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Hands! Hips! Hats! The Why and How of Fosse/Verdon Dance Moves

Category: Art & Culture,Dance

Bob Fosse developed a choreographic style so distinctive and influential that it’s probably familiar to you even if his name isn’t. If you’ve seen dancers flare their fingers in the flexed position often mockingly called “jazz hands,” then you’ve seen Fosse, especially if those dancers were also sitting into one hip and hiding their eyes beneath a hat.

Fosse didn’t invent hands or hips or hats, of course, but the way he put them together and what he made them suggest (sex, corruption, falsity) became a signature. And that style was imitated, not just on Broadway, where Fosse reigned from the mid-1950s through the mid-80s, but also in music videos and pop concerts into the present. The most talented borrowers include Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, who folded aspects of Fosse’s style into their own as they eclipsed him in fame.

Fosse’s name is now back in the cultural conversation, thanks to the FX mini-series “Fosse/Verdon.” The title of the second episode is “Who’s Got the Pain?,” which is also the title of the Fosse number to watch first if you want a sense of his dancing — and the dancing of the person on the other side of that slash.

[Read our review of “Fosse/Verdon.”]

Gwen Verdon was Fosse’s third wife and most important muse. She was an exceptional dancer, a Tony Award-winning performer, a great comedian, an irresistibly endearing personality. If she’s mainly remembered today only by Broadway buffs, that’s partly because her film career didn’t match her theater success — and, in some complicated fashion, because of her complicated relationship with Fosse.

The TV show goes into all that. But you can quickly understand how Fosse and Verdon danced and what was distinctive about their dancing by watching them side by side in “Who’s Got the Pain?,” the only film number they performed in together.

The clip is from the 1958 film adaptation of “Damn Yankees.” Fosse and Verdon had met while working together on the 1955 Broadway premiere of the musical: He was the choreographer, and she was the female lead. That’s also when they became lovers, though Fosse was married to someone else. But we were talking about the dancing. Consider these few seconds:

Faces hiding under hats, hips shunting: This is Fosse, all right, but it’s early Fosse. The hats aren’t the bowlers that would become a trademark and that he had already used in the classic “Steam Heat” number in “The Pajama Game.” These hats are supposed to be Cuban, because this is supposed to be a mambo, the Cuban dance that was in vogue in the mid-50s. It’s characteristic of Fosse to have turned Latin hip action into something mechanical like a train, typical of him to close off sensuality in cold detachment. The isolation of body parts here — the tick-tocking hips, the pistoning forearms, the tiny steps — is a technique, picked up from the African diaspora, to which he would become more and more addicted.

Why, though, the hats hiding faces? Fosse sometimes blamed his love of hats on his own premature balding. But the hiding speaks of a deeper insecurity — a feeling he and his choreography would later express more openly. He would grow fond of locating the origins of his style in his physical deficiencies. He had bad posture and little turnout; hence, the slouching and scrunching and turned-in knees. These explanations, though, don’t fully square with early footage of him as a dancer:

See how big and bold he could be?

But already here, in “Who’s Got the Pain?,” he was starting to reduce, to do less and focus more on stylization and isolated detail. Look at these eyes, elbows and thumbs:

Those thumbs probably came from the choreographer Jack Cole (Verdon’s earlier boss), who took them from Asian dance. Like many great artists, Fosse was a smart thief, his borrowings sometimes concealed (much of what he took from black dancers) and sometimes flashed allusively (as in references to Charlie Chaplin):

Over time, the obvious influences of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly would fade out, as Fosse’s experiences as a teenager performing in strip clubs surfaced. Sex became what he sold — corrupt, transactional sex, presented as the dirty truth. But look at how innocent and wholesome he once appeared:

What fun to watch these kids enjoy each other. Fosse seems to feed on Verdon’s sweetness. This number is a performance that isn’t really connected to the plot (another choreographic preference of Fosse that would increase), but in the film, Verdon plays Lola, a seductress in the service of the devil.

The strip tease that Fosse made for her is delicious comedy, a seduction that doesn’t succeed.

Even more than showing you she was a great dancer, Verdon convinced you that she was a good person, a counterexample to Fosse’s cynicism, which, when he was wise, he knew was essential.

“Who’s got the pain when they do the mambo?” — the lyric that Fosse and Verdon sing here is a dumb outsider’s joke about the grunting in mambo music. But the question does have answers.

He had the pain. You can see it in the work.

She had the pain — his womanizing for starters, though her performances could convert pain to joy.

Now more than ever, to take pleasure in Fosse’s dances, you have to reckon with his bad behavior and bad faith. Who’s got the pain? We do, too.


Image Credits: Warner Bros., unless otherwise noted.


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