved). Awesome. And one of my favorite moments in bobrauschenbergamerica is when the whole cast breaks into a “Hustle”-like group dance.

Yes, with the exception of Ivanov, these were all experimental-ish, ensemble-created pieces. I’m not sure, however, that that’s the only format (besides musicals) that should have the option of dance breaks. Dance breaks energize. They bring delight. Just try watching that Pippin video without getting a little goosebump-y – I mean, Ben Vereen, people! Just watch that man MOVE!

I admit, I’m biased. I use a lot of dance breaks. One play of mine, The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret, has approximately 2,389,018,984,236 dance breaks at last count. Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story, in its current form, incorporates dream sequences involving “White Wedding,” the Electric Slide, and lots of Lady Gaga. And when I have had any control over the marketing copy, I’ve always mentioned the dance numbers…and, incidentally, had mostly sold-out shows.

Good for the soul. Good for marketing. Bad for…what, exactly?

Yes, dance breaks are an incredibly specific thing to ask for, and won’t always be a good fit. So widen your lens a bit: when you watch a dance break, what are you watching? Something goofy. Something a little lowbrow. Something that doesn’t take itself seriously. Something that doesn’t mistake stodginess for profundity. You’re watching actors have fun – a LOT of fun. You’re watching something sexy, or awkward, or frenetic. Something playful.

Theatre needs more of all these things. If Lauren Gunderson is asking for “Holy sh*t,” I’m asking for “Hells yes.” What can your play learn from dance breaks?

Yes, if everyone who read this post went out and stuck a dance break in their play, we’d have too many dance breaks. But wouldn’t that be an awesome problem to have? Instead, we have too many reconciliation scenes where the charmingly dysfunctional family puts aside their differences and hugs it out; too many “this is the thing that happened to me as a kid that explains who I am today” monologues; too many rich white clever people being rich, white, and clever; too many totally boring fill-in-the-blanks. If there’s going to be too much of something, let it be dance breaks. Let me at least watch someone shake it.

Give me joy and energy and laughter. Give me a reason to go to your show instead of staying home and watching a hundred women do “Single Ladies” in Piccadilly Circus (seriously, a hundred!). Or, give me the same crap and watch me get jaded about the theatre.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s Hammertime.

  • October 5, 2010
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